First, Chavez’s latest provocation:
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Warning that Colombia could spark a war, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sent tanks and thousands of troops to the countries’ border Sunday and ordered his government’s embassy in Bogota closed. The leftist leader warned Colombia’s U.S.-allied government that Venezuela will not permit acts like Saturday’s killing of top rebel leader Raul Reyes and 16 other Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas at a camp across the border in Ecuador.
“Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately—tank battalions, deploy the air force,” Chavez said during his weekly TV and radio program. “We don’t want war, but we aren’t going to permit the U.S. empire, which is the master (of Colombia) … to come to divide us.”
He ordered the Venezuelan Embassy in Bogota closed and said all embassy personnel would be withdrawn. It pushes already tense relations between the South American neighbors to their lowest point yet, with potentially far-reach effects on billions of dollars in cross-border trade.
Though Chavez didn’t say how many troops he was sending, a Venezuelan battalion traditionally has some 600 soldiers—meaning some 6,000 could be headed to the border.
Chavez called the Colombian government “a terrorist state” as he sided with the leftist rebels it has battled for decades, saying its military “invaded Ecuador, flagrantly violated Ecuador’s sovereignty.”
Neither Colombia’s foreign minister nor the country’s military leadership would comment on Chavez’s latest move when pressed by reporters for comment Sunday as they left a funeral service in Bogota for a Colombian soldier killed in Saturday’s raid.
Speaking in Texas, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said officials were monitoring the situation.
“This is an odd reaction by Venezuela to Colombia’s efforts against the FARC, a terrorist organization that continues to hold Colombians, Americans and others hostage,” Johndroe said.
Chavez said he had just spoken to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and that Ecuador was also sending troops to its border with Colombia. Chavez said his Ecuadorean ally told him that Uribe had lied and that the rebels were killed while asleep “in their pajamas.”
“This is something very serious. This could be the start of a war in South America,” Chavez said. He warned Colombian President Alvaro Uribe: “If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I’ll send some Sukhois”—Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela.
He called Uribe “a criminal” accusing him of being a “lapdog” of Washington saying “Dracula’s fangs (are) are covered in blood.”
The slaying of Reyes and 16 other guerrillas, Chavez said, “wasn’t any combat. It was a cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated.”
“We pay tribute to a true revolutionary, who was Raul Reyes,” Chavez said, recalling that he had met rebel in Brazil in 1995 and calling him a “good revolutionary.”
“The Colombian government has become the Israel of Latin America,” an agitated Chavez said, mentioning another country that he has criticized for its military strikes. “We aren’t going to permit Colombia to become the Israel of these lands. … Uribe, we aren’t going to permit you.”
“Someday Colombia will be freed from the hand of the (U.S.) empire,” Chavez said. “We have to liberate Colombia,” he added, saying Colombia’s people will eventually do away with its government.
Chavez maintains warm relations with the Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and has sought to play a role as mediator in the conflict despite his growing conflict with Colombia’s government.
For Hezbollah and Syria, the timing is fortuitous, to say the least.
As we noted more than two months ago, Israel and her allies — the United States and, much more ambiguously, the Saudis, Egyptians, Kurds and Turks — had a fairly short window within which to strike Syria. In mid-December, the Russians dispatched a carrier battle group from Murmansk, only a few hundred miles from the North Pole, to the Syrian port of Tartus. Once the Russian fleet would have arrived, the Israelis would not have been able to attack Syria without waging war upon the Russians.
In February, the ‘Israeli axis’ has moved and moved rapidly. Imad Mighniyeh / Mughniyah, the Iranian master strategist of Hezbollah, was assassinated on February 13 by car bomb. The infamously paranoid Mughniyah would have been stunned, had he lived long enough to realize what had happened: he had kept remarkably lax security in Damascus in the weeks preceding his death. He was almost certainly betrayed by someone deep inside either Hezbollah or the Syrian security establishment.
Nobody seems to know who carried out the assassination. Initially, everyone thought Mossad was responsible. The Arabs ascribe to Mossad powers similar to those ascribed to George Soros by right-wing Americans: if a pin drops and it’s not clear why, then Soros (Mossad) did it as part of a mysterious and certainly-nefarious plot.
Since then, however, the conventional wisdom appears to have changed. The Syrians did not publicize their findings, but they did say publicly that “several Arab governments [cough saudiarabia cough] were responsible” for the Mughniyeh assassination. Hassan Nasrallah’s “Lebanese faction” of Hezbollah also had much to gain by eliminating Mughniyeh: the deluge of Iranian money into Hezbollah sidelined the native Lebanese Hezbollah hierarchy in favor of an Iranian and Syrian faction.
Regardless, however, Iran appears to have barely noticed. President Ahmadinejad is in the middle of a historic state visit to Iraq, in which he has signed several major commercial agreements and remains under the watchful — and protective — sniper scopes of Baghdad’s American masters. A naval battle group is moored near the Syrian shoreline, but it is American, not Russian. Hamas-controlled Gaza appears to be under heavy Israeli assault, and Syria and Hezbollah are both still boiling over the Mughniyah assassination and its reverberations.
It has to be terrible to be in Syria’s position right now. The Israelis have signalled that they will have a rematch with Hezbollah, on their own terms, and if Syria attempts to defend Hezbollah it will be the victim of massive Israeli bombing, as well as American firepower.
All this brings us back to the timing of Chavez’s threat to go to war with Colombia, America’s main ally in South America, on the heels of the most tense Mideastern geopolitics since Israel’s September bombing of Syria.
Chavez’s links with all the anti-American Mideast actors are well known, but were of dubious practical significance — until now.
Chavez knows the United States is badly overstretched. Perhaps he can provoke some more American threats, followed by Putin’s establishing a naval base in Venezuela. In the meantime Chavez milks a still-higher oil risk premium, and amasses more influence within FARC.
I do not think Chavez’s threat to go to war with Colombia is credible, though. Nowhere has Chavez’s star fallen so far than in the eyes of the Venezuelan professional army corps, who loathe the thuggish “Bolivarian militias” which Chavez established to insure against any problems from the Venezuelan army. The support of a major army general and former ally of Chavez was what defeated Chavez’s recent dictator-for-life referendum.
Would the army throw itself into a war with Colombia for the sake of a bunch of drug traffickers? I have a hard time seeing it.