“Syria in Bush’s Crosshairs: MEPI Money” by Adam Zagorin

ADAM ZAGORIN writing in Time Magazine, Syria in Bush's Crosshairs, was leaked a classified document explaining the strategy behind the MEPI money that has been allocated to boost the Syrian opposition. Most of the money seems to have been well spent. Ammar Abdulhamid, who is the only recipient of the MEPI money named in the report, is an honest and capable democracy advocate. What is more, he has from the beginning been very forthright about receiving MEPI money, having announced his successful application at a number of public forums. He is using it to expand the excellent work of the Tharwa Project, an on-line think tank that researches minority affairs and other Middle East problems and which brings together some of the best intellectuals working in the region. 

There were only a small number of Syrian opposition figures who could or would accept US money for their efforts. The combative political relationship between Damascus and Washington makes it very difficult for anyone inside Syria to take US money.  Farid Ghadry Speaking at JINSA

Here is the story: "Exclusive: A classified document suggests the Administration is considering a plan to fund political opposition to the Damascus government. Some critics say it would be an unwarranted covert action."

Tuesday, Dec. 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 which 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. Ammar Abdulhamid

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 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 GOP. 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 underway 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."  

Addendum (Dec. 20, 2006): The following note was sent to me by an old Mid East CIA hand:

This story may qualify speculative ideas about impending covert action (of the coup d'etat variety) against Syria.  It suggests that "democracy promotion" (albeit with a strong covert action component) may be considered a more promising course, at least for the time being.  Still, the consequences of such tactics could be critically damaging to the prospects of engaging Syria constructively in the region — and, on a much larger scale, to America's credibility and moral standing everywhere.  Disclosure that the U.S. is planning to provide covert support to specific individuals or parties in a "free and democratic election" in an Arab country would have the effect, it seems obvious to me, of tarnishing the results of any other democratic elections held anywhere in the region —  like Iraq and Palestine, for instance, where the legitimacy of elected governments is crucial to the success of President Bush's strategic plans.  Covert action of this sort does not work out to the benefit of either democratic institution-building or of U.S. credibility in the long run, believe me.  I know this from personal experience.  I've been there, and done that. As I have said openly elsewhere, it has created long-lasting legacies of distrust and cynicism among Arabs toward American intentions and actions, as well as toward our professed political ideals.  It has poisoned America's image and undermined higher national objectives in several places in the Middle East over the past decades.

Comments (24)

Ehsani2 said:

The Bashar/Maher/Asef team is unlikely to lose sleep over such a plan to destabilize their hold on power.

December 20th, 2006, 5:23 pm


ausamaa said:

Well, here is a very reassuring statement:

“There were only a small number of Syrian opposition figures who could or would accept US money for their efforts”.

I read that as:There are not many Syrian Traitors Inside and OUTSIDE Syria.

A lot of people in Syria want Democracy, civil liberties, modern economic system, prosperity and overall reform.But there is a Red Line. And there is no escaping the fact that to accept monies from a self-declared adversary , who is the “main” ally and the “stunchest supporter” of your country’s national enemy is equal to being a Traitor.

Syrians can Change Syria without the need to receive such bad-intentioned and miss-guided help. There is better ways and more direct approaches to help good causes in the area than “acting” as if the US Admin is supporting those causes by funds that fall far short from the cost of a “single 500lb bomb” of the millions of Israeli and US bombs that have been dropped by the same “supporter of democracy” on the people of the whole area.

I am indeed very happy to read that statement above.

December 20th, 2006, 5:30 pm


Ehsani2 said:

Incidentally, if the total budget is $ 5 million, surely the NSF (with the well-off Khaddam as a member) can self-finance this endevour without U.S. help. Better still, one young Saudi Emir can pick up such a paltry tab without even noticing the reduced sum in his bank account.

If the opposition is in real need of $ 5 million to finance its plans, then my advice for them would be to quit and take up something else to fill in the time and cool off their frustrations (perhaps painting?)

December 20th, 2006, 5:50 pm


Alex said:

My question is the following:

Why would anyone leak this report? if it is true that “democracy fighters” in Syrian opposition will be weakened if this information in made public (it is now), then who is hte “evil” man, or woman, who leaked it?

The truth is probably that “they” want the information to be public, and that the million dollars paid reflect the low value they attach to the probability of success of such an experiment … I think they just want to use it, along with “leaking” (or circulating) other similar information lately, to remind the confident Syrians that things can get ugly if necessary.

December 20th, 2006, 6:16 pm


Innocent_Criminal said:


I wouldn’t call it treachery. but being politically astute. any oposition member with half a brain knows a “visible” would mean political suicide inside Syria. Many Syrians might hate their goverment, but they hate America’s even more

December 20th, 2006, 6:41 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

if president Lahoud,in Lebanon ,has the power to dissolve the goverment,why does he not do it?

December 20th, 2006, 7:03 pm


George Ajjan said:

Ehsani is correct. Khaddam had been a practicing attorney in Syria since 1958, and on that basis should be able to self-fund these efforts.

December 20th, 2006, 8:02 pm


Karim said:

It’s very important to finish with this assadist regime but not at any price,the national salvation front and damascus declaration are the less bad choice at this time,the regime is based on a small minority and is not able to reform itself,the alawites and baathists will not be slaughtered,I Believe that Change without blood is possible in Syria.The best scenario is a “coup d etat” ,then a democratic transition as it happened in Mauretania.

December 20th, 2006, 8:39 pm


Jason said:

Why are you publishing classified information? Why isn’t the person who gave you this information being prosocuted for releasing classified information to a reporter? We have a right to know what our government is doing, this doesn’t mean we have to know about classified operations.

December 20th, 2006, 8:56 pm


Ford Prefect said:

I agree with Innocent Criminal. How can the Syrian people digest – let alone embrace – the idea of a democracy financed and supported by the US? While Syrians are suffering politically, economically and lack basic freedoms and liberty, they still have pride and intelligence. Syrians will self-correct when they have to, they don’t need the help of outsiders and certainly not from this pictured opportunist (Ghadry) who is living in a $6M home in Maryland. Give the Syrian a break – they managed through all sorts of hardships for thousands of years.

December 20th, 2006, 9:00 pm


Ehsani2 said:

Syria’s tourism ministry signed an agreement with the UAE’S Al Futtaim group to develop a $ 1 billion complete tourism city in the disctrict of Sabboura (15 km west of Damascus).The project will include hotels, apartments, restaurents, shopping centres as well as sports and cultural facilities. The land size is close to 1 million sq. meters.

December 20th, 2006, 9:10 pm


John Kilian said:

Jason wrote “Why are you publishing classified information? ”

Sanctioned leaks of classified information are a part of any administration’s policy. It might be bait for Assad to crack down on opponents, and stir up more opposition in the process. There are certainly a good many people in the neocon sphere who are not pleased with any outreach to Damascus. The elections coming up in 2007 may provide some good PR for Assad, although not much democratic reform, in all likelihood.

It will be interesting to see if Assad’s henchmen can resist the temptation to come down like a hammer on these “traitors”. When a hammer is all you have in your toolbox, everything looks like a nail.

December 20th, 2006, 9:32 pm


Mike said:

Jason, don’t I have a right to know how my tax dollars are being spent? Specificially if my tax dollars are being used for stupid purposes like this, which will get us nowhere and spark more anger in Syria and not advance the interests of peace at all?

And a lot of things are classified. Like the NSA wiretapping program that listens in on our phone calls and who knows what else. Does that mean I shouldn’t be able to know about this illegal program, in the interests of bureaucratic procedure?

December 20th, 2006, 9:42 pm


Ford Prefect said:

By the way, wouldn’t it be more advisable for the US administration to spend its precious dollars on establishing freedom and liberties in Saudi Arabia instead of Syria? After all, if any country is in desperate need for “repair”, Saudi Arabia will top the list – the most backward, awkward, regressive, and repressive country on Earth. And besides, Saudi Arabia is a friend of the US already – so shouldn’t US democracy just rub in easily on its friends? When done with Saudi Arabia, how about heading directly to Egypt?

December 20th, 2006, 9:59 pm


t_desco said:

U.S. may send second carrier to Mideast Gulf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. command responsible for Middle East operations has asked the Pentagon to add a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf region as a warning to Syria and Iran and to help it carry out other operations, a senior defense official said on Wednesday.

The war-fighting Central Command wants the carrier strike group and its warplanes by end-March for “deterrence” and to increase “flexibility,” including for potential noncombat operations, said the official who asked not be to be named.

Syria was also a factor in the request, the official told Reuters, “in the vein of deterrence.” In addition, the Central Command considered it useful for dealing with possible contingencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.

(my emphasis)

Kerry meets Syria’s Assad, urges U.S. talks with Damascus

Sen. John Kerry emerged from his meeting Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad even more resolute in his belief the United States must begin talks with Damascus as it seeks a solution to the turmoil in Iraq.

“I feel quite confident in saying this was a conversation worth having and that the (Bush) administration ought to pursue it,” Kerry said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Jerusalem, where he traveled after meeting with Assad in Syria. “I feel very strongly about that. … It’s worth following up on a number of avenues.”

“We explored the whys and wherefores of a number of the choices he’s been making,” said Kerry of the Assad meeting.

Kerry said he and Dodd “tried to understand what (Assad) might or might not be prepared to do” in relation to Iraq.

“I certainly came away with a sense that it’s worth pursuing as a dialogue,” Kerry said. “It’s worth following up on, on a number of avenues. It certainly validated the judgment of the Iraq Study Group.”

December 21st, 2006, 12:31 am


majedkhaldoun said:

President Bush said, more sacrifices are needed in Iraq, John abo zaid and four other general will leave in march

December 21st, 2006, 1:50 am


number6 said:

Governments in trouble always start leaking.

I would suggest that the leaking of this report is a part of the struggle between the beleagered White House neocons, and some saner elements in the State Dept. The White House advisors will be desperate to divert attention from Iraq by scoring a minor success elsewhere, while the State Dept elements will be trying to stop further additions to the foreign policy mess they will have to clean up after November 2008.

The measures identified would HAVE to be secret, otherwise they would be a gift to the Syrian Government, allowing them to portray the opposition as being in the pockets of USA. Imagine Bashar on national tv, brandishing a copy of Time, and asking the opposition to come clean on how much support they’ve received from George W. It also demonstrates just how totally delusional the White House has become, if it thinks that such a plan could be carried off. Leaking it now gives the game away, before it can do lasting damage.

Bush is clearly at a loss on what to do next. The risk is that in an effort to save face in Iraq, he will extend the Iraq disaster to neighbouring countries.

December 21st, 2006, 2:25 am


bashmann said:

I’m afraid Senator Kerry’s wishful thinking about the Bush administration pursuing any type of coversation with Syria is pure fantasies. It does seem that Bush is intent on keeping up the pressure on the Assad regime which will only worsen the overall objectives of the United States in the region.

December 21st, 2006, 2:42 am


Alex said:

I would suggest that the leaking of this report is either a part of the struggle between the White House, and some elements in the State Dept, or:

The only value from the symbolic 1 million dollar excercise is this “leak” type of pressure on the Syrians … to remind them of the other things that the Americans and Saudis can do to them if things get really bad. For now it is a harmless million dollars to Ammar, but if Syria continues to oppose the United States and if Bashar continues to call the Saudi King a “half man”, then there are other more serious options … anything up to the 1979-1982 scenario.

On any case, the Syrians have been in this business for decades, if these are pressure tactics, they are usless. Senator Kerry is now another Syrian ambassador in DC … we’ll see which way things go … for sure it will be a very dynamic 90 ahead.

December 21st, 2006, 3:39 am


ivanka said:

Yes to freedome and democracy. No to chaos and no to an American dictator a la Jordanienne or Saudienne.

I have not asked a single person but I know 90% of Syrians will agree with this.

Karim I agree with you that the Mauretanian scenario is the best one possible.

December 21st, 2006, 6:56 pm


Ahmad said:

to ford expert
did you see this
in Damasuc
hope everyone can read Arabic

December 22nd, 2006, 4:36 am


ausamaa said:

BTW, it just hit me now, what a nice Title for the aticle above:

“Syria in Bush’s Cross Hairs”.

Is that so? Lets examine it in plain terms:

For Syria, the worst is over. The US is in no position to take any action against either Syria or Iran save for the remote possibility of the whole US Chiefs of Staff getting together in a wild party with POTUS and Chenny and decide late at night and after they have gone through a considerable ammount of alcohol to ATTACK SYRIA and/or IRAN. First practical problems they will face once they get over the hangover are two simple ones: Where would the troops come from. What would happen to Oil supplies?

Bewildered and disoriented Israel also does not seem to be in any mode to really consider Attacking Syria. The opposit is more true perhaps despite all the bravado coming from Israeli and Western strategic and military analysts ( BTW, that is the Detterance President Hafez Al Assad wanted for those with long memory). There you have it.

The pro-US Arab regiems are running scared to salvage what they can before the bushfire spreads to their own countries after they lost all thier political regional influence and popular credibility. They are scrambling to find face saving solutions after they discovered that they have actually gotten themselves a pair of shoes two sizes larger than their size, and that the “deterrent” US power which encouraged them to mingle with, and to risk taking on the tough guys can not get them out of the deep mess it got them into. They have their own dangerous powder kegs which need a small detonator, they have the pictures of the millions on Beirut streets which are really frieghtening to them. And they have their old handmade Al Qaida and Al Zarqawi crazies they helped to create.

Iraq is up in flames and no solution seems possible apart from a multi national conference supported by Iran and Syria’s “willingliness” to calm things down. No Syria and Iran; no chance for peace in Iraq. The major forces in Iraq are Shieats, Baathists and Kurds. Syria and Iran with Turkey’s help can control those three players with the use of strong Iraqi leaders (what is Wafeeq Al Sammerai and Izzat Al Duri doing now by the way?). Al Qaida stuff is a marginal issue that can be solved in a short time by them; in reality it is a non-issue for Syria and Iran once they decide that the game is over for such scum. May be they do not hold all the ropes, but they hold enough to control the multitude of Iraqi militias should they really wish to if the US wants to play clean.

Palestine is at the brink of chaos which will have severe consequences on Jordan and Israel first and foremost. And many “on the ground” ropes are in Syria’s hands.

Lebanon proved incapable of falling totally in the US hands despite the Syrian withdrawl. Should things get hot, Israel, France, Saudi and of course the US will take the blow. Syria is watching from the sidelines for the “suitable” code word to “accept” to interfere and help stabilize what the US has unstabilized.

The imagined “threat” to Syria from the 14th Feb International Tribunal scame is practically the least of its worries. And Russia and China are there should things “become” serious after three or four years. How long did the Lockerby thing take? And the result was…????

So, save from the “wild party option” I mentioned first, things are rather fine and ok for Syria. At worst, there is no Imminent and Present danger as they say. Ask Blair, Jhon Kerry and Baker-Hamilton and the ones to follow. Never mind Bush’s recent consistant refusal to talk to Syria. People have their pride after all, you know. And it takes a while to get over past grudges. Anyway, when are the US presidential elections scheduled for???

So, who is in whose cross hairs???

Of course many of you gentelmen may not see it that way. Or accept that it is really that way. Problem is, How Else Would You “Like” to See It?

December 22nd, 2006, 2:24 pm


SyriaComment » Archives » US Arms Surrogates said:

[…] More disturbing signs that Eliot Abrams and company at the NSA are pushing ahead with a new policy to build up surrogate allies to combat the surrogates of Iran and Syria, such as Hizballah and Hamas. Perhaps 2007 will bring us little proxy wars across the region? Here are two articles explaining how may work. For more on this see previous posts, here and here. […]

January 3rd, 2007, 5:33 am


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