Chávez’s Covert War

Obama needs to call Venezuela’s president what he is: a terrorist and a drug-trafficker.

Venezuela's strongman Hugo Chávez recently warned that the "winds of war" were blowing in South America, and called on his military to "prepare for combat" against neighboring Colombia, a U.S. ally. Should we take his prediction seriously, or is this another cry of "wolf" by the loud lieutenant colonel? And how worried should be the American government be in either case?

An overt Venezuela-Colombia war is unlikely. To be sure, saber-rattling by someone who wears battle fatigues in public cannot be ignored. But Chávez's generals are in no mood to face the Colombians or anyone else. Corruption and politicization have weakened Venezuela's military, despite its acquisition of billions of dollars of Russian and other foreign weaponry. Plus, in his 10 years in power, Chávez has only ever pointed his guns at defenseless Venezuelan civilians. Bullies like him do not forewarn their intended victims. He does not fight openly, preferring to intervene covertly -- either directly or through his regional "anti-imperialist" alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a collection of the highest-decibel, lowest performing leaders in the region, from countries including Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and, until June, Honduras.

Honduras has been the most recent target of Chávez's subversion. There, he convinced a gullible follower, Manuel Zelaya, to retain his office through ALBA's so-far successful modus operandi: After reaching power democratically, change the rules, neutralizing the legislative and judicial systems so that no opposition leader can ever rise democratically again. Chávez has guided this strategy in Bolivia and Ecuador, and ALBA member Daniel Ortega is attempting the same in Nicaragua. Thankfully, however, Honduras's institutions of democracy -- the justice system and legislature -- proved too strong. The Supreme Court unanimously found Zelaya guilty of high crimes and ordered the military to remove him from office.

Losing Zelaya -- the first reversal in the drive to spread "21st Century Socialism" in the region -- has driven Chávez to near hysteria. He has repeatedly promised to "overthrow" the new Honduran president, Roberto Micheletti, who was constitutionally appointed to office by an overwhelming congressional vote. (All but three members of Zelaya's own party voted for Micheletti.) No Chávez soldiers have been spotted in Honduras, but there are reports that Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence operatives are fomenting violence in order to damage the government's image, a common tactic in Latin America.

In Colombia, Chávez cries wolf to disguise his concealed aggression, such as his support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), internationally condemned as a "narco-terrorist organization." The discovery of Venezuelan support for terrorists has routinely triggered Chávez's public tantrums. In March 2008, for example, Colombian Special Forces raided a FARC command and training camp situated more than a mile inside Ecuador. They captured laptops belonging to the FARC's second-in-command, Raul Reyes, who was killed in the assault. The computers revealed Chavez's long-standing financial, political, diplomatic, and military aid to the FARC. They documented Chávez's offer of $300 million for the FARC in Colombia and for other Marxist groups in Latin America, as well as collaboration with and political contributions to Ecuadorian President (and ALBA cheerleader) Rafael Correa, one of Chávez's most vocal allies. Correa and other leftist leaders condemned Colombia for its "violation of Ecuador's sovereignty" -- rather than denouncing the presence of a transnational terrorist camp, which must have existed with government acquiescence.

At that time, Chávez's hysteria reached a fever pitch. Chávez called Colombian President Álvaro Uribe "a criminal" and Colombia a "terrorist state," equating its aggressiveness with Israel's. On television, Chávez histrionically ordered his generals to "send 10 battalions of tanks" to the border, which he closed, stopping all trade. The measures soon had to be repealed lest they damage Venezuela's economy more than Colombia's.

Thus, the winds of war announced by Chávez last year did little lasting damage. Is this year any different?

The latest cause of Chávez's bellicosity is the announcement that Colombia will host U.S. advisors at some of its army, navy, and air bases. Chávez and his leftist chorus, including Argentina and Brazil, immediately accused Uribe of providing "military bases" for "an aggression by the empire against our region" (in the words of Bolivian President Evo Morales).

The United States has repeatedly stated that there are no military bases being established in Colombia. Nor are there plans for any. No additional U.S. forces are being sent. In fact, the number of American military and civilian advisors in Colombia has steadily declined over the past few years, and today totals less than a thousand. At the same time, the number of Cuban and other rogue-state advisors in Venezuela is reported to be many times that number.

The U.S. presence on Colombian soil is not a threat to regional peace -- quite the contrary. U.S. advisors have helped Colombia's security forces crush narcotics traffic and terrorism. Under Uribe, the number of Marxist guerrillas has been halved, from about 18,000 to 9,000. Right-wing paramilitaries have lost so many men (over 30,000 have surrendered) that they no longer exist as organized forces. And an official U.N. report credits Colombia's anti-narcotics programs for cutting coca cultivation and production by double digits in one year.

So why the cries of war? Because, once again, Chávez's ties to the illicit weapons and drugs pipelines have been exposed.

On August 3, the New York Times reported: "Venezuelan officials have continued to assist commanders of Colombia's largest rebel group, helping them arrange weapons deals in Venezuela and even obtain identity cards to move with ease on Venezuelan soil." The article adds that captured materials "point to detailed collaboration between the guerrillas and high-ranking military and intelligence officials in Mr. Chávez 's government as recently as several weeks ago."

A recent example illustrates Venezuela's brazen arms trafficking. When Colombia found Swedish-made anti-tank rocket launchers in FARC hands, the Swedish government asked Venezuela for an explanation. In the original sales agreement, Venezuela promised Stockholm that the weapons would not end up in the hands of terrorists -- but there they were. Chávez has refused to issue an official reply, saying in public only that the arms had been "stolen" from a Venezuelan military base.

Chávez's government is also deeply involved in drug trafficking. Last September, the U.S. Treasury Department designated three senior Venezuelan government officials as "Significant Foreign Narcotics Traffickers" under the Drug Kingpin Act. They charged Henry Rangel Silva, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, and Hugo Armando Carvajal with "materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of the FARC."

In equivalent positions in the United States, these individuals would be director of the FBI and CIA, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and U.S. attorney general and secretary of homeland security. Does anyone really think these men act without Chávez's knowledge and protection? Not surprisingly, in July, the non-partisan U.S. General Accountability Office reported that "Venezuela has extended a lifeline to Colombian illegal armed groups by providing significant support and safe haven along the border. As a result, these groups, which traffic in illicit drugs, remain viable threats to Colombian security."

But Colombia is far from the only target. The United States is the principal market for Colombia's illicit drug industry, of which Chávez's allies in FARC control 60 percent of production. Clearly, an undeclared war is already underway between Hugo Chávez's government and the United States and Colombia.

Faced with this and much more damning evidence, some still classified, of Chávez's covert war, what should the U.S. response be? First, call Chávez what he is: a supporter of drug trafficking and terrorism. Second, designate Venezuela as an official state sponsor of terrorism. The National Security Council has made this recommendation since 2003. Some U.S. officials, well-meaning but misguided, feel that diplomacy alone will convince Chávez to change his ways. It has not and will not. Third, end the self-defeating U.S. dependence on the Venezuelan oil that finances Chavez's anti-democratic and anti-American aggression. The United States can find new sources for 8 percent of its imports much more quickly than Venezuela can find an alternate market for 72 percent of its exports.

Some may say this last response is "disproportionate" or "confrontational." They should try saying that to the mother of the American child who died of a drug overdose, the wife of the U.S. policeman murdered by traffickers, or the orphan of the Colombian soldier killed by weapons provided by Hugo Chávez. Such a non-belligerent reaction by the United States, whose national security is under attack, is fully justified.


Syria Clenches Its Fist

Assad to Obama: Thanks but no thanks.

Early last week, nearly seven months to the day after the Barack Obama administration took office and began its careful, critical engagement with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rumors swirled in Washington and the Middle East that the White House was preparing to turn a new page with Damascus. The first test of this new relationship would be over the issue that caused the breakdown in U.S.-Syrian relations more than six years ago: the flow of jihadi militants from Syria to Iraq.

The Obama administration's outreach to Syria had been clear and forthright. It included six high-level visits by U.S. officials to Syria, Washington's announcement that it would return an ambassador to Damascus, a reported letter from President Obama to President Assad, and the facilitation of export licenses for aircraft parts waived under U.S. sanctions against Syria. A Centcom-led delegation visited Damascus two weeks ago and concluded a tentative agreement with Syria on a technical assessment of Iraqi-Syrian border posts. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, miffed at being left out of these promising talks, visited Damascus last week to seal the tripartite deal. The string of blasts that greeted him upon his return on Aug. 19 -- the bloodiest in more than 18 months and now claimed by an al Qaeda affiliate -- has led Baghdad to demand that Syria expel Iraqi Baathists and jihadi militants from its soil and recall its ambassador. Damascus responded in kind, effectively blowing up Washington's initiative on the launchpad.

Until last week, talks over Iraq-related regional security issues appeared to be a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak U.S.-Syrian engagement process. Washington has quietly asked Damascus over the last seven months to use its influence to promote reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Following the most recent visit to Damascus by U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, Syria, along with Turkey and Egypt, pressed Hamas to allow Fatah members in Gaza to attend their party's conference earlier this month -- an important first step in forming a united Palestinian position. It didn't happen.

Damascus instead took credit for an alternative "breakthrough" -- Hamas' recent announcement that it would accept and respect the 1967 border between Israel and the Palestinians in return for Israel's conceding Palestinians the right of return and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Unfortunately, this position falls dramatically short of the conditions of the "quartet" (comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations): that parties to the peace process recognize Israel without preconditions, abide by previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and renounce violence as a means of achieving goals. On peace talks with Israel, Damascus continues to demand that Israel commit to withdrawing from the Golan Heights to the line of June 4, 1967, and resume Turkish-sponsored indirect talks from where they left off last December. Israel, which favors direct negotiations without preconditions under U.S. auspices, has refused.

French efforts last year to coax Damascus to open an embassy in Beirut and appoint an ambassador there led many to speculate that Damascus was willing to turn a new page with its western neighbor, Lebanon. But Syria's ambassador to Beirut spends most of his time in Damascus, and statements on Lebanon are put forward by pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians such as Wiam Wahhab who, due to his role in helping Damascus call the shots in Lebanon prior to Syria's 2005 withdrawal, has earned a reputation as one of Syria's last unquestioning proxies in Lebanon. Following the defeat of Syria's allies in Lebanon's June 7 elections (despite intensive Syrian efforts to swing the poll Syria's way), Damascus and its allies have stymied the formation of a government by the pro-independence March 14 block. Meanwhile, an interview Aug. 25 in the Lebanese daily An-Nahar with a senior U.S. official made apparent Washington's frustration with Syria, most notably its smuggling to Hezbollah of increasingly advanced weaponry across the Lebanese-Syrian border, which Damascus still refuses to demarcate despite promising to do so.

Concerning relations with Iran, on Aug. 19 (the same day as the Iraqi attacks) Assad said during his fifth state visit to Tehran that the June re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the controversy surrounding which he attributed to "foreign intervention" -- meant that "Iran and Syria must continue the regional policy as in the past." The visit, combined with recent reports of a crash in northern Syria of a short-range missile developed by Syria, Iran, and North Korea, as well as the Assad regime's continued refusal to answer the International Atomic Energy Agency's questions about uranium particles found at not one but two Syrian nuclear sites, shows Damascus remains firmly ensconced in the Iranian-led "resistance axis." As for human rights and domestic reforms, not only is the regime rounding up dissidents as usual, but it is now going after its lawyers and the president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization as well. Damascus clearly feels that it has been let off the hook.

Washington intended the Centcom-led mission as the first step on a long road to reconciliation with Damascus, with the potential for even higher-level engagement by U.S. officials. But last week's battery of negotiations and bombings, as well as the charge of diplomatic distrust it generated, shows just how explosive and uncertain engaging Damascus over Iraqi border security really is. The only way to truly "solve" this issue would be for Damascus to publicly disavow the al Qaeda facilitators within its country and expel the Iraqi Baathists who support them from its soil. Last week's deadly blasts in Iraq clearly show Damascus is unwilling to take such a step.

This is because the actual problem of fighters entering Iraq has less to do with security arrangements along the border and more to do with the Faustian bargain Syria's minority Alawite-dominated regime cut with Sunni-based al Qaeda fighters who regard their hosts as apostates. This agreement, forged during the height of Assad's Cold War with the George W. Bush administration, underlies the al Qaeda facilitators and the "rat lines" of jihadi fighters they operate in and out of Iraq. Syria is unwilling to cut them off over fears of risking domestic attacks. In short, Damascus wants high-level U.S. engagement without making hard sacrifices.

During the 1970s and 1990s, when the United States tried ultimately unsuccessful policies of "constructive engagement" with Damascus, Washington would have allowed Syria to skirt the issue and quietly deal with the issue from "behind the scenes." But last week's blasts and other jihadi attacks originating out of Syria this year show that giving Damascus a pass on the issue allows the Assad regime to keep its hand on the foreign-fighter tap. This leaves the strategic initiative in Damascus' hands to use as leverage as the United States withdraws from Iraq. U.S. support for its Iraqi allies to roll back the fighters are likely to remain Washington's safest bet.

With Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations stalled, the easiest issues to benchmark and verify concern Lebanon, where U.S. officials are still trying to promote the country's sovereignty and independence. The formation of a government, the delineation of the Syrian-Lebanese border, and shutting down the Syrian-dominated PFLP-GC bases are three urgent issues that require U.S.-Syrian cooperation. All three are more useful barometers for gauging Syrian intentions than the Assad regime's murky relationship with al Qaeda and former Iraqi Baathists, as the former can be more easily benchmarked and verified. And most importantly for Washington and Damascus, progress on all three is more likely to lead to tangible improvements in U.S.-Syrian relations in the year to come.