US ambassador meets protesters
The Obama administration has dispatched the US ambassador to Syria to meet anti-regime protesters in a besieged city - sending a "reform now" message to President Bashar Assad and to American critics of its engagement policy, "stop complaining".
Greeted by demonstrators with roses and cheers, Robert Ford finished a two-day trip to the restive city of Hama aimed at driving home the message that the United States stands with those in the Syrian streets braving a brutal government crackdown.
The visit prompted fierce reaction from the Syrian government and a renewed American warning that Assad was failing to stabilise his country by satisfying the democratic yearnings of his people.
Mr Ford "had a chance to talk to lots of average citizens; these were shopkeepers, people out on the street, young men", said Victoria Nuland, the US State Department spokeswoman.
"When he got into the city, the car was immediately surrounded by friendly protesters who were putting flowers on the windshield, they were putting olive branches on the car, they were chanting 'Down with the regime!' It was quite a scene."
So far, the US government has refused to suggest an end to the Assad family's four-decade dynasty. The government's harsh repression of dissent has escalated the crisis with protesters increasingly demanding Assad's removal after 11 years full of promises of democratic reform but little change from the iron-fisted rule of his father.
The Obama administration has grown increasingly disgusted with the violence in Syria that has claimed the lives of 1,600 people plus 350 members of the security forces. Yet it has not mustered sufficient international outrage to secure a United Nations condemnation of Assad's government or a unified global demand that he step down.
The administration cannot press too hard by itself because the threat of military action would not be taken seriously while it is trying to wind down wars in neighbouring Iraq and in Afghanistan, and struggling to justify its participation in an international coalition against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
The solution has been to balance stinging criticism of the Assad regime's conduct with continued pleas for it to lead a democratic transition.
But the measured approach has faced a clamouring at home and in Syria for tougher action.