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U.S. denies support for Syrian opposition tantamount to regime change

From Elise Labott, Brian Todd and Dugald McConnell, CNN
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Is the U.S. funding TV network in Syria?
  • WikiLeaks cables reveal U.S. financing for groups seeking to overthrow Syria's al-Assad
  • At least $6 million has gone for anti-government programs inside Syria, according to cables
  • The State Department denies it is seeking to undermine al-Assad's regime
  • A department spokesman says the U.S. is trying to build "democratic institutions"

Washington (CNN) -- The State Department denies it is seeking to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, despite the revelation in diplomatic cables unveiled by WikiLeaks that it is financing groups seeking to overthrow him.

The cables, first reported by the Washington Post, reveal the State Department disbursed at least $6 million for anti-government programs inside Syria, with the money going to a group of Syrian exiles, living in London, called the Movement for Justice and Development. It has also supported the reformist satellite channel Barada TV.

Malik al-Abdeh, Barada TV's editor in chief, called the channel "a platform for Syrians to air their grievances about their government, to promote democratic awareness, empower civil society, highlight human rights abuses and break the regime's stranglehold on media and give Syrians a voice."

Although Abdeh is on the board of the Movement for Justice and Development and his brother is the director, he insists there is no connection between Barada TV and the group.

He said the network has "multiple sources of funding," including a California-based non-governmental organization and members of the Syrian expatriate community.

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A source working with Barada TV told CNN the channel is closely affiliated with the Damascus Declaration, a very broad coalition of activists that includes Christians, Druze, Kurds, Shiia, Sunni and women.

The source described the channel's programming as "secular, liberal and progressive," dealing with issues such as corruption, economic hardship and concerns of youth including unemployment, education tuition and social media. Although it promotes democracy and reform in Syria, the channel has not called for al-Assad's regime to step down.

The source said that the U.S. government currently is providing technical support to the group, including providing bandwidth and access to satellites in order to broadcast. Iranians have started blocking the network at the behest of the Syrians, the source said.

Abdeh denied the U.S. government is providing such support and said the channel broadcasts on a commercial satellite.

Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to discuss specific activities Washington was undertaking with the Syrian opposition but said they were "no different" than similar democracy and governance programs the United States was undertaking in democratic countries around the world.

"We're not working to undermine that government," Toner said. "What we are trying to do in Syria, through our civil society support, is to build the kind of democratic institutions, frankly, that we're trying to do in countries around the globe. What's different, I think, in this situation is that the Syrian government perceives this kind of assistance as a threat to its control over the Syrian people."

According to the diplomatic cables, the assistance began in 2005 under President George W. Bush and continued under the Obama administration, although it is unclear to what extent U.S. funding is still being given to Syrian opposition figures.

The Obama administration has sought to engage the al-Assad regime and appointed an ambassador to Damascus for the first time in six years. Although the administration has condemned the brutality of Syrian security forces on protestors, Washington has not called for al-Assad to step down from power.

According to the WikiLeaks cables published by the Washington Post, the U.S. embassy in 2009 voiced concern that President Barack Obama's efforts to engage al-Assad would be in jeopardy as a result of the U.S. activities with opposition groups.

Syrian officials "would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change," read a diplomatic cable from April 2009.

"A reassessment of current U.S.-sponsored programming that supports anti-[government] factions, both inside and outside Syria, may prove productive," the cable said, adding the U.S. needed to "bring our U.S.-sponsored civil society and human rights programming into line a less confrontational bilateral relationship."