Syria in Bush's Cross Hairs

  • Share
  • Read Later

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a press conference in Moscow, December 19, 2006.

The Bush Administration has been quietly nurturing individuals and parties opposed to the Syrian government in an effort to undermine the regime of President Bashar Assad. Parts of the scheme are outlined in a classified, two-page document that says that the U.S. already is "supporting regular meetings of internal and diaspora Syrian activists" in Europe. The document bluntly expresses the hope that "these meetings will facilitate a more coherent strategy and plan of actions for all anti-Assad activists."

The document says that Syria's legislative elections, scheduled for March 2007, "provide a potentially galvanizing issue for... critics of the Assad regime." To capitalize on that opportunity, the document proposes a secret "election monitoring" scheme, in which "internet accessible materials will be available for printing and dissemination by activists inside the country [Syria] and neighboring countries." The proposal also calls for surreptitiously giving money to at least one Syrian politician who, according to the document, intends to run in the election. The effort would also include "voter education campaigns" and public opinion polling, with the first poll "tentatively scheduled in early 2007."

American officials say the U.S. government has had extensive contacts with a range of anti-Assad groups in Washington, Europe and inside Syria. To give momemtum to that opposition, the U.S. is giving serious consideration to the election-monitoring scheme proposed in the document, according to several officials. The proposal has not yet been approved, in part because of questions over whether the Syrian elections will be delayed or even cancelled. But one U.S. official familiar with the proposal said: "You are forced to wonder whether we are now trying to destabilize the Syrian government."

Some critics in Congress and the Administration say that such a plan, meant to secretly influence a foreign government, should be legally deemed a "covert action," which by law would then require that the White House inform the intelligence committees on Capitol Hill. Some in Congress would undoubtedly raise objections to this secret use of publicly appropriated funds to promote democracy.

The proposal says part of the effort would be run through a foundation operated by Amar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based member of a Syrian umbrella opposition group known as the National Salvation Front (NSF). The Front includes the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that for decades supported the violent overthrow of the Syrian government, but now says it seeks peaceful, democratic reform. (In Syria, however, membership in the Brotherhood is still punishable by death.) Another member of the NSF is Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former high-ranking Syrian official and Assad family loyalist who recently went into exile after a political clash with the regime. Representatives of the National Salvation Front, including Abdulhamid, were accorded at least two meetings earlier this year at the White House, which described the sessions as exploratory. Since then, the National Salvation Front has said it intends to open an office in Washington in the near future.

"Democracy promotion" has been a focus of both Democratic and Republican administrations, but the Bush White House has been a particular booster since 9/11. Iran contra figure Elliott Abrams was put in charge of the effort at the National Security Council. Until recently, Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the Vice President, oversaw such work at the State Department. In the past, the U.S. has used support for "democracy building" to topple unfriendly dictators, including Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Ukraine's Vladimir Kuchma.

However, in order to make the "election monitoring" plan for Syria effective, the proposal makes clear that the U.S. effort will have to be concealed: "Any information regarding funding for domestic [Syrian] politicians for elections monitoring would have to be protected from public dissemination," the document says. But American experts on "democracy promotion" consulted by TIME say it would be unwise to give financial support to a specific candidate in the election, because of the perceived conflict of interest. More ominously, an official familiar with the document explained that secrecy is necessary in part because Syria's government might retaliate against anyone inside the country who was seen as supporting the U.S.-backed election effort. The official added that because the Syrian government fields a broad network of internal spies, it would almost certainly find out about the U.S. effort, if it hasn't already. That could lead to the imprisonment of still more opposition figures.

Any American-orchestrated attempt to conduct such an election-monitoring effort could make a dialogue between Washington and Damascus — as proposed by the Iraq Study Group and several U.S. allies — difficult or impossible. The entire proposal could also be a waste of effort; Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who worked on the Iraq Study Group report, says that Syria's opposition is so fractured and weak that there is little to be gained by such a venture. "To fund opposition parties on the margins is a distraction at best," he told TIME. "It will only impede the better option of engaging Syria on much more important, fundamental issues like Iraq, peace with Israel, and the dangerous situation in Lebanon."

Others detect another goal for the proposed policy. "Ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Syria opposed, the Bush Administration has been looking for ways to squeeze the government in Damascus," notes Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who is co-director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "Syria has appeared to be next on the Administration's agenda to reform the greater Middle East." Landis adds: "This is apparently an effort to gin up the Syrian opposition under the rubric of 'democracy promotion' and 'election monitoring,' but it's really just an attempt to pressure the Syrian government" into doing what the U.S. wants. That would include blocking Syria's border with Iraq so insurgents do not cross into Iraq to kill U.S. troops; ending funding of Hizballah and interference in Lebanese politics; and cooperating with the U.N. in the investigation of the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Senior Syrian government officials are considered prime suspects in Hariri case.

Money for the election-monitoring proposal would be channeled through a State Department program known as the Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI. According to MEPI's website, the program passes out funds ranging between $100,000 and $1 million to promote education and women's empowerment, as well as economic and political reform, part of a total allocation of $5 million for Syria that Congress supported earlier this year.

MEPI helps funnel millions of dollars every year to groups around the Middle East intent on promoting reforms. In the vast majority of cases, beneficiaries are publicly identified, as financial support is distributed through channels including the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit affiliated with the Democratic Party, and the International Republican Institute (IRI), which is linked to the G.O.P. In the Syrian case, the election-monitoring proposal identifies IRI as a "partner" — although the IRI website, replete with information about its democracy promotion elsewhere in the world, does not mention Syria. A spokesperson for IRI had no comment on what the organization might have planned or under way in Syria, describing the subject as "sensitive."

U.S. foreign policy experts familiar with the proposal say it was developed by a "democracy and public diplomacy" working group that meets weekly at the State department to discuss Iran and Syria. Along with related working groups, it prepares proposals for the higher-level Iran Syria Operations Group, or ISOG, an inter-agency body that, several officials said, has had input from Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, deputy National Security Council advisor Elliott Abrams and representatives from the Pentagon, Treasury and U.S. intelligence. The State Department's deputy spokesman, Thomas Casey, said the election-monitoring proposal had already been through several classified drafts, but that "the basic concept is very much still valid."