By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty
The State Department says the Syrian government has delivered a diplomatic note of protest to the United States, expressing concern over U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford's visit Tuesday to the city of Jassem, 70 kilometers south of Damascus, without permission from the Syrian government.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the ambassador "wanted to see for himself what was up there. This has been another town that has been engaged in peaceful protest. He was there for about four hours. He had a chance there to talk to a number of Syrians, including those in the opposition, and then he drove back to Damascus."
The Syrian note, Nuland said, accused the ambassador of not following procedures that the government has requested U.S. diplomats follow.
Ford decided to go to Jassem, Nuland said, because the Syrian government repeatedly had denied him permission to travel. "So it was on that basis, the fact that he had been denied again and again and again permission to travel under their own system that they set up, that he made the decision ... to go."
Ford informed the Syrian foreign ministry only after the visit, Nuland said, "and he made clear to them that the reason that he didn't inform them before the visit was because they haven't been approving any visits by anybody anywhere. He has over the last six weeks three times requested permission to go to Aleppo, for example, and three times has been denied. So he chose to inform them afterwards."
The U.S., she said, has "continued to make clear to the Syrians that they have obligations under the Vienna Convention to allow diplomats in their country to do their job, which includes the ability to travel."
Six weeks ago Ambassador Ford sparked a diplomatic firestorm when he traveled to the restive city of Hama to express support for demonstrators and was welcomed with flowers by local residents who had suffered a brutal crackdown by government forces. The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad called it an attempt to foment dissent.
Nuland said that, in contrast to his trip to Hama, when government security forces remained outside the town, in Jassem "there were security forces all over the place."
"So he was conscious of that, not wanting to make life difficult for those Syrians that he was speaking with, which is why he only stayed for four hours and then had some follow-up contact on the phone with them."
His message to the residents of Jassem, Nuland said, was, "We stand with them, and that we admire the fact that their action has been completely peaceful. And their message back to him spoke of their desire to continue to work with other folks around Syria who share their interest in a democratic transition."
Asked whether the Syrian ambassador to the United States has the ability to travel freely around the United States, the spokeswoman said he does. "He has to request permission. Permission is always granted."