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Viewing cable 06DAMASCUS404, ANTI-EUROPEAN RIOTS HIT DAMASCUS, AS FOUR

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
06DAMASCUS404 2006-02-05 14:02 2010-12-27 21:09 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus
VZCZCXYZ0001
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHDM #0404/01 0361436
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 051436Z FEB 06
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 6862
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD 0612
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC
C O N F I D E N T I A L DAMASCUS 000404

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

PARIS FOR ZEYA; LONDON FOR TSOU

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/12/2015
TAGS: PGOV PREL ASEC SY
SUBJECT: ANTI-EUROPEAN RIOTS HIT DAMASCUS, AS FOUR
EMBASSIES ARE STORMED


Classified By: Charge d'Affaires Stephen A. Seche, per 1.4 b,d.

1. (C) Summary: Mobs angered about cartoon depictions of
the prophet Mohammed published in Europe ransacked and set on
fire the Norwegian Embassy and the building housing the
Danish, Chilean, and Swedish Embassies in Damascus in the
late afternoon of February 4, destroying the first and
heavily damaging the other three diplomatic missions. A few
hundred Syrian riot police guarded the American Embassy
against crowds of several hundred demonstrators, with no
injuries or damage to property. Denmark has recalled its
Ambassador and, along with Norway, is urging its citizens to
leave Syria immediately. Despite any miscalculation, loss of
control, or embarrassment it may have suffered, the regime
seems to have benefited from the rioting with enhanced
legitimacy in several ways. End Summary.

2. (C) Damascus February 5 awoke to the ugly aftermath of
some of the worst rioting the city has witnessed in recent
memory. The previous afternoon angry crowds stormed the
building housing the Danish Embassy, as well as the Swedish
and Chilean missions, ransacking all three and setting the
building on fire. All three Embassies suffered extensive
damage, with the first-floor Chilean Embassy suffering the
worst. The Chilean DCM reported that the Embassy was
completely destroyed by fire and vandalism. The streets
outside were strewn with the embassy's official papers.
Rioters were kept out of parts of the Danish and Swedish
Embassies (except the waiting rooms) by security doors and
reinforced glass.

3. (C) The mob then marched to the Norwegian Embassy, in the
Mezzeh suburbs, and, after clashing with Syrian security
forces hurriedly posted to defend the Embassy, tore down the
security barriers and trashed the entire building. Rioters
then set the building ablaze, gutting it entirely. Rioters
at both sites raised the green religious flag favored by
Hamas supporters.

4. (C) FRENCH EMBASSY SPARED: Rioters also tried to storm
the French Embassy but hastily summoned riot police and other
security forces used tear gas, water cannons, and truncheons
to beat back the mob, which dispersed after two hours of
volatile demonstrations. MFA Chief of Protocol told the
Charge February 5 that SARG security forces had nearly lost
control of the situation at the French Embassy as they had
elsewhere. According to First Secretary Benedicte de
Montlaur, the Embassy suffered no damage. De Montlaur
attributed the lack of damage at the Embassy to the fact that
the Ambassador lives on the Embassy compound, allowing the
French to call for additional SARG protection more quickly
than diplomats at the other three missions, which were closed
for the weekend and empty. No looting or vandalism was
reported anywhere except at the sites of the four diplomatic
missions.

5. (C) THE AMERICAN EMBASSY: A few hundred Syrian riot
police guarded the American Embassy against crowds of several
hundred demonstrators. Although a few scuffles were
reported, there were no serious attempts to penetrate the
police line. No injuries or damage to property was reported.
(See septel for RSO report of February 5 EAC.)

6. (C) DANISH EMBASSY REACTION: The Danish government has
decided to recall its Ambassador to protest the SARG failure
to protect its mission has decided to withdraw all
non-essential personnel at the Embassy, including family
members, according to a Danish diplomat. It is also
encouraging all Danish citizens to leave Syria immediately
and is helping to organize the evacuation via air transport
later today.

7. (C) THE NORWEGIANS: The Norwegian Embassy's Admin
Officer Marie-Louise Hansen reported on February 5 that the
Embassy is also arranging to evacuate Norwegian citizens in
Syria on flights out of Damascus International Airport.
Hansen said that no decision has been made yet about whether
the Embassy's diplomatic personnel would also leave. The
Norwegian Ambassador was in Jerusalem when the rioting
occurred. It is not known yet whether he will be recalled.

8. (C) THE SWEDES AND CHLEANS: The Swedish Embassy is not
ordering any drawdown in personnel and had made no decision
as of mid-morning about whether it would recommend
non-official Swedes to leave the country, reported Swedish
diplomat Eva Nillson. The Chilean DCM told Polchief that he
had not yet received instructions from his government but

that he expected it to come back with instructions to lodge a
protest and demand extensive compensation. With only two
diplomats resident in Damascus, he did not expect to see a
recall or other personnel measure, especially since the
Chileans were not specifically targeted but just happened to
be the most accessible mission in the building with the
Danes.

9. (U) THE SARG REACTION: The Minister of the Awqaaf and
the Grand Mufti both issued statements condemning the riots
and insisting that Islam encouraged dialogue as a way to deal
with controversies between cultures over religious issues.
The official Syrian press reported the incidents on the front
pages of several Arabic-language newspapers and in the
English-language Syria Times, emphasizing popular anger at
the purported insults to Islam and the fact that the burning
of the embassies occurred despite the extensive efforts of
the SARG security forces. Only the Syria Times printed a
photo actually showing the rioting in front of an embassy.

10. (C) When asked by the Charge to explain how the SARG had
failed so miserably to protect diplomatic facilities, MFA
Chief of Protocol Amir Smadi responded repeatedly that at
least the SARG had protected the U.S. Embassy. He also tried
to discount the damage suffered at the Danish and Swedish
Embassies, but had nothing to say about the destruction the
Chilean Embassy suffered. He noted that FM Shara'a had
spoken with the Norwegian FM about the attack on the Embassy
and had explained that the SARG had not expected
demonstrations on the day they occurred. Smadi said the USG
statement on the caricature of Mohammed issued several days
before the rioting had been "very good, very balanced."

11. (C) SYRIAN CONTACTS REACT: Several of our contacts
expressed shock and dismay at the violence. Typical of them,
AP bureau chief Albert Aji told Polchief "I can't believe
that Syrians did this." Many contacts insisted that the SARG
had to have been involved in facilitating the initial stages
of the demonstrations, noting that Syria is a police state
where there is no right of assembly without government
sanction. Many of the banners put up the day before the
rioting, for example in Rawda Square, adjacent to the
Embassy, had the look of official productions. Nearly all
the banners had religious slogans, such as "Allah suffices
you, he is all-hearing and all-knowing." A thirty-foot
banner draped over the front of the biggest building near the
Embassy carried a slogan, "I have not been sent to give
curses. I have been sent as a mercy."

12. (C) SUSPICIONS OF SARG INVOLVEMENT: Civil society
contacts noted that SMS text messages were sent to cellphones
two days before, announcing a demonstration on February 4, in
front of the Danish Embassy. These contacts also insisted,
and an imam confirmed to Poloff, that the SARG (probably
through its security services) had issued a "suggested"
sermon for all imams to use in the mosques for the Friday
prayers that preceded the Saturday rioting. Some contacts
reported buses being sighted bringing in demonstrators from
some of the rougher areas of Damascus, including the
Palestinian camps at Yarmouk, although this could not be
confirmed. One opposition contact said it was ludicrous to
think that the SARG could not have prevented this rioting --
at least earlier on -- if it chose to, noting that when Riyad
Seif and several other recently released Damascus Spring
detainees attempted late last week to hold a press
conference, the government deployed "three hundred security
officers" to prevent it. Islamist-oriented human rights
activist Haithem Maleh insisted that it was SARG provocateurs
affiliated with the security services, rather than Islamists,
who had stormed the embassies and egged on the crowds.

13. (C) COMMENT: We concur with contacts that the SARG
allowed these demonstrations to occur and almost certainly
helped to facilitate them at the beginning. Somewhere along
the way, the SARG, true to form, seems to have miscalculated
and lost control. The end result left a deeply embarassed
SARG to pick up the pieces and trying to explain its
incredible security lapses to the disbelieving Europeans and
Chileans. Despite any miscalculation, loss of control, or
embarrassment, the minority Alawite regime seems to have
benefited from the rioting, enhancing its legitimacy in
several ways. It offered its religious Sunni population an
opportunity to vent on an issue of visceral populist concern
and it put itself in the vanguard regionally, demonstrating
to the Arab street that Syria can be counted on to defend
Islamic dignity. The rioting also helped the SARG in its
recurring attempts to convey to the international community

that "we are the only thing standing between you and the
Islamist hordes." Some argue that the riots also serve as
useful distraction from recent price hikes and general hard
times.


SECHE