The United States on Monday denied working to undermine the Syrian government, but it acknowledged trying to strengthen civil society groups there. The comments followed a press report suggesting that U.S. funds had gone directly to Syrian opposition factions.
State Department officials say U.S. efforts to build up civil society in Syria are similar to programs underway in other countries, but that the difference is that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad perceives them as subversive.
The comments came in response to a Washington Post report on Monday citing leaked U.S. diplomatic cables as saying that the State Department has been secretly financing Syrian opposition groups.
The newspaper said it received the cables from the activist Website WikiLeaks, whose disclosure of apparent U.S. diplomatic cables since late last year has complicated U.S. relations with several countries.
The leaked documents are said to have asserted that U.S. money has been channeled to Barada TV, a cable outlet set up by Syrian exiles with close ties to the London-based anti-Assad Movement for Justice and Development.
At a news briefing, State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner repeated the Obama administration’s policy of refusing comment on the authenticity of the alleged leaked documents.
But he said the United States, which maintains diplomatic relations with Syria, is not trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. "We are not working to undermine that government. What we’re trying to do in Syria, through our civil society support, is to build the kind of democratic institutions, frankly, that we’re trying to do in countries around the globe," he said.
Toner likened the Syria program to U.S. help to civil society and non-governmental organizations in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. But he said the difference is that the Assad government, "sees this kind of assistance as a threat to its existence."
The State Department says it has allocated more than $7 million to civil society-building programs in Syria since 2005, although The Washington Post said leaked cables indicate that the spending is considerably more.
The Obama administration came into office advocating engagement with the Syrian government and returned a U.S. ambassador to Damascus for the first time since 2005.
But in recent days, the United States has become increasingly critical of the Syrian government’s harsh treatment of demonstrators.
Toner said Monday that the demonstrations were "legitimate protests in the face of years of oppressive governance by the Assad regime" and that it is incumbent on the Damascus government to address the "universal aspirations of their people."
He stopped short of calling for a transition of power in Syria, saying that it is up to the people of the country to dictate the pace and scope of reform.