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What WikiLeaks Showed Us About U.S. Motivations in Syria

(From shamireaders, possibly by Saïd Zulficar)

  On August 31, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama announcedthat he intended to launch a military attack on Syria in response to a chemicalweapons attack in Syria that the U.S. blamed on the Syrian government.President Obama assured the U.S. public that this would be a limited militaryaction solely intended to punish the Assad government for using chemicalweapons; the goal of U.S. military action would not be to overthrow the Assadgovernment, nor would it be to change the balance of forces in Syria’ssectarian civil war.

In the end, President Obama did not (directly) attack Syria,in large measure because of public and Congressional opposition. (At thiswriting, the U.S. has “covertly” supported armed insurgents in Syria withweapons and supplies, a military intervention in violation of the UnitedNations Charter, since Syria, a U.N. member state, has not attacked the U.S.and the U.N. Security Council has not approved U.S. military action.)

A key source of that opposition was U.S. public distrust ofthe stated motivations of the Obama Administration. Was it true, as theAdministration claimed, that its motivation for military intervention wassolely its belief that the Assad government had used chemical weapons? Or wasit true that the alleged chemical weapons attack was primarily serving as anexcuse for a military attack that had other motivations? Many Americansbelieved that the Administration had other motivations than those it wasstating, and that despite public statements to the contrary the Administrationintended to either overthrow the Assad government militarily or attempt tochange the balance of forces in Syria’s civil war as part of a larger strugglewith Iran and Russia for influence in the Middle East. Because of these othersuspected motivations, many Americans believed it likely that U.S. militaryintervention would not be “limited,” since it was likely that these unstatedobjectives would not be achieved by a “limited” military intervention.

This history shows how public understanding of U.S. foreignpolicy depends crucially on assessing the motivations of U.S. officials. Whilethe motivations of U.S. officials may be complex, and the “true” motivations ofU.S. officials may not be knowable, it is likely inevitable that members of thepublic will form assessments of the motivations of U.S. officials and thatthese assessments will play a major role in their assessment of U.S. policy. Itis likely inevitable as a result that U.S. officials will present themselves tothe public as having more noble motivations than they share with each other inprivate, and therefore that if members of the public had access to themotivations shared in private, they would make different assessments of U.S.policy than if they made their assessments solely on the basis of publicpronouncements.

This is a key reason that WikiLeaks’ publishing of U.S.diplomatic cables was so important. It gave the public a recent window into thestrategies and motivations of U.S. officials as they expressed them to eachother, not as they usually expressed them to the public. In the case of Syria,the cables show that regime change had been a longstanding goal of U.S. policy;that the U.S. promoted sectarianism in support of its regime change policy,thus helping lay the foundation for the sectarian civil war and massivebloodshed that we see in Syria today; that key components of the BushAdministration’s regime change policy remained in place even as the Obama Administrationmoved publicly towards a policy of engagement; and that the U.S. government wasmuch more interested in the Syrian government’s foreign policy, particularlyits relationship with Iran, than in human rights inside Syria.

A December 13, 2006 cable [1], “Influencing the SARG [Syriangovernment] in the End of 2006,” indicates that as far back as 2006 – fiveyears before “Arab Spring” protests in Syria – destabilizing the Syriangovernment was a central motivation of U.S. policy. 

The author of the cable was William Roebuck, at the timeCharge d'Affaires – head of the embassy in the absence of an Ambassador - atthe U.S. Embassy in Damascus. The cable outlines strategies for destabilizingthe Syrian government. In his summary of the cable, Roebuck wrote:

“We believe Bashar’s weaknesses arein how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such asa the conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and entrenched,corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the potential threat to the regimefrom the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists.  This cable summarizes our assessment of thesevulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and signalsthat the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunitiesarising.” [That is, the likelihood of such conflicts and threats arising.]


This cable suggests that the U.S. goal in December 2006 wasto undermine the Syrian government by any available means, and that whatmattered was whether U.S. action would help destabilize the government, notwhat other impacts the action might have. In public the U.S. was in favor ofeconomic reform; but in private the U.S. saw conflict between economic reformand “entrenched, corrupt forces” as an “opportunity.” In public, the U.S. wasopposed to “Islamist extremists” everywhere, but in private the U.S. saw the“potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transitingIslamist extremists” as an “opportunity” which the U.S. should take action totry to increase.  

Roebuck lists Syria’s relationship with Iran as a “vulnerability”that the U.S. should try to “exploit.” His suggested means of doing so isinstructive [my emphasis below]:

“-- Possible action:

-- PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIANINFLUENCE:  There are fears in Syria thatthe Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostlypoor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated,such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that isincreasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in theircountry through activities ranging frommosque construction to business.

Both the local Egyptian and Saudimissions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), aregiving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways tobetter publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.”

So, Roebuck argued that the U.S. should try to destabilizethe Syrian government by coordinating more closely with Egypt and Saudi Arabiato fan sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia, including by promoting“exaggerated” fears of Shia proselytizing of Sunnis and promoting concern about“the spread of Iranian influence” in Syria in the form of mosque constructionand business activity.

In 2014, the sectarian Sunni-Shia character of the civil warin Syria is bemoaned in the United States as an unfortunate development. But inDecember 2006, the man heading the U.S. Embassy in Syria advocated in a cableto the Secretary of State and the White House that the U.S. governmentcollaborate with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to promote sectarian conflict in Syriabetween Sunni and Shia as a means of destabilizing the Syrian government.

In December 2006, no one in the U.S. government couldcredibly have claimed innocence of the possible implications of such a policy.This cable was written at the height of the sectarian Sunni-Shia civil war inIraq, which the U.S. military was unsuccessfully trying to contain. U.S. publicdisgust with the sectarian civil war in Iraq unleashed by the U.S. invasion hadjust cost Republicans control of Congress in the November 2006 election. Theelection result immediately produced the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld asSecretary of Defense. No one working for the U.S. government on foreign policyat the time could have been unaware of the implications of promoting Sunni-Shiasectarianism.

It was easy to predict then that while a strategy ofpromoting sectarian conflict in Syria might indeed help undermine the Syriangovernment, it could also help destroy Syrian society. But this considerationdoesn’t appear in Roebuck’s memo at all, as he recommends that the U.S.government cooperate with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to promote sectarian tensions.

Note that while Roebuck was serving in the George W. BushAdministration, he was a career Foreign Service officer, a permanent seniormember in good standing of the U.S. government’s foreign policy apparatus. Hewent on to serve in the U.S. embassy in Iraq and the U.S. embassy in Libya, thelatter as Chargé d’ Affaires, in the Obama Administration. There is no evidencethat anyone in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus found the views expressed byRoebuck in this cable particularly controversial; the publication of this cabledid not cause scandal in U.S. foreign policy circles.

So, while the sectarian character of the civil war in Syriais now publicly bemoaned in the West, it seems a fair characterization to saythat in 2006, the United States government foreign policy apparatus believedthat promoting sectarianism in Syria was a good idea, which would foster “U.S.interests” by destabilizing the Syrian government.

This view of U.S. policy – happy to make common cause withSaudi Arabia in fostering Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Syria, and pre-occupiedwith Syria’s relationship with Iran above all else - is buttressed by a March22, 2009 cable [2] from the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia, “Saudi IntelligenceChief Talks Regional Security With Brennan Delegation.” This cable summarizes aMarch 15 meeting including then U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan andU.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ford Fraker with Prince Muqrin bin Abdulazizal-Saud, the head of Saudi Arabia's external intelligence agency.

Ambassador Fraker’s summary recounted: [my emphasis]

7. (C) PERSIAN MEDDLING:  Prince Muqrin described Iran as "allover the place now."  The"Shiite crescent is becoming a full moon," encompassing Lebanon, Syria,Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen among Iran’s targets.  In the Kingdom, he said "we haveproblems in Medina and Eastern Province." When asked if he saw Iran’s hand in last month's Medina Riots (reftels),he strongly affirmed his belief that they were "definitely" Iraniansupported.  (Comment: Muqrin's view was not necessarily supported by post's SaudiShi'a sources.) Muqrin bluntly stated "Iran is becoming a pain inthe..." and he expressed hope the President "can get them straight,or straighten them out."

Ambassador Fraker’s comment that “Muqrin's view was notnecessarily supported by post's Saudi Shi'a sources” was a severeunderstatement. Indeed, in a February 24, 2009 cable [3], “Saudi Shia ClashWith Police In Medina,” Ambassador Fraker had reported in detail on theFebruary 20 clashes between Saudi security forces and Saudi Shi'a pilgrims inMedina, without any mention of Iran. Fraker’s February 24 cable primarilyattributed the clashes to 1) Saudi police denying the Saudi Shi'a pilgrimsaccess to the Baqi'a cemetery opposite the Prophet's Mosque and 2) the SaudiShi'a community's long-simmering anger over historical grievances.

This indicates that the U.S. government knows perfectly wellthat the Saudi government blames Iran for things that the Iranian governmenthas nothing to do with and is unconcerned about this. For the U.S. government’sown internal information, the Ambassador wanted to make clear that as far asthe U.S. embassy knew, the Medina clashes had nothing to do with Iran. But asthe 2006 cable makes clear, the U.S. was happy to make common cause with SaudiArabia in blaming Iran for things happening in Syria that aren’t eventrue. 

The next paragraph in the March 2009 cable from Riyadh isalso instructive:

8. (C) WEANING SYRIA FROMIRAN:  Brennan asked Muqrin if hebelieved the Syrians were interested in improving relations with the UnitedStates.  "I can't say anythingpositive or negative," he replied, declining to give an opinion.  Muqrin observed that the Syrians would notdetach from Iran without "a supplement."

This suggests that for the U.S. government in March 2009,for Syria to be interested in “improving relations with the United States” wasequal to being “weaned” from Iran. Thus, the thing that the U.S. really caredabout in Syria was not, for example, the Syrian government’s respect for humanrights, but Syria’s relationship with Iran.

Another theme that recurred in the 2006 cable that talkedabout Syria’s “vulnerabilities” and how the U.S. should try to exploit them wasthat the U.S. should take actions to try to destabilize the Syrian governmentby provoking the Syrian government to “overreact,” both internally andexternally.

One of the “vulnerabilities” of the Syrian government listedby Roebuck that the U.S. should try to exploit was the Syrian government’s“enormous irritation” with former Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam,leader of the opposition-in-exile National Salvation Front. Roebuck wrote:

-- Vulnerability:

-- THE KHADDAM FACTOR:  Khaddam knows where the regime skeletons arehidden, which provokes enormous irritation from Bashar, vastly disproportionateto any support Khaddam has within Syria. Bashar Asad personally, and his regime in general, follow every newsitem involving Khaddam with tremendous emotional interest.  The regime reacts with self-defeating angerwhenever another Arab country hosts Khaddam or allows him to make a publicstatement through any of its media outlets.

To exploit this vulnerability, Roebuck proposed:

-- Possible Action:

-- We should continue to encouragethe Saudis and others to allow Khaddam access to their media outlets, providinghim with venues for airing the SARG’s dirty laundry.  We should anticipate an overreaction by theregime that will add to its isolation and alienation from its Arab neighbors.

Note that the goal of encouraging the Saudis and other to “allowKhaddam access to their media outlets” was not to promote democracy and humanrights in Syria, but to provoke the Syrian government to do things that would“add to its isolation” from its Arab neighbors. Of course, if the Syriangovernment acted in ways that would “add to its isolation,” then the U.S. couldcite such actions as evidence that the Syrian government was a roguegovernment, unable or unwilling to conform to international norms, threateningto U.S. allies in the region, and therefore that the U.S. government had totake some action in response. But now we know that such actions by the Syriangovernment would not have been unfortunate developments to which the U.S. wouldbe reluctantly forced to respond, but the explicit goal of U.S. policy.

For example, in August 2007 – eight months after the above cable- Khaddam told the Saudi daily Al-Watan that reported remarks of Syrian VicePresident Faruq al-Sharaa criticizing Saudi Arabia were “part of the policypursued by the ruling clique, which aims at severing Syrian links with the Arabworld and tying it further to Iran's regional strategy, " the Beirut DailyStar reported. [4] The Daily Star noted that the Syrian government was actuallytrying to “calm the spat,” saying that statements attributed to Sharaa had been“distorted.” In the context of Roebuck’s cable, these developments make sense:it was the U.S. and its ally Khaddam that were trying to inflame tensionsbetween Syria and Saudi Arabia, not the Syrian government.

Whatever one thinks of Khaddam or the Syrian government,it’s not surprising that the Syrian government would have been provoked in 2006by countries like Saudi Arabia giving Khaddam a media platform, given what Khaddamhad used such platforms to say in the past. Note that there is no question thatthe Saudi government controls Saudi media for a purpose like this, exactly asRoebuck implied – indeed, the Riyadh embassy cable about the Medina clashesbetween Saudi police and Shia pilgrims noted that the Saudi government hadsuccessfully pressured Saudi media to suppress reports of the clashes.

Here is what Khaddam told the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat about his goals in aninterview in Paris in January 2006: [5]

Q: What are you[r] currentpriorities? Do you want to reform the regime, reform it, or topple it?

A: This regime cannot be reformedso there is nothing left but to oust it. 

One imagines that if Iran had given a former Bahraini orEgyptian vice-president a platform to say about the government of Bahrain orEgypt that “this regime cannot be reformed so there is nothing left but to oustit,” the U.S. government would not have taken kindly to that. This was elevenmonths before Roebuck’s cable, and five years before “Arab Spring” protests inSyria. We are told in the West that the current efforts to topple the Syriangovernment by force were a reaction to the Syrian government’s repression ofdissent in 2011; but now we know that “regime change” was the policy of theU.S. and its allies five years earlier.

Indeed, another of Roebuck’s proposed actions to exploitSyria’s “vulnerabilities” carried the same message:

-- Possible Action:


The regime is intensely sensitiveto rumors about coup-plotting and restlessness in the security services andmilitary.  Regional allies like Egypt andSaudi Arabia should be encouraged to meet with figures like Khaddam and Rif’atAsad as a way of sending such signals, with appropriate leaking of the meetingsafterwards.  This again touches on thisinsular regime’s paranoia and increases the possibility of a self-defeatingover-reaction. 

According to Roebuck, if Egypt and Saudi Arabia met with Khaddamand news of the meetings were “appropriately leaked,” that would send a signalto the Syrian government that these countries were plotting against Syria,perhaps trying to organize a coup.

It is revealing that Roebuck described the regime as“paranoid” for having fears that appear to have been quite rational – fearsbased in significant measure on the actions of the United States and its allies.The most powerful government in the world and its allies in the region aspiredto overthrow the Syrian government. The U.S. has a long track record [6] oftrying to overthrow governments around the world, including in the region, andas Roebuck’s cable makes clear, far from trying to allay such fears, the U.S.wanted to exacerbate them. In 2014, the U.S. is arming insurgents who aretrying to kill Syrian government officials. Was the Syrian government’s fear ofthe U.S. government irrational, or was it rational?

Failure to acknowledge that U.S. adversaries’ fears of theU.S. are rational suggests a world view in which U.S. threats are normal,unremarkable, an inevitable part of the landscape, which only mentally unstablepeople would object to, their fears serving as proof of their irrationality. Duringthe U.S.-organized contra war against Nicaragua in the 1980s, AlexanderCockburn recounted the view of a visiting U.S. Congressman toward Nicaragua: [7]

Nicaraguans tell stories aboutthese U.S. fact-finders with a certain wry incredulity. One congressmanlistened to a commandante outlining the murderous rampages of the contras and thenburst out, “Suppose 5,000 contras cross your border. Suppose you are invaded bythe entire Honduran army, why should you worry. Are you that insecure?”

Listing resistance to economic reforms as a “vulnerability,”Roebuck wrote [my emphasis]:



Bashar keeps unveiling a steadystream of initiatives on economic reform and it is certainly possible hebelieves this issue is his legacy to Syria. While limited and ineffectual,these steps have brought back Syrian expats to invest and have created atleast the illusion of increasing openness. Finding ways to publicly call intoquestion Bashar’s reform efforts)- pointing, for example to the use of reformto disguise cronyism -- would embarrass Bashar and undercut these efforts to shore up his legitimacy.

Presumably, a key goal of economic reforms would have beento “[bring] back Syrian expats to invest,” so if they had that effect, then theywere not ineffectual. This makes clear what Roebuck was and wasn’t interestedin. He wasn’t interested in Syrian economic reforms succeeding in facilitatingprivate investment. He’s interested in them failing. Even if they have somesuccess, he wants to present them as a failure and “undercut these efforts toshore up his legitimacy.”

The notion of “legitimacy” is a key one in U.S. foreignpolicy towards adversary governments in countries that the U.S. does not fearmilitarily (e.g. because they have nuclear weapons.) In the context of U.S.foreign policy, the term “legitimacy” is a “term of art” that has a specificmeaning.

The usual notion of government “legitimacy” in internationallaw and diplomacy, which the U.S. applies to its allies without question, hasnothing to do with whether Santa has found a country’s government to be naughtyor nice. Either you are the recognized government of the country, holding itsseat at the United Nations, or you are not. Hardly anyone in Washington wouldsuggest that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, or Israel arenot “legitimate” because they were not elected by all of their subjects orbecause they engage in gross violations of human rights. Nor would many inWashington suggest that the governments of Russia or China are not“legitimate,” however one might dislike some of their policies, their lack ofdemocracy, or their violations of human rights; these countries have nuclearweapons and a permanent seat and veto on the U.N. Security Council, sochallenging their legitimacy could have dangerous consequences; the U.S. maycomplain about their policies, but there is no chance that the U.S. willchallenge their “legitimacy.”

Countries like Syria, Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion,and Libya before the 2011 U.S.-NATO military campaign to overthrow Qaddafi, onthe other hand, belong to a different category. If the U.S. government thinksthat their governments can be overthrown, then the U.S. might declare them tobe “illegitimate.” And being declared “illegitimate” by the U.S. means that theU.S. government will likely try to overthrow your government.

Further underscoring Roebuck’s priorities, he advocated:

-- DISCOURAGE FDI, ESPECIALLY FROMTHE GULF:  Syria has enjoyed aconsiderable up-tick in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the last two yearsthat appears to be picking up steam.  Themost important new FDI is undoubtedly from the Gulf.

Again, the increase in investment would seem to suggest thateconomic reforms were working to encourage investment. But Roebuck saw this asbad. If the most important FDI was from the Gulf, that suggested that contraryto the U.S. and Khaddam’s claims that Syria was trying to have bad relationswith the Gulf countries, it was succeeding in projecting an image of a countrythat was trying to get along. But in Roebuck’s view, this wasn’t a good thing;this was a bad thing, which the U.S. should try to counter-act.

Roebuck spoke glowingly of violent protests against the Syrian government [my emphasis]: 

-- Vulnerability:

-- THE KURDS:  The most organized and daring politicalopposition and civil society groups are among the ethnic minority Kurds,concentrated in Syria’s northeast, as well as in communities in Damascus andAleppo.  This group has been willing to protest violently in its home territorywhen others would dare not.

The word “daring” in English usually connotes exemplarycourage. U.S. newspapers, for example, do not generally describe the Palestinianuse of violence against the Israeli occupation as “daring,” because while usingviolence in this instance obviously requires courage, the use of violence inthis instance is not seen in the U.S. as exemplary.

This shows how U.S. diplomats like Roebuck see the world: ifyou’re protesting governments that are U.S. allies, like Bahrain, Egypt, orIsrael, then your protests should be nonviolent. But if you are protesting agovernment that the U.S. would like to overthrow, then the use of violencedemonstrates “daring.”

To take advantage of this “vulnerability,” Roebucksuggested:

-- Possible Action:

-- HIGHLIGHT KURDISH COMPLAINTS:Highlighting Kurdish complaints in public statements, including publicizinghuman rights abuses will exacerbate regime’s concerns about the Kurdishpopulation. 

There’s no pretense here that the goal of this action wouldbe to encourage greater respect by the Syrian government for the human rightsof Kurds – the goal would be to destabilize the Syrian government.

Roebuck also made clear his attitude towards terrorism inSyria [my emphasis]:

-- Vulnerability:

-- Extremist elements increasinglyuse Syria as a base, while the SARG has taken some actions against groupsstating links to Al-Qaeda.  With thekilling of the al-Qaida leader on the border with Lebanon in early December andthe increasing terrorist attacks inside Syria culminating in the September 12attack against the US embassy, the SARG’s policies in Iraq and support forterrorists elsewhere as well can be seen to be coming home to roost.

-- Possible Actions:

-- Publicize presence of transiting(or externally focused) extremist groups in Syria, not limited to mention ofHamas and PIJ.  Publicize Syrian efforts against extremist groups in a way thatsuggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback.  The SARG’s argument (usually used afterterror attacks in Syria) that it too is a victim of terrorism should be used against it to give greaterprominence to increasing signs of instability within Syria.

Note that in private correspondence, Roebuck has no problemacknowledging that Syria is the victim of terrorism and that the Syriangovernment is trying to take action against terrorists. But if Syria is thevictim of terrorism and is trying to do something about it, according to theview that Roebuck wants the U.S. to present to the world, that is evidence thatSyria is weak and unstable and is suffering “uncontrolled blowback” as itssupport for terrorists elsewhere “comes home to roost.”

Imagine if a diplomat from a country perceived to be a U.S.adversary suggested that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against theWorld Trade Center and the Pentagon, and U.S. efforts to prevent such attacksin the future, were evidence that the U.S. is weak and unstable, suffering from“uncontrolled blowback” as past U.S. support for terrorists elsewhere “camehome to roost.” How would this be perceived in the United States?

It’s not hard to speculate. In May 2007, when Republican presidentialcandidate Ron Paul suggested that “blowback” from U.S. foreign policy hadhelped cause the September 11 attacks [8], Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani denounced him as a conspiracy theorist. [9] When in2010 in a speech at the United Nations the President of Iran noted the thenwidespread minority belief that the U.S. government was behind the September 11attacks, the U.S. led a walkout and denounced the speech. [10]  

So, it seems reasonable to conclude that if the U.S. putforward the view that terrorism in Syria is Syria’s own fault, the Syriangovernment would be likely to perceive that as a very hostile act.

This cable shows that in December 2006, the man in charge ofU.S. diplomacy in Syria believed that the goal of U.S. policy in Syria shouldbe destabilizing the Syrian government by any means available; that the U.S.should work to increase Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Syria, including by aidingthe dissemination of false fears about Shia proselytizing and stokingresentment about Iranian business activity and mosque construction; that theU.S. should press Arab allies to give access in media they control to a formerSyrian official calling for the ouster of the Syrian government; that the U.S.should try to strain relations between that the Syrian government and otherArab governments and then blame Syria for the strain; that the U.S. should seekto stoke Syrian government fears of coup plots in order to provoke the Syriangovernment to over-react; that if the Syrian government reacted to externalprovocations, that proved that the regime was paranoid; that the U.S. shouldwork to undermine Syrian economic reforms and discourage foreign investment;that the U.S. should seek to foster the belief that the Syrian government wasnot legitimate; that violent protests in Syria were praiseworthy and exemplary;that if Syria is the victim of terrorism and tries to do something about it,the U.S. should exploit that to say that the Syrian government is weak andunstable and is experiencing blowback for its foreign policy.

We further know that in the eyes of the U.S. embassy inRiyadh, Syria was interested in improving relations with the United States ifand only if it was interested in being “weaned” from Iran.  

From other cables, we know that the U.S. was funding Syrianopposition groups. The U.S. government acknowledged this funding after thecables were published by WikiLeaks. [11] The U.S. had previously announcedfunding to “promote democracy” in Syria, but what was not previously publiclyknown was the extent to which the U.S. was engaged in funding opposition groupsand activities which the U.S. government had internally conceded would be seenby the Syrian government as proof that the U.S. was seeking to overthrow theSyrian government.

A February 21, 2006 cable [12] noted:

Post contacts [i.e., U.S. embassycontacts in Syria] have been quick to condemn the USG's public statementannouncing the designation of five million USD for support of the Syrianopposition, calling it "na[i]ve" and "harmful."  Contacts insist that the statement hasalready hurt the opposition, and that the SARG will use it in the coming monthsto further discredit its opponents as agents of the Americans.

The cable also noted:

Several contacts insisted that theinitiative indicated the U.S. did not really care about the opposition, butmerely wanted to use it as "a chip in the game."

Judging from the December, 2006 “vulnerabilities andactions” cable, it is hard to dispute this conclusion of the embassy’s Syriancontacts.

The February 2006 cable elaborated:

Bassam Ishak, a Syrian-Americanactivist who ran as an independent candidate for the People's Assembly in 2003,said that the general consensus among his civil society and oppositioncolleagues had been that the USG is "not serious about us" and thatthe public announcement was "just to put pressure on the regime with noregard for the opposition." "We are just a chip in the game," heasserted.

Note that the view that there could be severe negativeconsequences from U.S. funding of opposition groups, including by helping thegovernment de-legitimize opposition groups and individuals as agents of foreignpowers, was shared by many of the embassy’s own contacts in the Syrianopposition. Some of the people who were delegitimized in this way mightotherwise have been credible interlocutors in negotiations towards moreinclusive governance; thus, the strategy of funding opposition groups couldhave the effect of foreclosing diplomatic and political options. Some of thecriticism expressed of the U.S. announcement was that it was done publicly; butas the cables themselves demonstrate, it was likely that the Syrian governmentwould find out what the U.S. was doing in the long run, and therefore, in thelong run, the distinction between secret and public was not meaningful.

Another critic noted that the U.S. was already secretlyfunding the Syrian opposition:

MP Noumeir al-Ghanem, a nominalindependent and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament,dismissed the funding plan as a stunt, saying the amount of money was small andthat the U.S. had already been funding the opposition secretly, withoutimpact.  The new initiative would make noreal difference.  In his view, theannouncement angered most Syrians, who viewed it as interference in theinternal affairs of Syria, something that the U.S. always insisted that Syriashould not do regarding Lebanon.

Al-Ghanem said the U.S. shouldengage in dialogue with the Syrian regime and work for a stable, slowlydemocratizing country that could further U.S. interests in the region, insteadof putting up obstacles to such dialogue.

An April 28, 2009 cable [13] (“Behavior Reform: Next StepsFor A Human Rights Strategy”) – from a period of “policy review” in which thenew Obama Administration was exploring a less confrontational policy towardsSyria - outlining U.S. – government funded “ongoing civil society programming”in Syria acknowledged that

Some programs may be perceived,were they made public, as an attempt to undermine the Asad regime, as opposedto encouraging behavior reform.

The cable also acknowledged:

The SARG [Syrian government] wouldundoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamountto supporting regime change.  This wouldinevitably include the various expatriate reformorganizations operating in Europe and the U.S., most of which have little to noeffect on civil society or human rights in Syria.

The cable noted that the State Department’s U.S.-Middle EastPartnership Initiative (MEPI) had sponsored

eight major Syria-specificinitiatives, some dating back to 2005, that will have received approximatelyUSD 12 million by September 2010.

One of those initiatives was:

-Democracy Council of California,"Civil Society Strengthening Initiative (CSSI)" (USD 6,300,562,September 1, 2006 - September 30, 2010). "CSSI is a discrete collaborative effort between the DemocracyCouncil and local partners" that has produced a secure DamascusDeclaration website ( and "various broadcastconcepts" set to air in April.

A February 7, 2010 cable [14]  (“Human Rights Updates -- SARG Budges On TIP,But Little Else”) indicates that "various broadcast concepts"referred to Barada TV, a London-based Syrian opposition satellite televisionnetwork. The February 2010 cable referred to Barada TV as “MEPI-supported,” andsaid:

If the SARG establishes firmly thatthe U.S. was continuing to fund Barada TV, however, it would view USGinvolvement as a covert and hostile gesture toward the regime.

But while the April 2009 cable had noted that  “The SARG would undoubtedly view any U.S.funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regimechange,” the February 2010 cable shows that such funding continued, even thoughthe April 2009 cable had identified “how to bring our U.S.-sponsored civilsociety and human rights programming into line [with] a less confrontationalbilateral relationship” as a “core issue” facing a U.S. human rights strategyfor Syria.

The April 2009 cable had argued:

The majority of DRL [the StateDepartment’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs] and MEPIprograms have focused on activities and Syrians outside of Syria, which hasfurther fed regime suspicions about U.S. intentions.  If our dialogue with Syria on human rights isto succeed, we need to express the desire to work in Syria to strengthen civilsociety in a non-threatening manner.

But, it appears, the shift argued for in the April 2009cable never occurred.  

This apparently remained true even as the U.S. embassy becameincreasingly aware of evidence that the Syrian government knew about theactivities funded by the U.S. that the April 2009 cable had warned that theSyrian government would see, if they knew of it, as evidence of a regime changepolicy; and that would likely, if known, undermine U.S. efforts to engage theSyrian government.

A July 8, 2009 cable [15] on rifts in the Syrian opposition (“MurkyAlliances: Muslim Brotherhood, the Movement For Justice and Democracy, and theDamascus Declaration”) noted in its summary:

More worrisome, however, is recentinformation suggesting the SARG may already have penetrated the MJD [Movementfor Justice and Development] and learned about sensitive USG programs in Syria.

The July 2009 cable elaborated:


MJD: A Leaky Boat?


8. (C)  [Damascus Declaration member Fawaz] Tello hadtold us in the past (ref B) that the MJD … had been initially lax in its security,often speaking about highly sensitive material on open lines…The last pointrelates to a recent report from lawyer/journalist and human rights activistRazan Zeitunah (strictly protect) who met us separately on July 1 to discusshaving been called in for questioning by security services on June 29.

9. (S/NF) Zeitunah told us securityservices had asked whether she had met with anyone from our "ForeignMinistry" and with anyone from the Democracy Council [recipient of theU.S. grant for the MJD to run Barada TV.] (Comment: State Department ForeignAffairs Officer Joseph Barghout had recently been in Syria and met withZeitunah; we assume the SARG was fishing for information, knowing Barghout hadentered the country.  Jim Prince was inDamascus on February 25, and it is our understanding he met with Zeitunah atthat time, or had done so on a separate trip. End Comment).   She added that her interrogators did not askabout Barghout by name, but they did have Jim Prince's. [Jim Prince is the headof the Democracy Council.]


11. (S/NF)  Comment continued:  Zeitunah's report begs the question of howmuch and for how long the SARG has known about Democracy Council operations inSyria and, by extension, the MJD's participation.  Reporting in other channels suggest theSyrian Muhabarat may already have penetrated the MJD and is using MJD contactsto track U.S. democracy programming.

A September 23, 2009 cable [16] (“Show Us the Money! SARGSuspects "Illegal" USG Funding”) gave further evidence that Syrianauthorities were increasingly aware of what the U.S. was funding:

1. (S/NF) Summary: Over the pastsix months, SARG security agents have increasingly questioned civil society andhuman rights activists about U.S. programming in Syria and the region,including U.S. Speaker and MEPI initiatives (ref A). In addition to reportedinterrogations of the Director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom ofExpression and employees of USG-supported Etana Press, new criminal chargesagainst detained human rights lawyer Muhanad al-Hasani for illegally receivingUSG funding reflect the seriousness with which the regime is pursuing these"investigations."

The September 2009 cable elaborated:

2. (S/NF) Over the past six months,civil society and human rights activists questioned by SARG security have toldus interrogators asked specifically about their connections to the U.S. Embassyand the State Department.  As previouslyreported, Razan Zeitunah (strictly protect) recounted a June interrogationduring which she was questioned about MEPI-funded Democracy Council activitiesas well as visiting State Department officials (ref A).  Kurdish Future Movement activist Herveen Ose(strictly protect), brought in for questioning in August, was also asked aboutfunding from "foreign embassies." MEPI grantee Maan Abdul Salam (strictly protect) recently reported oneof his employees was called in on September 4, at which time security agentszeroed in on her participation in a MEPI-funded People In Need (PIN) seminar inPrague approximately eight months earlier.


4. (C) The ongoing case of humanrights lawyer Muhanad al-Hasani took a turn for the worse on September 15 when,reportedly, the SARG introduced a new charge against him. According to aSeptember 18 e-mail we received from his colleague Catherine al-Tali (strictlyprotect), the SARG accused Hasani of accepting USG funding that was routed tohim through the Cairo-based Al-Andalus Center[…] Embassy Cairo also informed usthat the Center was not currently receiving funding from either the Embassy orMEPI, though it had in the past.


8. (S/NF) Comment:  It is unclear to what extent SARGintelligence services understand how USG money enters Syria and through whichproxy organizations.  What is clear,however, is that security agents are increasingly focused on this issue when theyinterrogate human rights and civil society activists.  The information agents are able to frametheir questions with more and more specific information and names.  The charge that Hasani received USG fundingvis-a-vis the Al-Andalus Center is especially worrying since it may suggest theSARG has keyed in on MEPI operations in particular.

The February 7, 2010 cable [17] cited earlier (“Human RightsUpdates -- SARG Budges On TIP, But Little Else”) gave further evidence that theSyrian government was pursuing the funding of Barada TV:


Barada TV: The Opposition in KliegLights?


9. (C) Damascus-based director ofMEPI-supported Barada TV Suheir Attasi outlined the many challenges facing thechannel in a December 23 meeting.


10. (C) Attasi confirmed reports wehad heard from other contacts about the SARG’s interest in chasing down thefinancial and political support structure behind Barada. Security agents calledher in for questioning in October and repeatedly asked her about heraffiliations with the U.S. Embassy and whether she knew Jim Prince […]

If the SARG establishes firmly thatthe U.S. was continuing to fund Barada TV, however, it would view USGinvolvement as a covert and hostile gesture toward the regime.  Just as SARG officials have used the U.S.position on Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report to shut downdiscussions on human rights, it could similarly try to use Barada TV todiminish our credibility on the issue.

Note that although the July 2009, September 2009, andFebruary 2010 cables address exactly the situation that the April 2009 cablehad warned about – that the Syrian government would find out what the U.S. wasfunding – there was no further discussion or concern expressed about what theApril 2009 cable had warned would be the likely consequence of that: that theSyrian government would conclude that the U.S. government was pursuing a regimechange policy in Syria, and this would undermine U.S. efforts to engage theSyrian government. Nor was there any further discussion of what the April 2009cable had suggested: that this funding be reviewed to bring it in line with thepolicy of engagement. 

What emerges from these cables is that while there wasundoubtedly a shift between the policy of the Bush Administration after 2005and the policy of the Obama Administration in 2009-2010 with respect to thequestion of regime change vs. engagement, the shift was substantially less thanpublicly advertised. The U.S. continued to fund opposition activities that theU.S. believed would, if known to the Syrian government, cause the Syriangovernment to believe that the U.S. was not serious about shifting to anengagement policy, and it continued to fund these activities as the U.S.increasingly came to believe that the Syrian government was become aware ofthese activities. When these activities became public, the U.S. denied thatthey amounted to a regime change policy [18], but we now know from the U.S.government’s internal communication that the U.S. did not think that the Syriangovernment would give credence to such a denial. 

This leads us to question to what extent the ObamaAdministration really shifted to a policy of engagement, or to what extent,when Saudi Arabia and others pushed it to adopt an explicit regime changepolicy in 2011 -- a shift the Administration eventually did make -- thesecountries were pushing on an open door. The story that was presented to theU.S. public was that the U.S. had tried to engage Syria and failed; and thatafter Syrian government cracked down on protests in 2011, the U.S. had nochoice but to abandon its efforts at engagement.

But reading the cables, it appears that the U.S. neverreally committed to a policy of engagement; it had one hand in the engagementpolicy, while keeping another hand in the regime change policy. The Iraniangovernment cracked down on protests in 2009, but the U.S. did not completelyabandon efforts to engage the Iranian government. Perhaps the danger of abandoningefforts at engagement with Iran were perceived to be higher, given Iran’snuclear enrichment program and the political pressure on the ObamaAdministration to use force against Iran if diplomacy failed; perhaps thebelief among the U.S. and its allies that the Syrian government could betoppled by force, and the Iranian government could not, played a role.

But knowing that the U.S. never really abandoned a regimechange policy in Syria informs our understanding of the question of U.S.military intervention in Syria today. It shows us how the U.S. is not aninnocent victim of circumstance, having to consider the use of force becausediplomacy has been exhausted; rather, the U.S. faces a situation that it helpedcreate, by pursuing regime change for years and never fully switching todiplomacy.


1. “Influencing the SARG In the End of 2006,” December 13,2006,

2. “Saudi Intelligence Chief Talks Regional Security WithBrennan Delegation,” March 22, 2009,
3. “Saudi Shia Clash With Police In Medina,” February 24, 2009,
4. “Khaddam slams Syria over row with Saudi Arabia,” Beirut Daily Star, August20, 2007,
5. “Interview with Former Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam,” AsharqAl-Awsat, Jan 6, 2006,
6. See, for example: “Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaiito Iraq,” Stephen Kinzer, Times Books, 2006.
7. “Fact Finding,” Alexander Cockburn, Village Voice, December 27, 1983,republished in Corruptions of Empire, Alexander Cockburn, Verso, 1987, p.349.

8. “Candidate Paul assigns reading to Giuliani,” Andy Sullivan,Reuters,

May 24, 2007,
9. “Ron Paul Recruits Anonymous to Attack Rudy’s Foreign Policy,” NityaVenkataraman, ABC News, May 22, 2007,

10, “U.S. Walks Out on Ahmadinejad's 9/11 Comment,” CBSNews, September 23, 2010,

11. “U.S. admits funding Syrian opposition,” CBC News, April18, 2011,

12. “Announcement To Fund Opposition Harshly Criticized ByAnti-Regime Elements, Others,” February 21, 2006,
13. “Behavior Reform: Next Steps For A Human Rights Strategy,” April 28, 2009
14. “Human Rights Updates -- SARG Budges On TIP, But Little Else,” February 7, 2010,

15. “Murky Alliances: Muslim Brotherhood, the Movement ForJustice and Democracy, and the Damascus Declaration,” July 8, 2009,
16. “Show Us the Money! SARG Suspects "Illegal" USG Funding,” September23, 2009,

17. “Human Rights Updates -- SARG Budges On TIP, But LittleElse,” February 7, 2010

18. “U.S. denies support for Syrian opposition tantamount toregime change,” Elise Labott, Brian Todd and Dugald McConnell, CNN

April 19, 2011,