Chavez visits Syria on tour to counter US sway

AP News
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Posted: Oct 21, 2010 2:20 PM
Chavez visits Syria on tour to counter US sway

On the Mideast leg of an international tour, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Thursday that he and his Syrian counterpart are "on the offensive" against Western imperialism.

The trip underscores the forces that complicate Washington's battle for influence in Syria, which is under U.S. sanctions because the State Department considers it a sponsor of terrorism. Despite U.S. outreach, Syria has remained close to Iran and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, while building ties with Venezuela.

In Damascus, Chavez said that he and Syrian President Bashar Assad are building ties "to accelerate the fall of (U.S.) imperialist hegemony and the birth of the new world of equilibrium and peace."

"We're on the offensive," Chavez said. "We're building an alternative."

The two also discussed a proposed oil project and signed several economic agreements.

Chavez arrived in Syria on Wednesday from Tehran, where he and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said they are united in efforts to establish a "new world order" that will eliminate Western dominance over global affairs.

The U.S. accuses Syria of secret nuclear activities, which Damascus denies.

President Barack Obama has made repeated overtures to Damascus this year, including nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005 and sending top diplomats to meet with Assad.

But Syria has only strengthened ties with outspoken critics of Washington, such as Venezuela.

Still, Syria stands to gain from improved ties with Washington, which could boost the country's struggling economy and end the sanctions. Since he rose to office in 2000, Assad has begun to dismantle his late father's socialist legacy. He loosened the reins on banking, sought to attract foreign investment and encouraged tourism and private education.

He also is hoping for U.S. mediation in indirect peace talks with Israel _ a recognition that he needs Washington's help to reach his goal of winning the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

On Thursday, Assad said Israel "does not have the desire to give anything for the sake of peace."

Chavez has also used his trip to discuss oil and gas projects with Mideast governments.

Venezuela signed an agreement to supply Syria with up to 1 million tons of diesel fuel per year for domestic use, Chavez said.

He also said Venezuela is committed to helping fund the construction of a Syrian oil refinery, which he said should be finished in two years. He didn't say how much his country would contribute.

An agreement to build the refinery was first signed in 2007 with Iran, Venezuela and Malaysia as partners.

A statement from Chavez's government said Iran's government agreed Wednesday to Venezuelan participation in developing major gas deposits in that country.

Before making stops in the Middle East, Chavez traveled to Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. He is due to travel next to Libya and Portugal.

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Associated Press Writer Ian James contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.