Dispatches From the Edge:Mid-East Tensions/Venezuela & the Media

By Conn Hallinan
Monday May 10, 2010 - 05:53:00 PM

Israeli charges that Syria has transferred Scud missiles to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, coupled with a sharp criticism of the Shiite organization’s arsenal by U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, have measurably increased tensions in the Middle East. According to the Israeli daily, Haaretz Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed About Gheit said the Lebanese government was in a “complete panic” over the possibility of an attack by Tel Aviv. 

Gheit sent letters to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several European Union leaders asking for their intervention to head off an Israeli attack. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri apparently made similar pleas to EU leaders, including Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi  

While Gates did not refer to the Scud allegation in an April 27 joint press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, the U.S. Defense Secretary said “Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world.”  

Israeli President Shimon Peres made the Scud charge last month. 

Since the 2006 Israeli invasion, Hezbollah has rebuilt its missile arsenal, but Syria and Lebanon deny the group has acquired any Scuds. Syria’s Scud-B is a 33-foot long ballistic missile with a range of 189 miles that can carry a 600lb warhead. But it is not an easy system to miss. “It makes no sense,” Gheit told Haaretz, “These are large missiles that are difficult to hide.” 

According to Barak Ravid of Haaretz, “A number of Western intelligence agencies, including those of the United States, have expressed great doubts about the reliability of the Israeli intelligence, or at least the analysis of the available data.”  

In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said ”We do not confirm or deny if we have received weapons or not.” The wording is the same that Israel uses when asked if it has nuclear weapons or has carried out a targeted assassination. Nasrallah also played down the possibility of a conflict with Israel: “I don’t believe that all this fuss about the missiles is a prelude to a war, and God willing I am right. It is not a climate for war.” 

The Hezbollah leader may be right about Lebanon, particularly since the U.S. would not be happy to see the Israeli Defense Forces smash up the Lebanese Army that Washington has showered with $500 million since 2006. 

But while the Americans might be embarrassed by an Israeli attack on Lebanon, Syria is a different matter.  

“Transferring weapons to these terrorists [Hezbollah]—especially longer-range missiles—would pose a serious security threat to Israel,” Clinton said April 29. “[Syrian] President [Bashar] Assad is making decision that could mean war or peace for the region.” 

Dianne Feinstein, chair of the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, said there was a “high likelihood” Hezbollah had obtained Scuds. 

The Obama administration has also just renewed sanctions on Syria for Damascus’ “continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, [that] continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” 

In one as yet unexplained incident, U.S. intelligence agents apparently toured the Masnaa sector of the Syrian-Lebanese border without informing Lebanese Internal Security Director Gen. Ashraf Rifi. The unofficial visit drew a protest from the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, as well as supporters of Hezbollah and Prime Minister Hariri. Hezbollah Parliament member Hassan Fadlallah was concerned that any intelligence information would be shared with Israel and wondered “who will be held responsible if the Masnaa area is targeted [by Israel] in the future?” 

The Israeli national news outlet Arutz Sheva quoted the London Sunday Times that “an unidentified Israeli Minister” told the newspaper, “We’ll return Syria to the Stone Age by crippling its power stations, ports, fuel storage and every bit of strategic infrastructure if [Hezbollah] dares to launch ballistic missiles against us.” 

Israeli Deputy Minister Ayoub Kara said last month that “If Israel is attacked by an element supported by the Syrians”—read Hezbollah—“there will be no avoiding a retaliatory attack on Syria.”  

Peter Harling, a project director for the International Crisis Group, finds the U.S. statements “regrettable” and urges the Obama Administration “to defuse the rhetoric.” He adds, “this type of escalation in the past has led to air raids, has sometimes led to war, so one cannot take it lightly.” 

With U.S. rhetoric aimed at Syria sharpening, and the recent threats by Israeli officials, might Damascus become a target this summer? 



The headlines on Venezuela these days are pretty grim: “Spanish Judge Accuses Venezuela of Aiding Basque and Colombian Militants” claims a New York Times story by Andres Cala; “Chavez Quells Challenges With Arrests of His Critics,” writes the Times’ Simon Romero. Viewed from the north, President Hugo Chavez seems increasingly erratic and his country mired in economic crisis, power shortages and a crime wave. 

But as Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Political Research writes in the Guardian (UK) argues, much of the bad press is less about reality than an effort by the U.S. media “to discredit the government, and to de-legitimise the September elections—in case the opposition should choose to boycott, as they did in the last legislative elections, or refuse to recognize the results if they lose.” 

The Basque/Colombia story is based on a 26-page indictment released Mar. 1 by Judge Eloy Valasco of the Spanish National Court. The evidence, according to the Times, “comes from a computer belonging to a top FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] commander that was captured in a Colombian raid into Ecuador in 2008.” 

But as Weisbrot points out, the laptops were captured by the Colombian military, “the same military that has been found to have killed hundreds of innocent teenagers and dressed them up in guerrilla clothing. These laptops and hard drives will continue to be tapped for previously undisclosed ‘evidence,’ which will then be deployed in the campaign against the Venezuelan government. We will be asked to assume these ‘captured documents’ are authentic, and most of the media will do so.” 

The Spanish indictment took a hit Mar. 11 when the head of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Douglas Fraser, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “We have not seen any connections [between Venezuela, the Basque’s ETA, and FARC] specifically that I can verify that there has been a direct government to terrorist connection.” 

Venezuela does not deny that it maintains connections with FARC. It was those connections that Caracas used to spring Colombian Army Captain Pablo Emile Moncayo in March after 12 years of captivity. Those ties were also used to free six Colombian-ex-lawmakers in 2008. But Chavez denies that Venezuela aids the FARC, and he categorically rejects any connection to ETA. 

The story on jailing opponents revolved around the imprisonment of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni for—according to the Times—issuing a ruling “that irked President Hugo Chavez.” The Judge is then quoted from her prison cell saying, “I’m in this hell because I had the temerity to do my job as a judge in a way that didn’t please Chavez.” 

The Judge, said the Times, had released “a businessman jailed on charges of circumventing currency controls” because his pretrial detention had exceeded Venezuelan law. The detention did indeed exceed the law, but the “businessman” was a banker charged with using a false import contract to steal $27 million, and Lourdes released him without informing the prosecution, which is also a violation of the law. 

What the Times never bothered to report was that the businessman, Eligio Cedeno, jumped bail and turned up in Miami. That was when the prosecution charged her with corruption. 

The Chavez government’s campaign to clean up corruption in the banking industry has been frustrated by absconding bankers who turn up in the U.S. claiming they are victims of political persecution. According to James Suggett of Upsidedownworld, neither Afiuni nor Cedeno has been associated with the opposition. 

“She was an accomplice of a crime, and what’s more, she facilitated Cedeno’s escape,” said Carlos Escarra, a former Supreme Court Justice. “Justice should be equal for everyone.” 

According to human rights groups, there is nothing to indicate that Lourdes was jailed on the say-so of President Chavez. General Coordinator Pablo Fernandez of the Red de Apoyo para la Justicia y la Paz, an independent human rights group based in Caracas, asks, “Was the [Chavez] declaration about Afiuni understood and reacted to as an order, or did the Attorney General’s Office follow the normal procedures for such a case? So far, it appears prosecutors have followed procedural norms for a judge charged with a crime.” 

What you are unlikely to read about Venezuela is that structural poverty fell from 31.2 percent to 23.6 percent, and chronic poverty from 23.7 percent to 11.4 percent. Extreme poverty has been reduced by 70 percent, according to Weisbrot. 

Weisbrot says he finds the stream of negative articles and statements coming out of Washington “ominous”, particularly given the close association the U.S. had with the failed 2002 coup. He argues it is part of “campaign to de-legitimise the Venezuelan government prior to a national election. This looks like a signal to the opposition: ‘we will support you if you decide to return to an insurrectionary strategy, either before or after the election.’ The U.S. state department is playing an ugly and dangerous game.”