Among the crop of dictators and tyrants that the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, gathered around him was the leader of Syria, Bashar Assad. Before he died, Chávez asked rhetorically, “How can I not support Assad? He’s the legitimate leader.” Upon learning of Chávez’s passing, Assad mourned “a great loss to me personally and to the people of Syria.”
The relationship between Syria’s barbaric regime and the chavistas running Venezuela has survived the death of Chávez. While world opinion has reacted with shock to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, for Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked successor, it’s business as usual.
In the months prior to the latest chemical weapons atrocity, which claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people, including 400 children, Maduro was already emphasizing his loyalty to Assad. Interviewed by the French newspaper, Le Monde, this past May, Maduro was asked about his refusal to condemn Assad’s butchery. His reply dripped with contempt for the sufferings of the Syrian people. The war in Syria, Maduro explained, was the result of “foreign intervention” in the country.
Maduro then told his interviewer, as further justification for his friendship with the Syrian leader, “We have a good economic agreement with Bashar Assad.” Just how good that relationship is for the Syrian regime was revealed in June 2012, when, two days before Assad’s troops committed a horrifying massacre in the town of Houla, a Venezuelan tanker, La Negra Hipolita, docked at the Syrian port of Banias carrying 300,000 barrels of Venezuelan diesel.
Since that time, Venezuela has continued to bolster the Syrian regime. It has done so through further supplies of fuel, as well as enabling Syria’s closest international ally, Iran, to launder hundreds of millions of dollars in Venezuelan banks. These money-laundering privileges have also been extended to Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based terrorist organization that is actively assisting Assad in crushing the Syrian resistance.
Ever since Chávez came to power, the Venezuelan government has increasingly aligned itself with extremist Middle Eastern tyrants, and the government itself has been rife with pro-al Qaida and anti-Israel fanatics, some of them recent immigrants from the Middle East. One recent case in point is Adel-el-Zabayar, a well-known member of the Venezuelan National Assembly born to Syrian parents, who last week took a leave of absence to go to Syria to fight along with Assad government troops. Maduro himself proudly made the announcement and displayed el-Zabayar, bearing arms and in combat uniform, on government television.
When it comes to opposing western military intervention in Syria, Maduro is certainly not alone. As demonstrated by the recent vote in the British parliament ruling out the United Kingdom’s participation in any military operation, there’s disquiet about intervention in established democracies.
The difference, however, is this: Virtually none of the Western politicians opposing intervention in Syria has also expressed hopes for Assad’s survival. But that is exactly what Maduro and his regime want.
For that reason, the upcoming vote in Congress over the length and scope of a military operation against Assad will be closely watched not just in Arab capitals, but in Caracas, too.
At stake is not just the future of Syria, but the principle of whether and when democratic countries should intervene against dictators who grievously abuse their own people. Maduro calculates that the more authoritarian regimes there are in this world, the easier it is for his regime to survive. Venezuela’s allies include not just Syria, but the tyrannies currently in control of Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and most of all, Cuba.
All these leaders will greet a losing vote for President Obama in Congress as a welcome sign that the world’s democratic nations will permit them, when it comes to their own populations, to do exactly as they like.
Conversely, a vote for intervention will send a message to Maduro that American power and influence remains a force to be reckoned with. While this outcome is likely to increase the volume of shrill anti-American rhetoric from Maduro and his cohorts, in practical terms it will compel them to think twice before they commit an outrage.
Antonio Herrera-Vaillant is editor of Venezuelan Daily Briefs, an overview of Venezuela’s economy, finance and politics, and a columnist for Venezuelan newspapers.