According to internal government documents obtained by Wikileaks, the U.S. has sought to undermine the Assad dictatorship and promote democracy by secretly financing the Movement for Justice and Development — an opposition group described in a diplomatic cable as “liberal, moderate Islamists.”
At least $6 million was given to Syrian opposition groups, though one cable indicates the total was $12 million between 2005 and 2010, with financing earmarked as late as September of last year. The money came from the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative through the Democracy Council based in Los Angeles. Major funding was provided for the Movement for Justice and Development (MJD), a group which the cables say is made up of former Muslim Brotherhood members seeking regime change in Syria and consists of “liberal, moderate Islamists.” The U.S. was especially interested in sponsoring Barada TV, whose chief editor, Malik al-Abdeh, is also a co-founder of MJD. The chairman of MJD is Anas al-Abdeh, his brother.
The files describe a split between the Brotherhood and MJD, particularly after the Brotherhood took Hamas’ side during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead and announced it would “suspend its activities against the Syrian regime” in response. The files say that MJD sought to “marginalize it [Muslim Brotherhood] abroad” and the division became public in June 2009 when the Brotherhood publicly lashed out at the external parts of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, which MJD is a part of.
A cable from 2006 reveals that the U.S. had difficulty in finding Syrian opposition forces willing to take the money, fearing arrest or death at the hands of the Assad regime. It said that “no bona fide opposition member will be courageous enough to accept funding.” In September 2009, Syrian intelligence is documented as having interrogated political prisoners about the Middle East Partnership Initiative. One cable from June 2009 questioned whether the MJD is a “leaky boat,” saying its members had discussed sensitive matters on open lines and that “[r]eporting in other channels suggest the Syrian [Mukhabarat] may have already penetrated the MJD and is using MJD contacts to track U.S. democracy programming.”
The Obama administration publicly sought to develop a more positive relationship with the Syrian government and had no desire to pursue regime change. The funding of the opposition is at odds with its policies, and a U.S. diplomat in April 2009 said: “A reassessment of current U.S.-sponsored programming that supports anti-[Assad regime] factions, both inside and outside Syria, may prove productive.”
The files, parts of which are censored by the Washington Post for security reasons, do not list all of the recipients of the financing. Non-Islamists may have been supported, but every dollar that goes to an Islamist, even a “liberal, moderate” one, is a dollar that could go to secular democratic forces.
Farid Ghadry of the U.S.-based Reform Party of Syria told Pajamas Media that this is a critical error. “The fight for Syria’s soul will remain in the hands of extremists (Assad, Muslim Brotherhood or others) as long as the West accepts the notion that its destiny is not tied to liberal and secular movements in the region,” he said.
The managing editor of NOW Lebanon, Hanin Ghaddar, wrote on April 22 that it is a mistake to believe the Assad regime’s propaganda that the protesters are radical Muslims. “If that is accurate, why are they [the Syrian security services] arresting liberal intellectuals and political activists, such as Suhair Atassi and Fayez Sarah? These two have nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalist groups,” he writes. Ghaddar explains that mosques are used as a rallying spot simply because it is the only place they can do so under the regime’s oppression and points out the crucial role of women, “veiled and unveiled,” in the uprising.
In some ways, U.S. support for Syrian Islamists is doing the Assad regime a favor. It undermines the Islamists’ secular competitors and it assists Assad in his attempts to frame the internal struggle as one between his regime and Islamic extremists. By presenting himself as the lesser of two evils, he frightens the West from supporting the opposition and he tries to dissuade his people from challenging his rule, lest they bring about theocracy, civil war, or anarchy.
The nationwide uprising that keeps spreading with each casualty gives the West an unprecedented opportunity to support the Syrian people. The Obama administration is now preparing to sanction senior Syrian officials for their human rights abuses. It should also withdraw its ambassador, consistently speak in support of the secular liberals, and remember that when it comes to taxpayer money, it is always better spent on them and not Islamists.