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WikiLeaks Cables Show US Strategy for Regime Change in Syria as Protesters are Massacred

No to Bashar Assad! (photo: zoonabar )

In the aftermath of a massacre in Hama, Syria state media broadcasted images of “burnt, buildings, makeshift barricades and deserted streets strewn with rubble,” according to the New York Times and claimed the revolt in Syria has ended. Meanwhile, The Guardian reports tens of thousands have taken to the streets all over the country and are continuing a five-months old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at a press conference and said the Syrian government has killed more than 2,000 people in its brutal crackdown on protests in the past months. She told the press the US was extending sanctions against a “prominent businessman and MP,” who allegedly has close ties to Assad. This marked the “fourth round of US sanctions against Syria aimed at pressuring Assad’s government to ease its bloody crackdown against unarmed protesters,” according to The Guardian. However, numerous Syrian protesters and some US senators are dissatisfied, as the sanctions do not target Syria’s oil and gas sector.

As protests continue and the brutal crackdown on protests wears on, US State Embassy cables released by the media organization WikiLeaks provide a greater understanding of the Washington power politics that have led to this moment.

For the past five to six years, the US policy toward Syria has used what could be called a two-pronged strategy to push for regime change. The US has supported “civil society” activists or external opposition organizations. It has also worked to delegitimize, destabilize and isolate the country through the application of sanctions and various other measures, which could be applied to exploit vulnerabilities.

A cable from December 13, 2006, opens with the conclusion that the Syrian government has ended 2006 “in a position much stronger domestically and internationally than it did [in] 2005.” It features a collection of possible actions that could be taken to undermine the Assad regime.

The vulnerabilities listed include: the Rafiq Hariri investigation and tribunal (Hariri was a Lebanese Prime Minister who was assassinated in a major car bombing); the alliance with Tehran; the regime’s “inner circle”; divisions in the military-security services; the corrupt Baathist elites; previous failures of reform; the economy; the Kurds; extremists and the “Khaddam factor” (Abdul Halim Khaddam is an exiled former Syrian Vice President, whose name appears in a number of the cables released thus far.)

Some of the proposed actions for exploiting these vulnerabilities are outlined in the cable:


The regime is intensely sensitive to rumors about coup-plotting and restlessness in the security services and military.  Regional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to meet with figures like Khaddam and Rifat Asad as a way of sending such signals, with appropriate leaking of the meetings afterwards.  This again touches on this insular regime,s paranoia and increases the possibility of a self-defeating over-reaction.


…We should continue to encourage the Saudis and others to allow Khaddam access to their media outlets, providing him with venues for airing the SARG,s dirty laundry.  We should anticipate an overreaction by the regime that will add to its isolation and alienation from its Arab neighbors…

HIGHLIGHT KURDISH COMPLAINTS: Highlighting Kurdish complaints in public statements, including publicizing human rights abuses will exacerbate regime,s concerns about the Kurdish population.  Focus on economic hardship in Kurdish areas and the SARG,s long-standing refusal to offer citizenship to some 200,000 stateless Kurds.  This issue would need to be handled carefully, since giving the wrong kind of prominence to Kurdish issues in Syria could be a liability for our efforts at uniting the opposition, given Syrian (mostly Arab) civil society’s skepticism of Kurdish objectives.

PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE:  There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis.  Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business. Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.

This is clearly manipulative and underhanded. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Assad regime would want to crack down violently on any protests. The shadiness of US relations with Syria is only amplified if you look at the other aspect of the US push for regime change: the public funding of opposition groups.

The US Doesn’t Undermine Countries, It Transforms Them

In April, the Washington Post reported on the funding of opposition groups revealed in the cables and highlighted a group called the Movement for Justice and Development (MJD). It noted it was closely affiliated with the London-based satellite channel Barada TV, which started broadcasting in April 2009 but “ramped up operations to cover the mass protests in Syria.” The cables showed “as much as $6 million” had been “funneled” to the group “since 2006 to operate the satellite channel and finance other activities inside Syria.”

A cable from March 11, 2009, shows why the US might want to work with the MJD:

MJD’s effort to expand its base in Syria is noteworthy in that it is a moderate Islamist organization that publicly eschews any ideological agenda aside from ending the Asad regime through democratic reform. XXXXXXXXXXXX That said, we have heard numerous unconfirmed rumors by very nervous democracy-reform advocates that the SARG may have penetrated the MJD. XXXXXXXXXXXX MJD’s role in organizing an opposition television platform for broadcasting into Syria would make it a high priority target for Syria’s security services.

At the time that the cable was written, the group had been banned from Syria. But, that didn’t hurt the allure of cooperating with such a group to bring “democratic change” to Syria.

According to the cable, the group “doesn’t believe in Sharia law.”  Throughout 2008, it “participated in symposiums” in Europe in the United States. It is a member of the Damascus Declaration, a unity statement made by Syrian opposition in 2005 that called the Assad regime, “authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish,` and called for peaceful reform through dialogue. They did not have a cooperative relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. And they were working with the Middle East Partnership Initiative, run by the US State Department, on a satellite channel that the Ford Foundation was allegedly helping to finance.

It is unclear how much of a role the MJD has had in the current protests in Syria, especially since they were mostly a group of exiles in 2009, however, the National Salvation Front of Syria founded by Khaddam has been organizing support for the Syrian opposition. Through conferences held in Istanbul, Turkey and lobbying efforts, which have been aimed at getting the US to impose greater sanctions on Syria, this group has been working to keep the opposition from being entirely crushed by Assad’s regime.

Syrian Dissident Unhappy with US Foreign Policy

While the Arab Spring has been viewed as a spontaneous moment in history that spurred a domino effect leading multiple populations in the Middle East and North Africa to mount uprisings against repressive dictatorial regimes, the cables show that opposition had been looking for the right moment to topple Assad for at least the past five years. But, US diplomatic efforts to undercut Assad only hurt the opposition the US was claiming to support.

As the Syrian government became aware of US funding of non-governmental organizations and opposition groups, the regime only turned more repressive. A figure in Syria, whose name is redacted from a November 2008 cable, criticized the US policy saying it had “united Islamist nationalists and secular Arab nationalists,” exactly what the US had not planned. And, Syrian opposition chided US foreign policy.

XXXXXXXXXXXX expressed disappointment that the U.S. has driven Syria in a direction not good for the country, but very good for the regime.  The regime senses that the U.S. has played its hand very badly, using its war on terror in a counterproductive way.  Instead of isolating the Islamists and creating the kind of dynamic social ferment and gradual upheaval that was evident in the USSR and Eastern Europe in the mid- and late-1980’s, the U.S. has created conditions that have united, in Syria at least, Islamist nationalists and secular Arab nationalists.  According to XXXXXXXXXXXX , the U.S. has succeeded in making Syria a hero in the Islamic world.  U.S. support for the opposition has not been effective  The fact that Ba’ath Party thugs, with some security services support, could beat up a group of opposition activists, intellectuals, and cultural figures peacefully protesting the continuation of Emergency Law was a far more important signal than the USD five million that the U.S. set aside to support the opposition, noted XXXXXXXXXXXX

It’s Not “Regime Change” But Rather “Behavior Reform”

It is clear the Bush Administration was committed to bringing about regime change. Under President Barack Obama, it appears the US has not fully committed to the same of kind of destabilization efforts. The Obama Administration appears to have instead adopted a policy that is indicative of the sort of American exceptionalism rife within the Washington establishment.

On April 28, 2009, a cable describing a “new policy front” was sent out. US Chargé d’Affaires ad interim to Syria Maura Connelly suggested the “primary Syrian external opposition organization” had completely collapsed. Thus, the suggestion was put forth that the US do less work trying to foster “regime change” and more toward “encouraging ‘behavior reform.’”

…The U.S. attempt to politically isolate the SARG raised stumbling blocks to direct Embassy involvement in civil society programming. As a result, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and the Bureau of Human Rights and Labor (DRL) took the lead in identifying and funding civil society and human rights projects. Though the Embassy has had direct input on a few of these efforts, especially with DRL, most of the programming has proceeded without direct Embassy involvement…

The cable lists off Freedom House, American Bar Association, American University, Internews and work done by MEPI with the Aspen Strategic Initiative Institute, Democracy Council of California, Regents of the University of New Mexico and the International Republican Institute (IRI). It highlighted how the most sensitive MEPI-sponsored programs are funded and noted the Syria government would “view any US funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change.”

It suggests concerns Syria could address if it wanted to be seen in a more positive light. This aspect of the US “behavior reform” strategy appears to be rather consistent with the rhetoric of the State Department during the current uprising. Then, Connelly wrote:

…Action on any one of the following five concerns might shift the SARG’s image into a more positive light. (1) The release of specific imprisoned high-profile civil society and human rights activists; (2) credible movement to resolve the citizenship status of stateless Kurds; (3) loosening media restrictions, including Internet censorship; (4) lifting travel bans on Syrian citizens; and (5) following up on promises to establish a “Senate” that would create a legislative space for opposition politicians to work in…

Finally, the cable on this Orwellian-sounding policy of “behavior reform” suggests further Americanization or Westernization could possibly help achieve US goals in Syria as well (like exporting more KFCs and Gap stores).

Sanctions Help Regime Control Political Opinion

Publicly, the State Department has claimed it is pressing a “message” both to Assad, his regime and to American partners that “the time for democratic change is already underway in Syria.” They have consistently indicated support for the protesters right to “peacefully assemble” (a phrase that each time uttered by a State Department spokesperson becomes even more meaningless).

They have proposed further sanctions, however, cables released by WikiLeaks indicate opposition groups have seen few benefits from sanctions. A cable from November 25, 2008, featuring the views of a Syrian dissident, suggests sanctions have been an easy justification for stifling political organizing in Syria:

Like many Syrians we have met, XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXX, and XXXXXXXXXXXXi decried the U.S. sanctions against Syria as hurting the Syrian people more than anyone else. XXXXXXXXXXXX argued the sanctions had become a tool for controlling popular opinion in the SARG’s hands. The Asad regime held up the sanctions as an example of how the West opposed the people of Syria, thereby reinforcing the idea that Asad and the Ba’ath Party  alone had the Syrian people’s interests at heart, XXXXXXXXXXXX said.

XXXXXXXXXXXX added that the West demanded reform, but it actually prefered an Asad regime to an alternative government, primarily because the West feared any alternative would be Islamist and/or violent, or simply would not willingly follow the policies of the West. He argued the West was afraid of a fully democratic country anywhere in the Middle East. Both, who spent five years in prison for his role in the Damascus Spring and is now involved with the Damascus Declaration, and XXXXXXXXXXXX, who is XXXXXXXXXXXX’s lawyer and the president of the XXXXXXXXXXXX, echoed XXXXXXXXXXXX’s sentiments in their own comments.  XXXXXXXXXXXX argued the “regime always uses this relationship with the West to project an image of importance…It allows him  (Asad) to tell people: ‘see, I’m needed and the West isn’t interested in these (human rights) issues.'”


“We Cannot Stand Idly By When a Tyrant Tells His People That There Will Be No Mercy”

If one reads these cables and draws the conclusion that the US bears some responsibility for egging Assad on, then it appears the US might have an obligation to launch a “humanitarian intervention” into Syria, perhaps, one like the “humanitarian intervention” that continues to wear on Libya.

Recall, the American people were told we had a kind of moral duty to intervene in Libya. President Barack Obama declared on March 19:

I am deeply aware of the risks of any military action, no matter what limits we place on it.  I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice and it’s not a choice that I make lightly.  But we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and his forces step up their assaults on cities like Benghazi and Misurata, where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.

More than 2,000 have died as a result of a “tyrant.” It certainly seems like the Assad regime has adopted a policy of “no mercy.” Yet, the Obama administration has yet to forcefully call for Assad to step down.

As with Mubarak and President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, the administration supports “a transition” and hopes the dictator, who is actively brutalizing his people, will relinquish control voluntarily and step down. They seem to think they can through words and sanctions impose “behavior reform.” And so, there has not been, to use another Orwellian-sounding term, any indication that a “kinetic military action” will be launched.

That is not to say that the US should be arming any Syrian rebels. The rebels the US has supported (and possibly armed) in Libya are now dealing with “tribal hostilities” within their ranks, meaning they are now assassinating and killing one another.

What this shows is US diplomacy, which has included funding Syrian opposition groups and covertly supporting actions that could advance regime change in Syria, is a toxic elixir that not only has failed to give the opposition the support it needs to topple Assad but has also significantly influenced the regime’s decision to unleash its military and security forces on the Syrian people. In short, efforts to advance American hegemony through the buildup of “civil society” and the so-called advancement of “human rights” have failed and innocent civilians are paying the price.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."