THE US State Department has been secretly financing opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even as the Obama administration has tried to reach out to the autocratic leader’s regime.

The Washington Post, citing previously undisclosed diplomatic documents provided by WikiLeaks, reported yesterday that one of the US-funded organisations was London-based Barada TV, a satellite channel that beams anti-government programming into the country. Barada’s chief editor, Malik al-Abdeh, is a co-founder of the Syrian exile group Movement for Justice and Development. The station has been broadcasting since April 2009, the Post reported, but has ramped up its operations to cover the protests in Syria as part of a long-standing campaign to overthrow Mr Assad. The channel is named after the Barada River, which flows through Damascus, the capital.

The leaked documents show that the US has provided at least $US6 million to Barada TV and other opposition groups inside Syria. According to the report, the US money for Syrian opposition figures began flowing under president George W. Bush after he effectively froze political ties with Damascus in 2005.

The funding has continued even while the Obama administration has reached out to Mr Assad, hoping to persuade him to change its policies regarding Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and support for extremist groups. In January, the US stationed its first ambassador in Damascus for five years.

The Post said it was not clear from the WikiLeaks documents whether the US was still financing Mr Assad’s opponents, though they showed funding had been set aside up to September last year.

The cables show diplomats were concerned that the funds might damage Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Damascus. Syrian authorities “would undoubtedly view any US funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change”, says an April 2009 cable.

Syrian activists have been staging protests against Mr Assad’s authoritarian regime for more than a month. More than 200 people have been killed as security forces tried to crush the protests.

On Sunday, gunmen opened fire during a funeral for a slain anti-government protester, killing at least four people and wounding at least 50, according to witnesses and activists.

Tens of thousands of Syrians took to the streets nationwide, despite Mr Assad’s promise to end nearly 50 years of emergency rule this week, a key demand of the protesters.

Emergency law in force since 1963 restricts public gatherings and movement, authorises the interrogation of any individual and the monitoring of private communications and imposes media censorship.

In a televised address to the new cabinet charged with launching reforms, Mr Assad also expressed his sorrow over the deaths of an estimated 200 people in a month of protests demanding greater freedoms.

Last week, the US State Department said Iran appeared to be helping Syria crack down on protesters, calling it a troubling example of Iranian meddling in the region. “If Syria’s turning to Iran for help, it can’t be very serious about real reform,” spokesman Mark Toner said.

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