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Secret funding

April 20, 2011

New revelations exposing the extent of US funding to Syrian opposition groups could complicate US efforts to reengage with Syria at a time when the country's regime faces a serious challenge to its authority.

President Obama with a map of the Middle East
Syria is important to Obama's Middle East engagement policy

According to a report in the Washington Post this week, citing previously undisclosed diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks, money from the United States began flowing into the coffers of Syrian opposition figures under the administration of former President George W. Bush in 2006.

A year after Bush cut diplomatic and political ties with Damascus in 2005, the US State Department began funding the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based network of Syrian exiles, via the Los Angeles-based non-profit Democracy Council to the tune of $6 million (4.1 million euros) in total. This included funding for the Barada satellite TV channel, also based in London, which began broadcasting anti-regime programming to Syria in 2009.

The cables produced by WikiLeaks showed that while some US officials suggested that the State Department should reconsider its involvement as the Syrian authorities "would undoubtedly view any US funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change," the funding continued under current President Barack Obama's administration. The cables did not reveal if financial support to Syrian opposition groups is on-going.

For regional analysts, however, the revelations are of little surprise and some believe that while such actions could complicate already fraught relations between the two countries, the leaked cables and the information they contain are of little significance.

President Bush
Bush made it clear that he favored a change in DamascusImage: AP

"The US and the Syrian groups have never hidden this funding and cooperation; a number of opposition figures even met Bush in Washington when he was president," Middle East expert and author Rime Allaf told Deutsche Welle. "It's normal for the US to do this as part of their brand of democracy promotion. Look at the amount of funding though; it's a pathetic amount compared to how much the US is willing to spend when it really means business."

Allaf believes that the US funding of Barada TV, which has been covering the mass protests in Syria since they began last month as well as increasing its anti-regime propaganda, should also not be overestimated. "Barada is not an influential component in the opposition movement," she said.

"US support seems to have been minimal and part of the Bush Administration's democratization programs," Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle. "If you compare that to the visits by US politicians and the engagement with the regime, on balance the US administration has been more supportive of Assad than of the opposition."

Obama's reversal under threat

However, the revelations that the US allegedly funded opposition groups in Syria, while investigated by the Syrian secret service as far back as 2009, are likely to have some repercussions for President Obama's policy of tentative engagement with Damascus.

The last eight years have seen the decades of suspicion between Washington and Damascus mutate into open opposition, with former President George W. Bush labeling Syria as one-third of his "Axis of Evil" in 2002.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syria's close ties with Iran are at the heart of US suspicionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Relations have been strained over Syria's three-decade-old alliance with Iran and US allegations of meddling in the affairs of its eastern neighbor Iraq. Syrian support for Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas which rules Gaza have also proved a stumbling block. The murder of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 in a bombing blamed on Syria has also added to the tensions.

However, since his election and pledge to reengage with the Middle East after the damage caused to relations by the previous administration, Obama has been looking at Syria as a possible mediator in the on-going stalemate with Iran and the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

His decision appoint US diplomat Robert Ford as the new ambassador to Syria last year, lift an advisory travel warning for US citizens traveling to Syria, and reopen direct lines of communication were welcomed by Damascus.

US divided

But the changing tide in the Middle East and Syria's crackdown on its own protests have once again complicated the relationship with some voices in the US calling for open support for the Syrian opposition groups in a bid to force through change.

Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad supporters
Some in the US would prefer to see the back of AssadImage: dapd

A number of politicians appear to hold the opinion of the former Bush administration that helping regime opponents could bring an end to Assad's rule and rob Iran of its closest ally in the region. The knock-on effect could put an end to Damascus supplying weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, and aiding the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq -much of the reasoning which appeared to be at the heart of the secret funding campaign under Bush.

"There have been divisions for some time between those who think they can coax the Syrians out of the Iranian embrace by cutting them some kind of deal, perhaps on the Golan Heights, and those who advocate regime change," Heiko Wimmen, Middle East and Africa Research Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "Neither approach has been consistently pursued and I'm not surprised that there are still factions in the US who are at cross purposes over Syria."

While some want the US to take a definite stand on the side of the opposition, President Obama seems unsure of what path to take, choosing so far to limit his involvement to issuing calls for the Syrian regime to show restraint. The White House appears accutely aware of the risks that arise from promoting one side over another in an increasingly nervous and volatile Middle East and at a time when US involvement in Libya is coloring his foreign policy in the region.

"Obama's approach suggests that there is still some internal resistance to his Syrian rapproachement but also that no-one really knows what to do with the situation in Syria, either in Damascus or Washington," Wimmen said. "There are so many conflicting indicators and elements right now; will the regime offer more concessions to the opposition or will it crack down harder?"

"The question remains: who would want to meddle in this when you simply don't know what you could be concocting?"

Opposition campaign

Anti-Syrian government protesters in the southern city of Daraa
Syria is the latest state in the region to experience protestsImage: AP

Regional analysts believe that there is potential for an explosive escalation in Syria, with events heading toward a scenario closer to that in Libya than those seen in Tunisia and Egypt.

Protests calling for greater freedom and sweeping political reform began in Damascus on March 15 in what was has been the most serious challenge to the rule of the Assad dynasty in its 40-year history.

In response to the protests, President Bashar al-Assad, who has been in power since taking over from his father in 2000, promised to lift a 50-year state of emergency and parliament has since signed off on draft legislation to end the measure. However the opposition movement has rejected the move, saying it does not go far enough and has intensified its protests across the country. The Assad regime has since increased its crackdown with as many as 150 people believed to have been killed in clashes with security forces in the past month.

"The Syrian regime has underestimated the people who have refused to give in to increased repression as they have done in the past and who have responded to more crackdowns and more killings by protesting more and demanding more," Rime Allaf said.

The regime faces two choices: to give in and and offer more concessions or increase the repression and the killing, she added. "Sadly the second scenario is more likely as the army will not turn on the regime to protect the system or refuse to fire on protestors as in Egypt. At some point we will see external intervention, either through pressure, sanctions and the cutting of ties or through intervention."

"The uprising is already there and it is difficult to see the Assad regime surviving this," said Nadim Shehadi. "It is now a matter of time and cost, any impression that the regime has support will only prolong it and mean more dead. The system has clearly demonstrated that it is not reformable. If it cannot bend, it will break eventually and will look deceivingly strong until it does."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge