Syrian President Bashar Assad is sounding out allies for possible havens if he flees his disintegrating country – chief among them, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, according to a report by Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Chavez makes sense for several reasons. First, he had close ties to Iran, Syria’s chief ally in the war that has killed tens of thousands of people over the last year.
The Israeli paper reports of a series of meetings by Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdal in Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador that may indicate preliminary discussions for Assad's exit. The Syrian representative reportedly handed classified personal letters from Assad to the countries' leaders, CNN also reported.
The three nations form an anti-US alliance in Latin America that has consistently confounded the Obama administration.
The paper reported that a source in the Venezuelan capital Caracas was not able to say what the response to the Syrian request was, but Venezuela's foreign ministry confirmed to the El Universal newspaper that al-Miqdad did indeed bring a letter for President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez got the letter before he set out to Cuba last week for further treatment for cancer.
But the British Guardian reports
that the Syrian ambassador to Venezuela has denied the claims.
"It is not worth honoring these claims with a response. You can ask our Venezuelan counterparts. In several interviews Assad has said he was born in Syria and will die in Syria. Right now he is not afraid. He is in a strong position. There is no probability that this news is true," ambassador Ghassan Abbas reportedly said.
Assad has said he was not considering asylum: “I am not a puppet. I was not made by the West to go to the West or to any other country,” Assad told a Russian news organization.
“I am Syrian, I was made in Syria, I have to live in Syria and die in Syria."
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Associated Press that the U.N. does not consider an asylum deal for Assad a viable way to end the Syrian conflict.
Activists estimate that more than 40,000 people have been killed since the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011. Violence in and around the country's capital has intensified in recent weeks, as government forces launched an offensive to retake Damascus' suburbs from opposition fighters.
The Obama administration said Wednesday that several countries in the Middle East and elsewhere have informally offered to grant asylum to Assad and his family if they leave Syria.
Administration officials also said they were continuing to encourage those close to Assad to defect and said they believed that Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, who disappeared this week, is currently in London.
The State Department said it couldn't vouch for the sincerity of the Assad asylum offers and noted that they raise serious questions of accountability for abuses committed by his government. But spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. is convinced that Assad must leave and cannot play any role in Syria's future.
"We do understand that some countries both in the region and elsewhere have offered to host Assad and his family should they choose to leave Syria," Toner told reporters. He would not name the countries.
"We, at this point, don't have any formal understanding or knowledge of concrete offers (but) we are aware that some offers have been made informally," he told reporters. His comments came in response to a question about reports that some Latin American countries may be prepared to grant Assad asylum.
Wherever Assad may end up, Toner said the U.S. would insist on his being held accountable for "the horrible abuses he has committed against his own people."
"No one is getting a free pass here," he said. "We want to see Assad gone yesterday. We want to see a peaceful political transition take place (and) Assad has no credibility in that process. He has to go, but there are issues of accountability that have to be addressed."
Toner added that the United States understood from a number of sources that Makdissi was in London. If Makdissi defected, Toner said it would be another sign the Assad government is "crumbling" and that members of Assad's inner circle are realizing that the end is near.
A British official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unlikely that Makdissi was in London.
Makdissi is a longtime spokesman for Syria's foreign ministry who speaks fluent English. Before the uprising he was one of the most available officials to visiting foreign journalists.
During the uprising, Makdissi has given a number of lengthy news conferences defending the Assad government and repeating its view that Assad is a reformer and that the rebels are foreign-backed terrorists.
In July, Makdissi told reporters that chemical and biological weapons would never be used against Syrians, but only in case of a foreign attack. "All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression," he said.
It appeared to be the first time Syria had acknowledged possessing such weapons. Soon after, however, the government tried to blur the issue, saying it had not said it had such weapons.
Lebanese security officials said Makdissi flew from Beirut to London on Monday, but it is not clear whether Makdissi defected, quit his post or was forced out.
Neither the Syrian nor the British government has commented publicly on the matter
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