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April 17, 2011

US Reported to Have Funded Syrian Exile Opposition

by Gary Thomas

Published reports of newly leaked U.S. diplomatic cables say Washington has financed Syrian exile opposition groups and their satellite TV station.  Analysts say the effort, which appears to have started during the Bush administration, was designed to warn Syria against helping jihadist insurgents in Iraq.  But, the effort may give the Syrian government ammunition to try to discredit the domestic democratic opposition.

Citing leaked cables released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, The Washington Post newspaper reported Monday that the United States funneled at least $6 million to the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based umbrella group of Syrian exiles.  The report quotes diplomatic cables as saying some of the funds went to TV Barada, a satellite TV channel also based in London that began beaming anti-government programming to Syria in 2009.

From what is publicly known, none of the money actually went to the political opposition groups inside Syria.  Groups appear to have shied away from such financing for fear of being linked to the United States.  A 2006 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus said that "no bona fide opposition member will be courageous enough to accept funding."

Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born analyst at the Middle East Institute, says just the news of the funding will give Syrian President Bashar Assad ammunition to try to discredit the growing anti-government movement and stem the protests gripping the country.

"I think that it is significant in as far as the Syrian government is probably going to use this in order to show its people that, yes, not only is this unrest foreign-backed, but foreign-sponsored," said Jouejati. "And so the unrest that is taking place in Syria, which is obviously a home-grown affair, may or may not lose steam as a result."

Analysts say the financing of opposition groups began during the Bush administration.   The U.S. accused Syria of shepherding jihadist insurgents, along with arms, into Iraq to fight U.S. forces.  Jouejati, who is also a professor at the National Defense University, says the U.S. was at first trying to warn Syria not to meddle in Iraq and U.S. efforts there.

"So it is in response [to Syria in Iraq] that the Bush administration set out, I think, to first scare Syria and threaten the leadership, but then, I think, to go on to want regime change in Syria," he said. "But by then, of course, the Bush administration was over. So, again, this is a byproduct of the bad blood between the Bush administration and Syria with regard to especially Iraq."

Analysts point out that the Syrian exile opposition movement is loosely organized and not strong.  But they add that such groups can be both a nuisance to Syria and a bargaining chip for the U.S.

Reva Bhalla, Middle East analyst for the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says the U.S. has had a long history of helping exile groups in various countries over the years.  

"Really it’s not all that out of the ordinary," said Bhalla. "There are a lot of different organizations within Washington that support these pro-democracy groups. It may not be very significant support. But it’s something to just show that the U.S. has that option, that it’s promoting these different values and that if push came to shove and it felt the need to, it could theoretically push for regime change.  It’s sort of a pressure lever.  We see that in a lot of different countries that the United States is involved with."

A U.S. spokesman denied Monday that Washington is trying to undermine the Syrian government.   

Analyst Reva Bhalla says that, even with the wave of change sweeping across the Middle East, the U.S. may not want regime change in Syria.

"The Syrian case is very complicated, especially given how fractured the country is between various sectarian groups; the United States trying to close up its war in Iraq right now; dealing with a huge situation right now that is left unresolved with Iran; and this ongoing rivalry playing out between the Saudi-led GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states and Iran," she said. "I just don’t see the U.S. imperative here to force regime change in Syria."

Reva Bhalla believes that even Israel does not want to see regime change in Syria.  She says Israel prefers the predictability of the Assad government over the unknown of what might take over in Damascus afterward.