Syria courts Latin America for oil, trade, and expats

President Bashar al-Assad visits Argentina and Brazil this week on a tour to boost Syria's political and economic standing. Many Syrian expats in the region, which has long attracted those looking for work, have become wealthy.

By , Correspondent

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    Cuba's President Raul Castro, right, shakes hands with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Revolution palace in Havana, Monday. Al-Assad is touring Latin America this week to boost Syria's political and economic standing.
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is touring Latin America in a bid to boost the country's economic and political standing as renewed relations with the US and Europe prove less fruitful than Syria had hoped.

With a rapidly increasing population and an ambitious plan for reform, Syria plans to invest $130 billion by 2015, $77 billion of which is earmarked to come from the private sector. Many Syrians who emigrated to Venezuela – where Mr. Assad stopped this weekend – and Argentina and Brazil, which he will visit this week, have become rich.

“This visit is predominantly to attract investment,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian economic analyst and author of the liberal news site All4Syria. “Latin America is an obvious choice because of the wealthy expatriate community.”

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Syria has long enjoyed good relations with the continent, which has attracted Syrian emigrants in search of work since the 18th century. With so many people of Arab descent, Damascus hopes Latin America countries can help alleviate its trade deficit, which reached a record $4 billion in 2008.

Syria is particularly interested in Venezuela's oil industry. Syria's oil reserves have long been declining, while Venezuela has some of the biggest reserves outside the US. The two countries already have plans for a joint refinery.

Syria seeks greater global standing

Syria has boosted its regional standing in the past year, as relations with Turkey, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia have all flourished in the past year. But Assad is looking to broaden his country's clout beyond the Middle East.

As the US stalls on its appointment of a new ambassador and an Association Agreement with the European Union fell through, Damascus has looked to align with rising powers in the developing world. A key emerging ally is Brazil, which together with Turkey helped broker an Iran nuclear fuel swap deal this spring.

“Brazil has become a major world player and the Latin American countries have assisted the Arabs both practically and rhetorically,” says Mr. Abdel Nour.
Yesterday [Sunday] Assad called on Brazil to help broker a Mideast peace deal.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is also a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights and part of a coalition of countries that seek to challenge what they see as Western – especially US – hegemony.

Sizing up Assad's visit

This is Assad's first trip to Latin America and analysts are assessing how far his goals will be achieved.

In Venezuela, Chávez and Assad signed an agreement for a $100 million trade and development fund as well as a host of bilateral agreements.
Argentinian diplomats in Damascus said bilateral agreements would be signed during Assad's visit to Buenos Aires.

Politically non-Western countries are in ascendancy, with Syria being embraced both regionally and internationally.

Syria has received visits from Latin American leaders. On taking office in 2001, Assad was visited by Cuba's leader at the time, Fidel Castro. Chávez and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have also both visited Syria.

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