The State Department has been secretly financing opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, The Washington Post reported Sunday, citing previously undisclosed diplomatic documents provided to the newspaper by the WikiLeaks website.
One of the outfits funded by the U.S. is Barada TV, a London-based satellite channel that broadcasts anti-government news into Syria, the Post reported. Barada's chief editor, Malik al-Abdeh, is a cofounder of the Syrian exile group Movement for Justice and Development.
The anti-government station has been broadcasting since 2009, however, according to the report, has ramped up its Syria coverage in light of the recent anti-Assad protests that have shaken the Mid East country.
The leaked documents show that the U.S. has provided at least $6 million to Barada TV and other opposition groups inside Syria since 2006, the newspaper said.
The U.S. initially began funding anti-Syria groups under the Bush administration, the report said, after he froze ties with Syria in 2005 in the wake of the assassination of Lebanon Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many suspect was Syria's doing.
Ties with the U.S. deteriorated increasingly with the escalation of clashes between Israel and Hezbollah along the Lebanese border in 2006. The U.S. publically criticized Syria's political and logistical support of the militant organization.
The Obama administration has reached out to Assad, hoping to persuade him to change the administration's policies regarding Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and support for extremist groups. In January, the U.S. stationed an ambassador in Damascus, the capital, for the first time in five years.
The Post said it was not clear from the WikiLeaks documents whether the U.S. was still financing Assad's opponents, though they showed funding had been set aside through September 2010.
U.S. officials in Damascus became concerned in 2009, the Washington Post said, when they discovered Syrian intelligence agents were raising questions about U.S. programs. Some embassy officials suggested that the State Department halt its funding of anti-government organizations, saying it could put the administration's dialogue attempts at risk.
An April 2009 cable revealed, the report said, that Syrian authorities “would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change."
The cable, signed by the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Damascus at the time implored the State Department to conduct “a reassessment of current U.S.-sponsored programming that supports anti-[government] factions, both inside and outside Syria."
It is unclear whether the State Department is still funding anti-government Syrian organization, however, the cables indicate that money was set aside the for program through September 2011, the report said.
The State Department refused to comment on the authenticity of the cables, the Post said.
The Washington Post withheld the names of certain individuals named in the cables as well as program details at the request of the State Department so as not to compromise the security of the cables' recipients.
Syrian activists have been staging protests against Assad's authoritarian regime for more than a month. Over 200 people have been killed as security forces clashed with protesters.
On Sunday, gunmen opened fire during a funeral for a slain anti-government protester, killing at least three people, according to witnesses and activists. Tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets nationwide despite Assad's promise to end nearly 50 years of emergency rule this week, a key demand of the protesters.
Last week, the State Department said Iran appeared to be helping Syria crack down on protesters, calling it a troubling example of Iranian meddling in the region.
"If Syria's turning to Iran for help, it can't be very serious about real reform," spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
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