Andres Oppenheimer: Venezuela keeps rooting for Syrian dictator

September 19, 2013 

Much of the world is demanding greater pressure on Syria following a United Nations inspectors' report hinting that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in his country's civil war, but -- amazingly -- Venezuela and some of its Latin American allies are still passionately defending Syria's dictator.

Earlier this week, after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon presented the U.N. inspectors' report concluding that there is "clear and convincing" evidence that chemical weapons were used in an Aug. 21 incident on the outskirts of Damascus, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro lashed out against the U.N. chief for allegedly siding with the enemies of the Syrian people.

"Why is the U.N. secretary general lending himself (to plans to attack Syria,) as if he were a prosecutor and judge of the world's people, putting himself at the service of the strategy of war, instead of being at the service of peace?" Maduro asked in a speech Monday in the state of Miranda.

In a speech last month more than a week after the Aug. 21 attack with chemical weapons, Maduro said, "Venezuela is with Syria, and with President Bashar al-Assad, and with the Syrian people."

Venezuela's daily Vea, which like other government-backed newspapers often publishes anti-Semitic cartoons, ran a cartoon on May 9 showing a black-robed skeleton representing death, with a star of David and this legend: "Since we got tired of killing Palestinians, we are now going to finish with the Syrians."

What's most amazing about the pro-Assad statements in Venezuela's official media is that they are still appearing after the U.N. inspectors' report -- which clearly suggests, without saying so explicitly, that Assad's forces were responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical gas attack.

While it doesn't officially take sides, because that wasn't within the inspectors' scope, the U.N. report shows that the rockets that carried Sarin gas are weapons that are not in the hands of Syria's rebels, and that they were launched from several government-controlled points.

Although less strenuously, Venezuelan allies such as Cuba and Bolivia also have come out in support of Assad even after the U.N. findings. Most other Latin American countries have supported the Geneva agreement between the United States and Russia to demand that Syria destroy its chemical weapons.

But U.S. officials say major Latin American countries such as Mexico and Brazil have been late in joining the international community's demands that Syria comply with the Geneva agreement.

Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. State Department official in charge of Latin American affairs, told me Wednesday that "there is disappointment that more countries (in the region) would not have put out stronger statements condemning the Assad government's use of Sarin gas, and supporting the Geneva U.S.-Russia agreements."

My opinion: It's entirely legitimate for Latin American countries to oppose a unilateral U.S. intervention in Syria, or even a U.S. intervention with dozens of allied countries but without the blessing of the United Nations. I myself have serious doubts about the wisdom of an intervention to stop Syria's war crimes without some sort of U.N. cover.

But defending a dictator who has massacred a sizable part of the 100,000 people who have died in Syria's civil war, and who according to all available evidence is responsible for the Aug. 21 attack with chemical weapons, is outrageous.

Maduro may be over-reacting on Syria because he needs to keep his Chavista radical base behind him after his dubious and narrow election victory April 14. His almost daily blunders, alongside Venezuela's steep economic decline, are seriously weakening his government. And his adoration for dictators may explain his natural sympathy for Assad.

Still, Venezuela's enthusiastic support for the Syrian regime after the Aug. 21 attack with chemical weapons should be denounced by everybody for what it is: an open defense of crimes against humanity.

Andres Oppenheimer, Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Ave., Doral, FL 33172.

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