The State Department
has secretly financed Syrian political opposition groups and related
projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-government
programming into the country, according to previously undisclosed
The London-based satellite channel, Barada TV, began broadcasting in April 2009 but has ramped up operations to cover the mass protests in Syria as part of a long-standing campaign to overthrow the country’s autocratic leader, Bashar al-Assad. Human rights groups say scores of people have been killed by Assad’s security forces since the demonstrations began March 18; Syria has blamed the violence on "armed gangs.”
TV is closely affiliated with the Movement for Justice and Development,
a London-based network of Syrian exiles. Classified U.S. diplomatic
cables show that the State Department has funneled as much as $6 million
to the group since 2006 to operate the satellite channel and finance
other activities inside Syria. The channel is named after the Barada River, which courses through the heart of Damascus, the Syrian capital.
U.S. money for Syrian opposition figures began flowing under President
George W. Bush after he effectively froze political ties with Damascus
in 2005. The financial backing has continued under President Obama, even
as his administration sought to rebuild relations with Assad. In
January, the White House posted an ambassador to Damascus for the first
time in six years.
The cables, provided by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks,
show that U.S. Embassy officials in Damascus became worried in 2009
when they learned that Syrian intelligence agents were raising questions
about U.S. programs. Some embassy officials suggested that the State
Department reconsider its involvement, arguing that it could put the
Obama administration’s rapprochement with Damascus at risk.
Syrian authorities "would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds
going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime
change,” read an April 2009 cable
signed by the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Damascus at the time. "A
reassessment of current U.S.-sponsored programming that supports
anti-[government] factions, both inside and outside Syria, may prove
productive,” the cable said.
It is unclear whether the State
Department is still funding Syrian opposition groups, but the cables
indicate money was set aside at least through September 2010. While some
of that money has also supported programs and dissidents inside Syria,
The Washington Post is withholding certain names and program details at
the request of the State Department, which said disclosure could
endanger the recipients’ personal safety.
Syria, a police state,
has been ruled by Assad since 2000, when he took power after his
father’s death. Although the White House has condemned the killing of
protesters in Syria, it has not explicitly called for his ouster.
The State Department declined to comment on the authenticity of the cables or answer questions about its funding of Barada TV.
Tamara Wittes, a deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees the democracy and human rights portfolio in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said the State Department does not endorse political parties or movements.
back a set of principles,” she said. "There are a lot of organizations
in Syria and other countries that are seeking changes from their
government. That’s an agenda that we believe in and we’re going to
The State Department often funds programs around the
world that promote democratic ideals and human rights, but it usually
draws the line at giving money to political opposition groups.
February 2006, when relations with Damascus were at a nadir, the Bush
administration announced that it would award $5 million in grants to
"accelerate the work of reformers in Syria.”
But no dissidents
inside Syria were willing to take the money, for fear it would lead to
their arrest or execution for treason, according to a 2006 cable from the U.S. Embassy, which reported that "no bona fide opposition member will be courageous enough to accept funding.”
the same time, Syrian exiles in Europe founded the Movement for Justice
and Development. The group, which is banned in Syria, openly advocates
for Assad’s removal. U.S. cables describe its leaders as "liberal,
moderate Islamists” who are former members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
is unclear when the group began to receive U.S. funds, but cables show
U.S. officials in 2007 raised the idea of helping to start an anti-Assad
People involved with the group and with Barada TV, however, would not acknowledge taking money from the U.S. government.
not aware of anything like that,” Malik al-Abdeh, Barada TV’s news
director, said in a brief telephone interview from London.
said the channel receives money from "independent Syrian businessmen”
whom he declined to name. He also said there was no connection between
Barada TV and the Movement for Justice and Development, although he
confirmed that he serves on the political group’s board. The board is
chaired by his brother, Anas.
"If your purpose is to smear Barada
TV, I don’t want to continue this conversation,” Malik al-Abdeh said.
"That’s all I’m going to give you.”
Other dissidents said that
Barada TV has a growing audience in Syria but that its viewer share is
tiny compared with other independent satellite news channels such as
al-Jazeera and BBC Arabic. Although Barada TV broadcasts 24 hours a day,
many of its programs are reruns. Some of the mainstay shows are
"Towards Change,” a panel discussion about current events, and "First
Step,” a program produced by a Syrian dissident group based in the