Damascus will continue to maintain ties with the countries south of the US, regardless of Washington's objections
By Sami Moubayed, Special to Gulf News
In April 1952, Syria's Ambassador to Buenos Aries, Zaki Al Jabi, marched into Casa Rosada to decorate the very charismatic and popular Argentine First Lady Eva Peron with the medal of honour of the Syrian Republic, for her extraordinary merit in promoting humanitarian affairs. Many in Syria questioned the wisdom of this action, claiming that Argentina was too removed from the complex affairs of the Middle East. President Adib Al Shishakli reportedly replied that while this might be the case then, Argentina would soon play a vital role in the region if not politically then economically. He said Syria should always be on the lookout for potential allies and partners.
His words have proved true today, 58-years later, as President Bashar Al Assad lands in Latin America for a state visit that takes him to Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil and Argentina.
Syrian-Latin American relations are not a new development. The late president Hafez Al Assad visited Cuba in 1979, where he met Fidel Castro, during the heyday of his power in Havana. Nine years ago, Castro himself landed in Damascus to meet with Bashar Al Assad, followed by Hugo Chavez, who twice visited Syria, most recently in September 2009, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who visited in December 2003. The most celebrated hero of Latin America, Che Guevara, had himself been to Syria in 1959, and praised its role as a champion of the Third World.
In the first phase of the current visit, Al Assad was warmly received by his Venezuelan counterpart Chavez, who promised to work with the Arab world to fight America's imperialist and capitalist interests. Chavez, who is a thorn in the flesh of the US, presented Al Assad with a gold-plated replica of a sword that once belonged to Latin America's independence hero Simon Bolivar, who inspired the Bolivian Revolution. The two countries hope to boost bilateral trade and create a $100 million (Dh367.8 million) fund for development, and signed nine cooperation agreements, in addition to establishing a joint olive-oil refinery. Al Assad praised his host for speaking out for his country, adding, President Chavez and I utterly agree on supporting resistance and the right to resist for all peoples whose rights is violated and lands occupied.
In Brazil, the Syrian delegation is expected to sign technology agreements in addition to boosting trade, given that Brazil already supplies sugar to Syria. Besides Sao Paulo is the world’s second city with the largest Syrian population after Damascus. In Argentina, the trade volume already stands at $158 million (Dh580 million) and the two countries are expected to sign agreements on tourism, culture, transportation and prevention of double taxation. Additionally, Argentine exports to Syria have increased by 75% over the past two years. The Syrian community in Argentina, an estimated two million people (13% of residents of Buenos Aires), is fully backing the surge in bilateral relations.
Politically, one common denominator among these Latin American countries is their support for Syria's right to regain the occupied Golan Heights. All of them, additionally, are vocal supporters of the Palestinians. Chavez severed his country's diplomatic relations with Israel during the Gaza war of 2008, while Cuba does not even recognize the state of Israel. These rising nations Brazil in particular have developed a newfound interest in the Middle East, and Brazil’s Lula da Silva famously tried to broker a uranium exchange deal between Turkey and Iran last month, which was opposed by the United States.
The Obama administration is unimpressed with these Latin American countries showing an interest in the Middle East. In December, Hillary Clinton famously warned these countries not to flirt with Iran. They should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them. And we hope that they will think twice and we will support them if they do, she added.
In encouraging Latin American countries' desire to venture into the Middle East and building bridges with the immigrant community in Latin America, Syria is keeping all doors to Damascus wide open. In 2005-2009, it realized that the outside world does not end at the gates of London, Paris and Washington, DC. There is an entire universe out there, filled with heavyweight players willing to step into the oversized shoes of the western world. At one point, the policy was to head East, to build bridges with Malaysia, China, India, and Russia. These countries were willing — eager in fact — to engage with Damascus without political conditions. Now, although relations with the UK, US and France have improved, Syria does not want to put all its eggs in the same basket. It wants the international community to realize that it can have excellent relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US and Cuba — all simultaneously. Being close to one country does not mean severing ties with another, just because that is the wish of the Obama administration.
Syria's relationship with Cuba may not please the US, but then Syria is not impressed that Avigodor Liebermann is welcome in Washington
(*) Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.
President Bashar al-Assad visits Argentina and Brazil this week on a tour to boost Syria's political and economic standing. Many Syrian expats in the region, which has long attracted those looking for work, have become wealthy.
By Sarah Birke, The Christian Science Monitor Correspondent / June 29, 2010
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is touring Latin America in a bid to boost the country's economic and political standing as renewed relations with the US and Europe prove less fruitful than Syria had hoped.
With a rapidly increasing population and an ambitious plan for reform, Syria plans to invest 130 billion US dollars by 2015, 77 billion USD of which is earmarked to come from the private sector. Many Syrians who emigrated to Venezuela – where Mr. Assad stopped this weekend – and Argentina and Brazil, which he will visit this week, have become rich.
“This visit is predominantly to attract investment,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian economic analyst and author of the liberal news site All4Syria. “Latin America is an obvious choice because of the wealthy expatriate community.”
Syria has long enjoyed good relations with the continent, which has attracted Syrian emigrants in search of work since the 18th century. With so many people of Arab descent, Damascus hopes Latin America countries can help alleviate its trade deficit, which reached a record 4 billion USD in 2008.
Syria is particularly interested in Venezuela's oil industry. Syria's oil reserves have long been declining, while Venezuela has some of the biggest reserves outside the US. The two countries already have plans for a joint refinery.
Syria has boosted its regional standing in the past year, as relations with Turkey, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia have all flourished in the past year. But Assad is looking to broaden his country's clout beyond the Middle East.
As the US stalls on its appointment of a new ambassador and an Association Agreement with the European Union fell through, Damascus has looked to align with rising powers in the developing world. A key emerging ally is Brazil, which together with Turkey helped broker an Iran nuclear fuel swap deal this spring.
“Brazil has become a major world player and the Latin American countries have assisted the Arabs both practically and rhetorically,” says Mr. Abdel Nour.
Yesterday [Sunday] Assad called on Brazil to help broker a Mideast peace deal.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is also a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights and part of a coalition of countries that seek to challenge what they see as Western – especially US – hegemony.
Sizing up Assad's visit
This is Assad's first trip to Latin America and analysts are assessing how far his goals will be achieved.
In Venezuela, Chávez and Assad signed an agreement for a 100 million USD trade and development fund as well as a host of bilateral agreements. Argentine diplomats in Damascus said bilateral agreements would be signed during Assad's visit to Buenos Aires.
Politically non-Western countries are in ascendancy, with Syria being embraced both regionally and internationally.
Syria has received visits from Latin American leaders. On taking office in 2001, Assad was visited by Cuba's leader at the time, Fidel Castro. Chávez and Brazilian President Lula da Silva have also both visited Syria