Burning Embassies: an Eye Witness Account by Nate Abercrombie
On Saturday, February 4, demonstrators in Damascus burnt down the Danish embassy. As Nate Abercromie explains below, "the building was actually three embassies in one; 1st floor Chili, 2nd floor Denmark, and 3rd floor Sweden. Although the Danish floor was destroyed, the other two sustained much damage. It was done on the weekend so no one was in the building. The Norwegian embassy was also burnt and then demonstrators made their way to the American embassy, where they were driven off by police, and to the French embassy, were they were also driven off. One Western diplomat complained:
"It took a long time before they put in all their force; it took hours before they all came," a Western diplomat said by phone from Damascus. "It's strange that it could go so out of hand. You know what kind of state this is, so if something goes out of hand, it's strange."Washington has condemned Syria for the violence. Sunday, mobs set fire to Beirut's Danish embassy. Some argue the rioting in Beirut was planned, as well. Michael Young has a thoughtful article, explaining how the situation may have gotten out of hand - permitted by Hariri's team, but lost to fundamentalist groups from the "north of Lebanon," who do not answer to Hariri. Something like this most likely happened in Syria. For a year now, Syrian authorities have been trying to organize and encourage anti-Western demonstrations to show outrage at the Hariri investigation and US sanctions. Along comes the Danish cartoon imbroglio which can be harnessed by the government to add some zip and zing to demos with no fizz, but oops - Muslims have a mind of their own. The Hamas situation only adds oil to the fire. People are genuinely angry over a host of perceived or actual Western slights.
raf* bey, the levantese, has two good articles: the first one is called Background story to the "Danish cartoons" issue - and commentary and the second one Why do the Syrians burn embassies but the Iranians don't?.
Following the Demonstrators in Damascus
The Danish Embassy and Beyond
by Nate Abercrombie in Damascus
February 4, 2006
Several friends were meeting at my house when one of us received a text message stating that the Danish Embassy had been set on fire. We immediately turned on the television to see what had transpired. After trying several channels, we finally found some brief footage of a small fire that had been made on embassy grounds which had ultimately resulted on the building catching fire. Wanting to see the damage first hand, we left my apartment for the district of Abu Rumani.
The streets on the way to the embassy were calm and there wasn’t any sign of disorder. The street in front of the Danish Embassy was a different story. It bore the marks of a peaceful demonstration gone awry. Trash was strewn all over the ground. A small group of men still lingered in front of the burnt embassy amongst the still standing water from the fire trucks. A line of about 30 riot police remained in place awaiting another emotional surge from the men yelling, “Allahu Akbar.” Some of the demonstrators would intermittently sit and pray while the rest walked in circles with green banners proclaiming God’s greatness.
My friends and I lingered for a few moments and were surprised to find a few Danish friends arrive with firsthand experience of the blaze. They told us that the street in front of the embassy building (the building was actually three embassies in one; 1st floor Chili, 2nd floor Denmark, and 3rd floor Sweden) was filled with thousands of demonstrators. They claimed that, even though the fire had already been started, the demonstration didn’t actually get out of hand until the news cameras arrived at which point people entered the building emptying it of papers and a few pieces of furniture.
After a quarter of an hour, I had decided that I had had my fair share of excitement for the evening and headed home. Half way to Rawda Square, I found another group of men followed by a small number of women all carrying posters and banners and walking towards the American Embassy. I ran to the front and took some pictures and was greeted by smiling fathers with children on their shoulders who wanted pictures taken of their children yelling, “Allahu Akbar” while carrying anti-Danish posters. What I didn’t realize was that this small group of demonstrators was only one of many that were coming from different from different streets from districts of Damascus intending on demonstrating in front of the American Embassy, for which reason I have no clue.
Rawda Square, one of the larger squares in Damascus, rests just below the American Embassy. The square was filled with fire trucks and at least a hundred riot police. It didn’t take long for the entire square to be filled with thousands of demonstrators all yelling the same phrase, “Allahu Akbar.” As soon as I began taking pictures, the crowd circled around me all wanting to be photographed with their various posters, banners, and burnt Danish flags that were repeatedly thrown to the ground and stomped.
What surprised me most were the men with hand-held radios directing the rioters. When a sizeable crowd had gathered in Rawda Square, these men ran around yelling, “Rooh a’ a-Safara Francieh.” I wasn’t sure if this was just an attempt to lessen the threat to the American Embassy or an attempt to increase the threat to the French Embassy. I followed the masses to the French Embassy to find a similar sight only to a lesser extent. There were a lot of fire trucks and several dozen riot police. The only difference was the attitudes of the people. Emotion and adrenaline running high, people began to push and shove. A small fire was set not but twenty meters away from the French Embassy, but was quickly extinguished by a fireman.
Riot police in civilian clothing were carrying wooden sticks and billy-clubs and swung at whoever raised their voice to cheer on the demonstrators. I observed three men being beaten before being carried of to some unknown location. A voice from the minaret from the mosque just below the French Embassy began pleading with the people. My only regret of the evening was not understand what was being said…was the voice was persuading the people to stop or inciting further discontent.
It was quite clear that as the night went on the authorities became more concerned with even the smallest crowds of people. But, I couldn’t help wondering if the authorities were working against each other. Why were the men with hand-held radios directing the demonstrators? Why weren’t greater precautionary measures taken before demonstrators arrived at embassies, especially in the case of the Danish Embassy? It was only later that I learned the Norwegian Embassy had been burned as well. But everyone on the street knew that a large group of demonstrators was headed towards Mezzeh long before they ever arrived.