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Middle East

Syrian regime finds rare friends in Latin America

Mokdad speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela.

MEXICO CITY: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government doesn’t have many allies left in the world, but it’s been enjoying support in Latin America this week from some leftist leaders who see a fellow challenger to United States power in their Middle Eastern counterpart.

During trips to Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal al-Mokdad, received mostly symbolic backing for his government’s 20-month battle against rebels.

More than anything, just the fact that Mokdad visited minor international players such as Ecuador shows how isolated Syria has become on the world stage, as accusations of indiscriminate killing of civilians by Syrian forces draw widespread condemnation, said Anthony Skinner, Middle East-North Africa chief at the British risk analysis firm Maplecroft.

Through an interpreter, Mokdad said in Venezuela Tuesday that he also visited Nicaragua and Cuba. Those two governments had yet to confirm the itinerary.

“I don’t see these states as being particularly pivotal or significant,” Skinner said of Mokdad’s Latin American trip. “I would see this as a reflection that the regime in Damascus is feeling the heat and is trying to broaden its support.”

Assad still enjoys the backing of two major world players, Russia and China, who hold permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, and his government remains friendly with longtime ally Iran. But Assad has become a pariah in much of the world, with even his regional neighbors mostly distancing themselves. The fighting in Syria has so far claimed some 40,000 lives.

Chavez has gone even further than his neighbors to prop up Assad, sending at least three shipments of diesel oil to the Syrian government, which is straining under economic embargos imposed by the United States and the European Union.

Depending on the amount of diesel being shipped, Venezuela’s aid could provide a real boost to the Assad government, said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Diesel fuels practically all of Syria’s vehicles and much of its industrial base, Tabler said.

Mokdad said Tuesday that he brought a private message for Chavez from Assad but didn’t reveal the contents of the message.

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino met with the diplomat Sunday and said it was important for Ecuador to hear directly from the Syrian government about its perspective on the conflict.

Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry summarized Patino’s remarks in a statement, saying he hopes the crisis may be resolved in a way “that responds to the interests and will of the Syrian people, without foreign interference.”

Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American studies professor at Florida International University in Miami, said the pro-Syria bloc in Latin America down to a shared aversion for Washington. All four Latin American countries visited by Mokdad belong to the ALBA regional alliance, which has billed itself as an alternative to U.S. power.

Chavez was also a vocal supporter of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and has cultivated ties to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has followed a similar itinerary while mustering Latin American solidarity.

“When the rest of the world is condemning human rights atrocities there, both Chavez and [Bolivian President] Evo Morales and even now [Ecuadorean President Rafael] Correa have had no qualms about meeting with these people,” Gamarra said of their support for Syria. “This group of Latin American countries could ostensibly be their largest and most vocal support.”

The same group of countries has already shown itself willing to break from the international pack to champion unpopular causes, said James Lockhart Smith, chief Latin America analyst at Maplecroft. Venezuela and Nicaragua are the only countries apart from Russia and the Pacific states of Naura, Vanuatu and Tuvalu that recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regions that broke away from the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

“What draws them together perhaps is this anti-America, anti-European, or anti-Western bias,” Gamarra said of the Latin America bloc.

As for Chavez and his allies, Gamarra said, “there’s really nothing that they gain from that relationship other than, you know, ‘Me, too’ against the U.S.”

For the Syrian government, the allies it still has can be helpful diplomatic defenders.

“They may believe that if they can mount a significant coalition of supporters worldwide that they can stymie a little bit the effort to get them out of power,” Gamarra said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 30, 2012, on page 8.

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