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How South America became an objective ally of the Assad regime

June 1, 2016 at 1:03 pm

One would have expected from young democracies some empathy towards the Syrian uprising. However, South American governments have shown indifference at best, if not explicit support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Earlier rapprochement with Assad

After long decades of cordial but limited relations, several South American countries got closer to Syria’s regime in the context of ASPA (South America – Arab Countries), an interregional framework for cooperation launched by Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in 2005. For Bashar Al-Assad, the platform provided a good opportunity to break the isolation imposed on Syria by Western powers.

Lula’s Brazil was meant to help this process, as the country had abstained a year earlier from voting for UN Security Council resolution 1559 that called upon “foreign forces” to withdraw from Lebanon and to cease intervening in the internal politics of the state; this was an implicit reference to Syria. Brazilian diplomacy had justified its position by declaring that it considered the resolution “harmful” for “the stability of the region”. Although the country would subsequently align with Western powers, Brazil’s viewpoint was interpreted by Syrian diplomats as a good precedent. They were right; Syria successfully obtained the inclusion in Brasilia’s ASPA Final Declaration (2005) of a paragraph condemning the unilateral US sanctions adopted against the Assad regime in December 2003. This stance was reaffirmed in 2009 in the Doha Declaration on the occasion of ASPA’s Second Summit of Heads of State and Government.

Syria’s anti-imperialist rhetoric sounded attractive to Latin American left-wing governments. In June 2007, Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) signed an agreement in Damascus with the Syrian Ba’ath to “encourage exchanges and visits”, “try to co-ordinate views” in international forums and “strengthen cooperation between popular organisations and representatives of civil society.” Likewise, the then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez saw rapprochement with Syria as the natural extension of his country’s new alliance with Iran and growing antagonism towards Israel. In 2006, Chávez and Assad issued a joint declaration stating that they were “firmly united against imperialist aggression and hegemonic intentions of the United States.” As evidence of this new partnership, Chávez visited Syria three times, in August 2006, September 2009 and October 2010.

In June 2010, Bashar Al-Assad embarked on a landmark Latin American tour in order to encourage bilateral economic exchanges and attract investment. The Syrian president was received with full honours in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba. Dozens of agreements were signed, covering agriculture, the oil industry and tourism. That same year, Syria joined ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas – a regional integration process launched by the governments of the radical left) as an “allied member”.

Between alleged equidistance and explicit support for the Syrian regime

After six years of strengthened relations with the regime, Syria’s popular uprising took South American governments by surprise. Pro-democracy movements in the Arab world clearly echoed the region’s own process of democratisation three decades ago. As an unprecedented wave of repression was hitting unarmed demonstrators, South American diplomats seemed confused over the attitude to take towards the Syrian regime.

Nevertheless, the narrative that Syria was struggling against a conspiracy to bring down the “anti-imperialist” Assad regime quickly gained support. In a context of growing criticism over NATO involvement in Libya, most South American governments became more concerned by the possibility of Western military intervention in Syria than by the brutal crackdown organised by the regime against the protesters. In June 2011, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota warned that Syria and Libya were incomparable since, “unlike Muammar Gaddafi”, Assad was showing “a desire for dialogue and to promote electoral reforms.” Brazil was, in fact, trying to establish a diplomatic initiative in that direction with its Indian and South African partners. Accordingly, at the beginning of October 2011, Brazil abstained alongside India, South Africa and Lebanon from voting for the US and European-led resolution proposing new sanctions against Syria; the measure was in any case vetoed by Russia and China.

This same distrust against interventionism also explains why all South American countries strongly supported Russia’s plan to “remove and destroy” Syrian chemical weapons, allowing the Ba’athist regime to avoid punitive US strikes in response to the Ghouta chemical attack of 2013 which killed hundreds of people, including children. The then Presidents of Brazil — Dilma Rousseff — and Argentina — Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — were vocal opponents of a possible military intervention in Syria, which could, according to them, only “add more horror to the horrors.”

Brazil and Argentina proclaimed strict equidistance, with a symmetrical condemnation of violence on both sides, and a call for the resumption of a political dialogue. For instance, Brazil did not join any of the meetings of the “Friends of Syria Group” launched in 2012 by France to support the Syrian opposition, although it started as a very broad coalition with no clear mission. In contrast, Brazilian diplomats attended Geneva II in January 2014, in the presence this time of Russia and representatives of both the opposition and the Ba’athist regime.

However, this alleged neutrality often tends to slide towards tacit support for Assad. Brazil’s alliance with Russia within the BRICS grouping certainly contributes to that. The final declaration of the VII BRICS Summit in 2015 expressed its members’ support for Russian policy in Syria. While not saying a word about the crimes of the Assad regime, the BRICS governments “condemn[ed] in the strongest terms terrorism in all its forms […] committed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Al-Nusrah Front and associated terrorist groups.” Their selective indignation and vague definition of who are these “associated terrorist groups” are was replicated in Brazilian Foreign Ministry press releases. Since the beginning of 2016 for instance, Brazilian diplomats have successively condemned Daesh attacks in Deir ez Zor, the Sayeda Zeinab district (south of Damascus), Jableh and Tartus – all under the control of the regime – but maintained a deafening silence on the Russian and Syrian bombing campaign against Aleppo, despite the deliberate destruction of hospitals, schools and bakeries. Brasilia has in reality developed a two-faced diplomacy, which supports the work and conclusions of the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, first led by Brazilian Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, while maintaining relations with the Syrian government, despite its state policy of massacres and unlawful killings of civilians.

Venezuela has gone much further. Since December 2011, the country has opposed all of the UN General Assembly resolutions criticising the Syrian government. To help the Ba’athist regime to deal with sanctions, the state-owned oil company (PDVSA) provided two shipments of 300,000 barrels each in 2012 when Syria was in urgent need of fuel. As expected, but in clear contradiction of the principles of non-intervention, Venezuela explicitly supported the military campaign that Russia initiated in Syria in September 2015, allegedly against Daesh.

The influence of the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora

Anti-imperialism and non-interventionism constitute two crucial components of South American foreign policies towards Syria, and this explains why left-wing governments have been leading the rapprochement with Assad. However, ideology alone does not explain this.

The influence of some segments of the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora is another major variable. It is no coincidence that the three countries that have adopted the most visible foreign policy on Syria also host the largest communities of Syrian and Lebanese descent, which have a long history in Latin America. In the early 1860s, a significant number of Syrians and Lebanese started to migrate to the Americas. The majority were either Christians or other minorities which were discriminated against under the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the demographic boom in the Middle East and the lack of work encouraged many more to emigrate for economic purposes. A massive wave of Syrian and Lebanese migration to South America took place between the 1860s and the 1950s. A significant portion of those immigrants and their descendants are today well represented among the political and economic elites of their host countries.

Largely detached from Syrian politics for decades – although a small group of activists of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the Ba’ath used to maintain transnational political ties – both the visit of Bashar Al-Assad in 2010 and the war have triggered an unprecedented politicisation of this diaspora. The Syrian president’s Latin American tour was then part of a larger strategy to connect with Syrian-heritage communities worldwide, as evidenced by the creation in 2002 of the Ministry of Expatriates (Wazara Al-Mughtaribun), which eventually merged into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants in April 2011. Assad’s visit paved the way for regime propaganda; the war and its atrocities did the rest.

Mostly dominated by Christians, and to a lesser extent by Shia Muslims (Twelvers from Lebanon and Alawites from Syria), Arab and Syrian-Lebanese institutions in Latin America have reproduced the sectarian lines of the conflict in Syria. The Federation of Arab Entities (FEARAB) in Brazil and Argentina became vocal supporters of the regime, usually qualifying it as “progressive”, “secular” and “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” Demonstrations of support for Assad or “for Syria” have been staged in São Paulo and in Buenos Aires, while prominent members of FEARAB have disseminated the regime’s narrative among their elite networks.

The tiny Arab Sunni community in Latin America has also tried to make itself heard in defence of the Syrian opposition. However, loosely organised and with a poor political network, it has remained quite invisible.

The Syrian-Lebanese diaspora plays an even more direct role in Venezuela. Adel Al-Zebayar, an MP of the ruling PSUV, is not only of Syrian origin and president of the Federation of Arab Entities (FEARAB) of Venezuela, but is also an influential adviser to the Executive in matters of foreign policy. In 2013, he left the country for several months to go to Syria to join the “Popular Resistance Brigades” that support Assad. The FEARAB also counts among its directors Ammar Jabour, another government official who officiates as “Director of Coordination of Culture and Solidarity with the Peoples” at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is the brother of Yul Jabour, a legislator of the Communist Party (a PSUV ally) and the Chairman of the Parliamentary Syria-Venezuela Friendship Group and the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly. He organises or participates in most of the events supporting the Syrian regime in Venezuela.

Despite appearances, it would be misleading to think that right-wing governments in Latin America would bring a 180 degree perspective shift regarding the Syrian issue. Michel Temer, Brazil’s interim President who took office after a controversial process of impeachment against the democratically-elected President Dilma Rousseff, is himself of Lebanese ancestry. He also has strong ties with the Syrian-Lebanese organisations and certainly shares their views on Assad. Rumours have surfaced recently that he is about to reopen the Brazilian Embassy in Damascus, which was closed in July 2012 for security reasons.

A Pavlovian conditioning of a region long beset with US interventions of its own, this anti-intervention principle has made Latin American democracies blind to the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of their own government. While the voices of Latin American intellectuals and activists who are critical of Bashar Al-Assad are rare, the proclaimed equidistance from some South American diplomats has, in effect, turned the region into an objective ally of the Damascus regime.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.