Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

WikiLeaks’s Blow to the Syrian Opposition

Asked last year by a German newspaper why he exposed classified information, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange declared: “I enjoy crushing bastards.” If that is his motivation, he must not think very highly of the democratic opposition in Syria.

WikiLeaks has delivered a crushing blow to those working to bring democratic change to Damascus, exposing a classified U.S. government program to provide financial support for those working against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. In a front-page story entitled “U.S. provides secret backing to Syrian opposition,” the Washington Post reports:

The State Department has secretly financed Syrian political opposition groups and related projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-government programming into the country, according to previously undisclosed diplomatic cables… Barada TV is closely affiliated with the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based network of Syrian exiles. Classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the State Department has funneled as much as $6 million to the group since 2006 to operate the satellite channel and finance other activities inside Syria…

The U.S. money for Syrian opposition figures began flowing under President George W. Bush … [and] has continued under President Obama… It is unclear whether the State Department is still funding Syrian opposition groups, but the cables indicate money was set aside at least through September 2010… The State Department often funds programs around the world that promote democratic ideals and human rights, but it usually draws the line at giving money to political opposition groups.

If accurate, WikiLeaks has done immeasurable harm to the movement for democratic change in Syria—exposing a covert action program to undermine the tyranny of the Assad family, and giving the regime a weapon to use against Syrians struggling for freedom and democracy.

Why is the exposure of this program so damaging? According to the Post, in 2006 the United States publicly offered to provide open grants to reformers in Syria, but “no dissidents inside Syria were willing to take the money, for fear it would lead to their arrest or execution for treason.” So, according to the leaked cables, the United States established a covert program to secretly provide that funding to Syrian dissidents. By revealing the existence of that program, WikiLeaks has put at risk the lives of those who secretly accepted help from the United States, as well as those who did not accept U.S. assistance but might now be accused of doing so by the regime. This is stunningly irresponsible.

And once again, it fell to the mainstream media to redact the WikiLeaks cables. The Post reported that it is “withholding certain names and program details at the request of the State Department, which said disclosure could endanger the recipients’ personal safety.”

Since it burst onto the scene last year, WikiLeaks has exposed the identities of innocent Afghans working secretly with the United States against the Taliban; it has disclosed secret cables that undermine the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe; and now it has revealed covert U.S. support for members of the democratic opposition in Syria. Are these the “bastards” Julian Assange wants to crush? If so, he is doing a marvelous job.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to sit idly by, doing nothing in the face of WikiLeaks’s serial disclosures of America’s secrets.

Simply pathetic.

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