The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Khaled Hboubati, demanded on Tuesday, February 7, that Western countries, specifically the United States and its allies, lift their siege and sanctions on Syria so that rescue and relief work can proceed unimpeded, after the country was devastated by a powerful earthquake on Monday.
“We need heavy equipment, ambulances and fire fighting vehicles to continue to rescue and remove the rubble, and this entails lifting sanctions on Syria as soon as possible,” Hboubati said at a press conference on Tuesday, as reported by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
A powerful earthquake registering a magnitude of 7.8 struck Turkey and Syria on Monday. Over 5,000 people have been reported dead so far. In Syria alone, the death toll was 1,602 on Monday. These numbers are only expected to rise as a large number of people are suspected to be still buried under the debris of houses that collapsed in the earthquake and its aftershocks.
Kahramanmaraş, a city in Turkey, was reported to be the epicenter of the earthquake, and the nearby city of Gaziantep—home to millions of Syrian refugees—was reportedly hit the hardest. Relief and rescue operations in Turkey have been affected by bad weather as several of the affected areas have received heavy rain and snowfall on Monday and Tuesday.
Syria’s northern provinces such as Idlib, Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo have also been badly affected by the earthquake. Some of the affected areas in Idlib and Aleppo are under rebel control and densely populated by refugees from other parts of the country.
Though several countries including the United States and its allies have extended their support to Turkey in its relief and rescue work, they have refused to extend similar assistance to Syria. The U.S. State Department made it clear on Monday that it was only willing to support some work carried out in Syria by NGOs, but that it would have no dealings with the Bashar al-Assad government. “It would be quite ironic—if not even counterproductive—for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, as quoted by Al Jazeera.
On Monday, the Syrian government had issued an appeal to the international community asking for help. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad is quoted in Al-Mayadeen as having said that his government was willing “to provide all the required facilities to international organizations so they can give Syrians humanitarian aid.”
Sanctions Hamper Relief and Rescue Work
Claiming that “Current U.S. sanctions severely restrict aid assistance to millions of Syrians,” the American Arab anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) asked the U.S. government on Monday to lift its sanctions. While it said that the NGOs working on the ground were doing a commendable job, it also said that the “lifting of the sanctions will open the doors for additional and supplemental aid that will provide immediate relief to those in need.”
The U.S. Congress had adopted the so-called Caesar Act in 2020, according to which any group or company doing business with the Syrian government faces sanctions. The act extends the scope of the previously existing sanctions on Syria, imposed by the U.S. and its European allies since the beginning of the war in the country in 2011.
The impact of sanctions on Syria’s health and other social sectors and its overall economic recovery have been criticized by the UN on several occasions in the past. The UN has also demanded that all unilateral punitive measures against Syria be lifted.
Meanwhile, countries such as China, Iran, Russia, Cuba, Algeria, and the UAE, among others, have expressed their willingness to provide necessary support to Syria, and have sent relief materials already.
Al-Mayadeen has however reported that the delivery of international aid, as well as the speed of relief and rescue work in Syria, continue to be impeded as the Damascus international airport is not fully operational at the moment. The airport was hit by an Israeli missile on January 2 and repair work is not yet complete.
As the International #FreeAlexSaab Solidarity Committee reported June 6, a delegation is in Cabo Verde to meet Venezuelan envoy Alex Saab, who is imprisoned on U.S. orders. They aim to document the conditions of his confinement and demand his release.
Heading the humanitarian delegation is Cape Verdean religious leader Bishop Felipe Teixeira, Cape Verdean politician Pericles Tavares, and human rights activists Sara Flounders of International Action Center and Roger Harris of Task Force on the Americas.
In their first full day in Cabo Verde on June 4, the emergency human-rights delegation met with Saab’s lawyer and the Venezuelan ambassador, tried to meet with the local police commander, and saw first hand the prison-house where Saab is jailed. Heavily armed guards prevented a visit.
The solidarity committee is circulating a petition demanding Saab’s release and it is providing updates on Twitter.
Below is an edited version of Roger Harris’ May 26 article, which appeared in venezuelanalysis.com, after first being published in Dissident Voice.
The case of Alex Saab raises dangerous precedents in terms of extraterritorial judicial abuse, violation of diplomatic status and even the use of torture to extract false confessions. This is according to Montréal-based international human-rights lawyer John Philpot. He spoke on May 19 at a webinar sponsored by the Alliance for Global Justice and other groups about this example of the long reach of the U.S. empire enforcing its deadly sanctions on some one-third of humanity.
United States Sanctions Venezuela for Being Sovereign
The United States is able to extend its imperial reach through its domination of the international financial system, which is U.S. dollar-denominated and mediated through the monetary exchange known as SWIFT. By controlling the international financial system, Smith explained, Washington can demand banks in foreign countries accept U.S. restrictions or face sanctions themselves.
Venezuela’s resistance to U.S. interference, starting with Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution two decades ago, has been punished by the United States with mounting sanctions so extreme that they now amount to an asphyxiating blockade, causing severe shortages of food and medicine. Activist William Camacaro of the Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle attested to the impact on the people of Venezuela. This U.S. effort to achieve regime change is, in effect, collective punishment to coerce the Venezuelans to reject their elected government.
Even a report from the U.S. government readily admits “sanctions, particularly on the state oil company in 2019, likely contributed to the steeper decline of the Venezuelan economy.” This crippling blow to its oil industry has impacted Venezuela’s capability to generate electricity, conduct agriculture, and generate income from oil sales to fund social programs and import vital necessities, all of which have negatively impacted the lives of ordinary Venezuelans.
Once a leading oil exporter, Venezuela’s ability to import equipment components for its oil refineries and light oil to mix with its heavy crude has been cut off by the United States, devastating its productive capacity. The United States has even blocked international oil-for-food swaps by Venezuela.
United States Targets Mission to Import Fuel and Food
Alex Saab, Venezuelan special envoy and ambassador to the African Union, was on a mission flying from Caracas to Iran to procure food and gasoline for the Venezuelan CLAP food assistance program. Saab was detained on a refueling stop in the African nation of Cabo Verde and has been held in custody since June 12, 2020.
Saab’s “crime,” according to the U.S. government, which ordered the imprisonment, was money laundering. That is, Washington considers Saab’s international trade circumventing deadly U.S. sanctions to be money laundering.
After a 2-year investigation into Saab’s transactions with Swiss banks, the Swiss government concluded on March 25 no money laundering was involved. The real reason Saab is being persecuted is because he is serving his country’s interest rather than that of the United States. Saab was born in Colombia, but now holds Venezuelan citizenship.
The U.S. mandate for the arrest and extradition of Saab would be like Saudi Arabia demanding the arrest and extradition of a British citizen visiting Italy for wearing short-shorts. In essence, the United States does not have legal jurisdiction over a Venezuelan in Cabo Verde on his way to Iran.
The legal fig leaf for what amounts to a kidnapping was an INTERPOL “red notice,” which was not issued until a day after Saab’s arrest and was subsequently dropped. Saab has specified, “they tortured me and pressured me to sign voluntary extradition declarations and bear false witness against my government.”
Saab’s Distinguished African Defense Team
Saab’s attorney in Cabo Verde, Geraldo da Cruz Almeida, explained to the webinar the absurdity of the politically motivated legal case against his client. Saab has violated neither Cabo Verdean nor Venezuelan law. Moreover, Saab’s diplomatic status should have given him immunity from arrest.
The United States does not recognize Saab’s diplomatic status. But then again, U.S. President Joe Biden maintains the fiction that the self-appointed and Trump-anointed Juan Guaidó is president of Venezuela.
Femi Falana, former president of the West African Bar Association, spoke to the webinar from Nigeria. Attorney Falana represented Saab before the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court. On March 15, the court ordered Saab’s release and cancellation of the extradition.
Under U.S. pressure, Cabo Verde continues to hold Saab. Attorney Falana has called on Biden to respect the rule of law and human rights in Africa. Activist Sara Flounders of the International Action Center pointed out 15 of the 39 countries under illegal U.S. sanctions are African.
Ranking 175th and 185th among the countries of the world in terms of geographic area and economic size, respectively, the Republic of Cabo Verde is vulnerable to U.S. strong-arm tactics. It is resource-poor and depends on tourism and remittances from abroad. Shortly after Saab’s arrest, the United States gifted $1.5 million to private-sector entities in Cabo Verde on top of some $284 million total in U.S. aid over the last 20 years.
The U.S. State Department describes Cabo Verde as “an important partner” where the “current administration has prioritized relations with the United States and Europe.” The U.S. Bureau for International Narcotics Law Enforcement funds and supports activities in Cabo Verde, while the Boston Police Department works with Cabo Verde police.
Cabo Verde, it should be noted, is important in the history of African liberation. Marxist Amílcar Cabral led the liberation movement of Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde Islands and was assassinated in 1973, only months before declaring its independence from Portugal.
Setting a Precedent
Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese national doing business in Canada, is under arrest for “bank fraud” and is fighting extradition to the United States. North Korean Mun Chol Myong has already been extradited to the United States from Malaysia on similar charges to those used against Saab, for doing business according to international law rather than abiding by illegal U.S. measures.
In short, Saab’s is not an isolated case of U.S. misconduct around enforcing its illegal sanctions, but an emerging pattern.
That the United States can engineer the arrest of a diplomat—who has immunity per international law even in a time of war—is a dangerous precedent. That the arrest was extraterritorial is worse. This harkens back to the flagrantly illegal and inhumane U.S. practice of extraordinary rendition, which was used to populate the Guantánamo torture chambers.
The award-winning movie The Mauritanian is about the true story of crusading lawyer Nancy Hollander, who successfully freed a tortured innocent man from the made-in-the-USA hell of Guantánamo. The Hollander character, played in the movie by Jodie Foster, says: “I am not just defending him, I am defending the rule of law.”
The real-life Nancy Hollander attended the webinar. A lawyer’s delegation to Cabo Verde in solidarity with Saab is being planned and a petition campaign on his behalf is underway. These efforts recognize that the defense of Alex Saab is a defense of the rule of international law against illegal U.S. sanctions.
With the possible extradition of a Venezuelan diplomat to the United States on bogus charges, an emergency human-rights delegation organized by the International Campaign to Free Alex Saab was quickly dispatched to Cabo Verde, where he is imprisoned. This island archipelago nation off the west coast of Africa is one of the smallest, poorest and geographically isolated countries in the world.
The international human-rights delegation did not gain Alex Saab’s freedom. Officials denied them a visit with him. But breakthroughs were made in raising the visibility of the case, which involves enormous political, legal and moral issues with long-term political consequences.
The case involves the abduction of a diplomat by the world’s sole superpower locked in an unequal struggle to destroy the formerly prosperous, oil-rich country of Venezuela. The attack on Venezuela is not motivated on the U.S. part by the imperfections in Venezuelan society, but on Venezuela’s past successes in fighting poverty, promoting regional integration, and acting like a sovereign nation. Otherwise, the United States would be lavishing aid on Venezuela, instead of on the apartheid state of Israel, the nacro-state of Colombia and the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia.
The kidnapping of Alex Saab is a dramatic and far-reaching effort to enforce the illegal U.S.-decreed policy of economic sanctions. The United States is attempting to impose its will on a country by deliberately attacking the civilian population. Illegal sanctions are a conscious policy of imposing economic havoc to “make the economy scream.”
Saab, a Venezuelan diplomat abducted by the U.S. government a year ago, has been held under torturous conditions. The United States denying diplomatic immunity violates international law.
International Campaign to Free Alex Saab
The powerful corporate media, by omission, can render a news item invisible. The Saab case is virtually unknown in the United States, even among progressive political journalists, left organizations and solidarity activists. Washington’s demand for the extradition of Alex Saab is being covered more extensively in African and Latin American publications. In Venezuela, as expected, the case is well known.
Among some who are aware of the case, an inordinate concentration on the Saab, the individual, obscures the larger issues of national sovereignty and human rights.
Gathering information on what was involved was no easy task. The U.S. charge of “money laundering” by a private businessman in a country wracked by extreme shortages hardly created sympathy for Saab’s case. It was only as the actual facts emerged that a support plan evolved for the international solidarity campaign.
That Saab has withstood a year-long arrest, torture and months of solitary confinement rather than comply with U.S. demands to cooperate indicates he is not just a businessman willing to sell to the highest bidder.
The four-person human-rights delegation in Cabo Verde knocked on government doors, conducted interviews and spoke with the media. The local activist movement and a strong legal team supported them. The delegation was led by a Cabo Verde citizen, Bishop Filipe Teixeira, OFSCJ, a religious leader who lives in the Boston area and leads a congregation of Cabo Verdeans. Teixeira has a history of participating in social justice campaigns. Tweets, Facebook links and news reports have helped penetrate the wall of silence.
After collecting thousands of signatures, an international petition is being forwarded to the president and prime minister of Cabo Verde as well as to U.S. President Joe Biden. Several webinars to raise awareness were held, including one with Saab’s lawyers speaking from Cabo Verde and Nigeria.
Solidarity and people’s movements working together can become a powerful material force, breaking through silence, fear and repression. The focus for international solidarity work in this period is to defend movements and even countries under relentless U.S. imperialist attack and destabilization. This is done without placing unrealistic expectations or creating unrealistic images of how wonderful the internal situation in the targeted country is. Solidarity is not a pass for interference, second guessing, criticism or for euphoric idealism.
It is essential to focus full attention on the source of the problem—U.S. imperialism—and not get lost in the weeds of criticizing the victim. U.S. sabotage, imposed shortages, mercenary attacks and fueling national antagonism are intended to create and intensify internal divisions. Shortages are intended to increase corruption, side deals, privilege and resentment. The targeted country may be wrongly blamed for the crisis created by U.S. actions.
Simply put, many progressive goals are thwarted under conditions of illegal sanctions, because that is the purpose of sanctions. The victimized country is obligated to defend itself in the face of destabilization and constant sabotage.
At each step, keeping the focus on the crime of U.S. actions provides a grounding for progressive solidarity. This is true not only in defending attempts at revolutionary change, such as in Cuba or Venezuela. We also raised the U.S. role in Cabo Verde, a country that clearly didn’t decide on its own to pull Saab from his flight or order him detained. Cabo Verde’s isolation and strategic position simply made that country a convenient location for the long arm of U.S. extraterritorial judicial overreach.
This case must be used in the global challenge against arrogant U.S. lawlessness.
Sara Flounders of International Action Center and Roger D. Harris of Task Force on the Americas were in Cabo Verde June 3-10 on the emergency human-rights delegation organized by the International Campaign to Free Alex Saab. The case can be followed on Twitter.
Armenia, a landlocked Caucasus nation-state of around 3 million people appears in a hopeless position. Following defeat in the 44-day war against Azerbaijan last autumn, the country remains stuck in the Russian geopolitical orbit, and has been forced to make painful concessions to its arch enemy, Azerbaijan.
On June 20, Armenia held parliamentary elections that led to the victory of the Civil Contract Party, whose leader is Acting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Although he is seen by many Armenians as a traitor, given he failed to preserve Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh—a mountainous territory in Azerbaijan that ethnic Armenians have controlled since 1994—Pashinyan’s party won 54 percent of the vote. The opposition Armenia Alliance, led by former President Robert Kocharyan, garnered a distant second with 21 percent. Why did Armenians vote for the person who signed the de facto capitulation to Azerbaijan on November 10?
Choosing Between Traitor and Old Guard
From the perspective of an average Armenian voter, the choice they had was either “traitor” Pashinyan, who came to power in 2018 following the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” or Kocharyan, who represents the overthrown corrupted old guard.
According to Armenian analyst David Arutyunov, the opposition did not offer any practical alternative for resolving the issues of demarcation, a burning question in the country. Indeed, in May, Armenian authorities accused Azerbaijan’s army of advancing more than 3 kilometres (2 miles) into southern Armenia. They claimed the Azeri state was trying to lay siege on Lake Sev Lich (Black Lake), shared by the two countries. In other words, Armenia had lost control not only over most of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also over certain parts of the Republic of Armenia.
As Arutyunov points out, Azerbaijan likely will keep pressuring Armenia until the end in order to get as many concessions as possible in the process of resolving the border demarcation.
Some Armenian officials have announced Russian border guards will be deployed to those areas where Azerbaijani units allegedly advanced. At this point, however, it is highly uncertain how the border will be protected after demarcation—will the Russian troops permanently stay there, or will Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to guard borders on their own? As a result of the 44-day war, some 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh to protect the region’s capital, Stepanakert, and the surrounding area, which is the only portion of the territory that is still de facto under Armenian control. From the Armenian perspective, Russian peacekeepers are seen as the only guardian of the remaining Armenian population in the region. Moreover, Armenia has become so dependent on Moscow, it expects the Kremlin to protect not just ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the borders of the Republic of Armenia, too.
Russia, on the other hand, is obligated to defend Armenia. The Caucasus country is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is often described as a Russian version of NATO, having come into being after the former Soviet Union came apart. Other CSTO members include Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. However, during the war, Russia refused to provide help to its nominal ally, Armenia. According to Key Article 4 of the Treaty, “If one of the State Parties is subjected to aggression by any state or group of states, this will be considered aggression against all States Parties to this Treaty.” The problem for Armenia is that in 2020, Azerbaijan did not attack Armenia itself, but Armenian-backed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. That is why Moscow hesitated to directly intervene. But in May 2021, following the border incidents, Pashinyan wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking for military assistance. To this day, however, no such aid has been provided.
Meanwhile, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have signed a protocol of alliance in a bid to further strengthen their ties. “In the event of a third state’s threat to the independence or territorial integrity of any of the parties, the parties will provide necessary assistance to each other,” the protocol stipulates.
Even before the two countries became formal allies, Turkey supplied Azerbaijan with modern, sophisticated weapons, including the Turkish-made Bayraktar drones that proved to be a game changer in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Russia promises to arm Armenia, although it remains unclear what prevented the Kremlin from selling modern weapons to its ally before the war broke out. Over the years, Russia aimed to preserve good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and at the same time to keep playing the role of the regional arbiter. However, indications suggest the Kremlin prioritized lucrative business and energy ties with Azerbaijan than its nominal alliance with Armenia.
Although the Armenian leadership may have felt because of Moscow’s unwillingness, it hardly has a choice but to keep playing the Russian card. The country depends on Russia economically, politically and militarily.
According to the Moscow-brokered peace deal, signed in November between Pashinyan and Aliyev, Azerbaijan will be able to cross to its exclave Nakhchivan—bordering Armenia, Turkey and Iran—through Armenian territory, and the Russian Federal Security Service will secure roads. Such an action could undermine remnants of Armenia’s sovereignty in the south, primarily in the area bordering Iran.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has insisted on the construction of the Nakhchivan corridor, also known as Zangezur Corridor, which would effectively connect the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic with mainland Azerbaijan. Given that Azerbaijan, as the clear victor, has an upper hand to the defeated Armenia, sooner or later Armenia will have to agree to the Azeri terms and conditions regarding this transregional project. Thus, it is not surprising that Pashinyan, celebrating his election victory, said, “All agreements will be fulfilled.” His room for political maneuvers vis-à-vis Azerbaijan is rather limited.
In the short term—at least until 2025, when the 5-year mandate of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh expires—Russia will remain the dominant regional actor. In the mid and long term, Turkey is expected to improve its positions in the Caucasus, and possibly build a military base not far from the Russian border. Azerbaijan already benefited from its military ties with Turkey, while Armenia proved to be collateral damage in a wider geopolitical game played by Russia and Turkey.
And the game is far from over.
Nikola Mikovic is a Serbia-based contributor to CGTN, Global Comment, Byline Times, Informed Comment, and World Geostrategic Insights, among other publications. He is a geopolitical analyst for KJ Reports and Global Wonks.