Cables reveal covert US support for Syria's opposition

Newly released WikiLeaks cables show that the US had been funneling money to Syria's opposition for several years, even as it tried to reengage with President Assad's government.

In this citizen journalism image made on a mobile phone and acquired by the AP, Syrian anti-government protesters, some of them wearing their death shroud, march during a demonstration in Banias, Syria, April 17. Gunmen opened fire during a funeral for a slain anti-government protester Sunday, killing at least three people, witnesses and activists said.

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Newly released WikiLeaks cables reveal that the US State Department has been secretly financing Syrian opposition groups and other opposition projects for at least five years, The Washington Post reports.

That aid continued going into the hands of the Syrian government opposition even after the US began its reengagement policy with Syria under President Barack Obama in 2009, the Post reports. In January, the US posted its first ambassador to the country since the Bush administration withdrew the US ambassador in 2005 over concerns about Syria's involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The Obama administration has been trying to draw Syria away from its key ally Iran and closer to the US and its regional allies. The effort seems to have been largely unsuccessful so far, and antigovernment protests sweeping the country have complicated the issue. The US is struggling to determine how to support Syria's democratic protesters while not alienating the Assad government, which has cracked down brutally on demonstrations and blamed them on "foreign saboteurs," as The Christian Science Monitor reported last week.

That is a dilemma that concerned the US government even before the protests began. The author of an April 2009 cable expressed concern that some of the projects being funded by the US, if discovered by the Syrian government, would be perceived as "an attempt to undermine the Asad [sic] regime, as opposed to encouraging behavior reform."

The Post reported that much of the money – as much as $6 million since 2006 – has been funneled through a group of Syrian exiles in London, known as the Movement for Justice and Development. The group is connected to a London-based satellite television station that is broadcast in Syria, known as Barada TV, which has recently expanded its coverage to include the mass protests.

Several other civil society initiatives in Syria received secret US funding, but by 2009, US officials were concerned that the Syrian government had discovered the US funding. The Post was unable to confirm whether programs are still being funded, but cables indicate the funding was planned at least through September 2010.

The WikiLeaks disclosure comes a week after US officials disclosed that Iran has been providing the Syrian government with assistance in putting down the protests and monitoring protesters' actions. Syria has become one of several proxy battlegrounds in the region between Iran and the US, the Monitor reported.

The rivals are constantly vying for the upper hand in Syria, which is the main conduit for weapons and funding flowing from Tehran to Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as the Palestinian group Hamas. While the US would like to end the friendly relationship between Assad and Iran, there is also great concern among US officials that, should Assad fall in the protests, the resulting power vacuum would given Iran an opportunity to broaden its influence in Syria.

Syria's recent protests have thus far been limited to demands for political reform, such as an end to the country's state of emergency (in place since 1963) and the release of political prisoners. There have been no demands for regime change, unlike in many other countries in the region experiencing popular uprisings.

Weekend protests brought at least five more deaths as well as injuries in cities across Syria, mostly at the hands of state security and "government thugs," Al Jazeera reported.

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