WASHINGTON - TIME magazine reported Tuesday that 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.
According to TIME, parts of the scheme are outlined in a classified, two-page document which says that the US already is "supporting regular meetings of internal and Diaspora Syrian activists" in Europe.
The document, TIME said, bluntly expresses the hope that "these meetings will facilitate a more coherent strategy and plan of actions for all anti-Assad activists."
According to the report, the document says that Syria's legislative elections, scheduled for March 2007, "provide a potentially galvanizing issue for... critics of the Assad regime."
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."
TIME said 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," the report said.
TIME quoted American officials as saying that the US government has had extensive contacts with a range of anti-Assad groups in Washington, Europe and inside Syria.
'A distraction at best'The proposal has not yet been approved, in part because of questions over whether the Syrian elections will be delayed or even cancelled, the report said.
According to the TIME magazine report, 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.
The report said that according to the proposal, 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).
TIME said 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).
Edward P. Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria who worked on the Iraq Study Group report, was quoted by TIME as saying 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."
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who is co-director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma told TIME that the proposal “is really just an attempt to pressure the Syrian government" into doing what the US wants.
According to TIME, that would include blocking Syria's border with Iraq so insurgents do not cross into Iraq to kill US troops; ending funding of Hizbullah and interference in Lebanese politics; and cooperating with the UN in the investigation of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Senior Syrian government officials are considered prime suspects in Hariri case, the report said.