Syria Steps into Latin America

By Levi J. Jordan

President Bashar al-Assad traveled to Latin America to encourage investment at home while boosting Syria’s profile abroad.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wrapped up a visit to Latin America on July 3. The eight-day tour—with stops in Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, and Argentina—focused on developing diplomatic connections and securing new economic ties. Assad’s visit gave Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro opportunity to rail against Israel. The trip also allowed Syria to increase economic ties to its sizeable diaspora in the Americas at a time when Damascus seeks $44 billion in foreign investment.

Politically, Assad used the trip to bolster relations with countries in the Western Hemisphere, even as U.S. sanctions against Damascus remain in place as a result of Syrian links to terrorist groups. Assad’s symbolic stop in Cuba reciprocated a 2001 visit to Syria made by Fidel Castro in 2001. In Brazil, Assad won Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s support for Damascus’ claim to the Golan Heights and the creation of a Palestinian state. Assad started the tour in Caracas, where Chávez termed both Israel and the United States as “common enemies” of Venezuela and Syria. During the Syrian leader’s trip, it came to light that Iran last year armed Syria with a sophisticated radar detection system and Syria, like Venezuela and Brazil, has defended Iran’s right to nuclear technology.

Despite the politicking, economics and investments stand as a top motivation for Assad’s first official trip to Latin America. Syria reported a trade deficit of $4.4 billion at the beginning of 2010 and the country’s oil production fell sharply since 2003, when it lost its lucrative supply of Iraqi oil in the aftermath of the U.S invasion. As a result of the global economic crisis, Syria’s GDP growth rate fell to 1.8 percent in 2009.

On the first leg of his trip, Assad signed a series of energy and trade agreements valued at $100 million with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The pacts established a March 2011 Syrian-Venezuelan Business Forum to be held in Damascus, which Syria hopes will serve as an avenue to attract investment dollars from the one-million-strong community of Venezuelans of Syrian descent. Caracas also ratified a May pact to construct an oil refinery inside Syria with help from Iran.

As part of his efforts to increase foreign investment, Assad also visited Brazil. In São Paulo, the city with the largest population of Syrians outside of Damascus, he spoke before the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce to highlight investment opportunities inside Syria. Trade ties between the two countries have seen a rapid rise; Brazilian exports to Syria totaled $148.5 million in the first five months of 2010, representing a growth of 96 percent over the same period in 2009. In Argentina, trade and links to the Syrian Diaspora—which accounts for 13.3 percent of the population in Buenos Aires—also took center stage. Assad and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed a Double Taxation Agreement to improve bilateral trade that in 2009 exceeded $158 million and saw Argentine exports to Syria grow by 75 percent over the past two years.

Assad’s continued support for regimes like Iran and Sudan have led many to question his approach to improving Syria's standing in the world. In a February interview with Seymour Hersch published in The New Yorker, Assad asserted that, “You always need power to do politics.” His engagement with Latin America allows Syria to solidify the country’s relationship with the anti-American bloc of left-leaning Latin American leaders. The trip also allowed him to meet more moderate leaders and strengthen trade ties to better position his country on the global stage. During his Southern Cone travels, Assad pushed for closer economic ties with Mercosur while Lula voiced support for Syria’s efforts to enter the World Trade Organization.

Learn more:

  • MercoPress coverage of Syria’s connection to Latin America.
  • Syrian Arab News Agency’s website coverage of President Assad’s state visit to Latin America.
  • A June article in The Economist reports on Syria reaching out emigrants.
  • The Brazil-Arab News Agency in conjunction with the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce provides coverage of President Assad’s visit to Brazil.