By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — A respected U.S. newspaper claims Washington has been secretly financing the Syrian opposition, just as reports emerged of more deadly clashes between Syrian forces and antigovernment protesters.
“The Washington Post” reported today that the U.S. State Department had funneled about $6 million to Syrian opposition circles since 2006, much of which was used to run the London-based satellite channel Barada TV.
Barada TV began broadcasting in April 2009 but recently expanded its operations to cover the mass protests against President Bashar al-Assad that erupted last month in Syria.
Citing previously undisclosed diplomatic cables provided by WikiLeaks, “The Washington Post” said the first funds for the Syrian opposition were transferred under President George W. Bush after the United States froze its ties with Damascus in 2005.
The money reportedly continued to flow under current President Barack Obama despite his administration’s efforts to repair ties with Assad.
According to the newspaper, it is unclear whether the United States now still funds Syrian opposition groups. The article cites a diplomatic cable signed by the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Damascus at the time warning that Syrian authorities “would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change.”
The article said the State Department had declined to comment on the authenticity of the leaked cables or its alleged funding of Barada TV.
No Link To Revolt
For many Syria watchers, the allegations brought forward in the report come as no surprise.
But Khalil Habash, a Syrian opposition blogger based in Switzerland, insists the U.S. money is not linked to the current revolt in Syria.
“It’s not a surprise that the U.S. has been helping one particular group, Barada TV, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. But it’s $6 million since 2006, and most of the amount was given in the first years,” Habash says. “Six million dollars to topple a regime like Syria’s is not enough, and they’re helping one particular group that is not even in Syria and doesn’t have any kind of influence on the ground. What we are seeing in Syria is a popular uprising, far from the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Antigovernment activists in Syria will likely seek to distance themselves from any alleged U.S. funding. But Habash says “The Washington Post” report nonetheless bodes ill for the opposition.
A Syrian protester, with his face painted in the colors of the national flag, shouts slogans calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, during a protest in front of the Syrian Embassy in Amman on April 17.
“It’s bad news for the opposition now in Syria, for the popular uprising,” he says. “The Syrian regime has continuously been trying to portray this uprising as a foreign intervention, as a foreign plot. So this might be a way of discrediting the movement in Syria.”
The report comes as fresh violence flares up in Syria.
Assad’s pledge last week to lift almost 50 years of emergency rule has failed to pacify protesters.
Local rights campaigners say government forces killed at least eight demonstrators overnight in the central city of Homs after the death of a tribal leader in custody sparked angry protests against the Baath Party’s rule.
On April 17, witnesses said security forces opened fire on a funeral procession in Talbisseh, a city near Homs, killing at least three people and injuring dozens.
Rights groups have put the total death toll from the protests at more than 200 people.
written by Claire Bigg, with agency reports