SUWEIDA, SYRIA // Around the streets of the southern Syrian city of Suweida there is evidence of a curious relationship. Taxis zoom past with Venezuela bumper stickers, shop awnings are made out of Venezuelan flag-patterned material and restaurant walls are adorned with joint pictures of the Syrian and Venezuelan leaders, Bashar Assad and Hugo Chávez, respectively.
Known as "Little Venezuela" or "Vene-Suweida", the Latin American country's influence here was originally based on Syrian migration to Venezuela in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Work was not easy to come by for many Suweidans owing to a lack of industry in the area, and Venezuela - as well as other Latin American countries - encouraged immigration to boost a rapidly expanding economy. "The connection is very personal and very fond," said Duha al Hrfush, a student from Suweida. "Many Suweidans went to get work and then got jobs for their families to join them. I know many people who have been in Venezuela."
The legacy is not just confined to Suweida. An estimated one million people of Syrian descent live in Venezuela and, with many families now straddling the two nationalities, the personal links are strong. In recent years those links have been strengthened, expanding from individual links to a dialogue between the two states based on shared political interests. The creation of closer ties with Syria has been the initiative of Venezuela. A "multipolar alliance" mainly targeted at countering US hegemony has been part of Mr Chávez's plan since he came to power in 1998 and he has travelled widely, offering aid to friendly countries, including oil subsidies to Cuba, medical equipment donations to Nicaragua and US$20 million (Dh73.5m) to Haiti for investment in education, health care and housing.
On the Syrian side, the relationship with the US has been similarly strained. It was isolated by the administration of George W Bush, with sanctions imposed in 2004 and the relationship yet to be rekindled. The country is also increasingly keen to make contact with its diaspora. Mr Chávez was met by crowds of cheering Syrians in Suweida during a visit to the region last week, which also took in Iran, Algeria, Libya, Russia and Belarus. Welcomed by the majority of Syrian media as a defender of human rights and friend to the Middle East, he spoke to the audience, condemning Israel for illegal settlement building and violence towards the Palestinian people.
"Chávez's plan is to project himself as a world leader for the third world, not just a Latin American leader," said Daniel Hellinger, a Venezuela expert and professor of political science at Webster University in Missouri. "Chávez wants to be a catalyst to pull together an anti-hegemonist project and Syria fits into that plan." Facing demonstrations against him at home and in Latin America, and with dwindling support from leaders in Brazil and Argentina, Mr Chávez's visit to the Middle East was a guaranteed way to shore up international support.
Mr Chávez gained popularity in the region in 2006 after ordering home Israel's ambassador to Venezuela during the Israeli assault on southern Lebanon and a Zogby International poll in May confirmed Mr Chavez as the head of state most admired by Arabs. But Syrians see the bond as being more than just about Mr Chávez. "The ties have definitely deepened in recent years," said Rime Allaf, a Syrian analyst at the London think tank Chatham House. "Yes, Chávez has charisma and personal appeal, but the relationship is also about two countries usually ousted by the western narrative wanting to play more of a role in the world."
The rhetoric of "resistance" is central to Syria's stance, with the return of the Golan Heights from Israel a key foreign policy goal. The Syrians see the support of Venezuela as an ideological ally as a bonus, albeit not a crucial alliance. "Venezuela does not carry clout with Washington and isn't a useful fairly neutral mediator like Britain or France," Ms Allaf said. "But Syrians love - and rightly so - to take advantage of any overture towards them. It is a way of showing the US and those who isolate Syria that they will survive nonetheless."
Whether the alliance between Syria and Venezuela will go any further than a strategic coupling is a matter of debate. During the recent visit, seven agreements were signed in the fields of economy, agriculture, culture, health, environment, sport and diplomacy, while Venezuela has talked about a giant oil refinery on Syrian soil. Analysts are not convinced as to what Syria can offer. "I don't see the relationship becoming anything more than symbolic," said Prof Hellinger. "Chávez runs around making deals which often come to nothing. I can't see what Venezuela can get from Syria."
An oil deal, however, may be of interest to both countries. Syria's accessible oil reserves are running out and Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil producer. "It is almost certainly about oil and investment opportunities but whether this will transfer into trade remains to be seen," Ms Allaf said. Still, analysts say Mr Chavez's alliances with such countries as Syria and Iran could alienate some countries - other than the intended ones.
"Syria and Venezuela do not have much in common once you look closely," said Erick Langer, professor and director of Georgetown University's Latin American Center. "Chávez's making closer allies with countries considered to be sponsors of terrorism is going to harm his country's foreign relations not just with the US." Regardless, the special relationship between Venezuela and Syria still has strong support among ordinary Syrians.
"Syria and Venezuela have the same views on the US, Palestine and the right of Iranians to have nuclear fuel," said Ms al Hrfush. "And the personal links will always be strong; Chávez had friends from Suweida and shares our culture." * The National