WASHINGTON – The Obama administration will oppose Syria's candidacy to the United Nations' top human rights body, an official said Monday, calling the Arab country's attempt to gain a seat in the organization "hypocritical" while it uses violence to try to silence protests against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime.
The diplomatic push against Assad's government comes as thousands of Syrians continue to demonstrate for democratic reforms. Human rights groups say more than 200 have been killed by security forces in a month of protests.
A State Department official said the Obama administration thinks it would be "inappropriate and hypocritical" for Syria to be elected to the U.N.'s Human Rights Council while suppressing its people's demands for democratic reforms. Syria is currently running unopposed to the 47-nation, Geneva-based body and is likely to gain a seat unless another Asian country contests the vote in late May.
The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Syria's election would send a worrying signal to the tens of thousands of Syrians who have taken to streets nationwide to protest more than four decades of autocratic governance. And it would be a disappointing regression for the council after suspending Libya's membership in March in response to strongman Moammar Gadhafi's land and aerial attacks on opponents.
Syria needs the support of half the world's governments to win a three-year membership to the council. Voting is done by region, meaning it only runs against other Asian nations. Currently, four Asian countries are running for four seats.
Also Monday, the U.S. sought to play down a report that it has been secretly financing Assad's opponents, saying American support for Syrian civil society groups was designed to promote the development of democratic institutions.
"We are not working to undermine that government," State Department spokesman Mark 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 are trying to do in countries around the globe," he said. "What's different in this situation is that the Syrian government perceives assistance as a threat to its control over the Syrian people."
The Washington Post, citing previously undisclosed diplomatic documents provided to the newspaper by the WikiLeaks website, reported that the State Department provided at least $6 million to Barada TV, a London-based satellite channel that broadcasts anti-government news into Syria. Barada's chief editor, Malik al-Abdeh, is a cofounder of the Syrian exile group Movement for Justice and Development.
The revelation is an uncomfortable one for the Obama administration as it voices its displeasure with the slow pace of reforms by Assad's government and the large numbers of demonstrators killed — which included 12 in Sunday shootings during protests and a funeral for an anti-government activist, according to Syrian human rights campaigners. The U.S. does not want to lend any credence to suggestions that it is somehow driving the unrest, fearful of providing Syrian government a pretext for its harsh crackdown.
Domestically, the administration has faced criticism from Republican lawmakers for sending an ambassador to Damascus in January after the post had been left unfilled for five years. Asked what concrete accomplishments the increased engagement with Syria has derived, Toner said Ambassador Robert Ford has pressed the Syrian government on a number of situations but he could not point to any particular success.