Syria`s President begins Latin America tour

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits Latin American for the first time.

Damascus: In his search for greater international recognition, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad embarks on a landmark Latin American tour on Friday to reinforce economic ties with a continent he is visiting for the first time.

Accompanied by his wife, Asma, the Syrian leader will arrive in Venezuela on Friday before proceeding to Brazil and Argentina, all three home to large communities of Syrian émigrés.

He will also visit Cuba to strengthen traditionally close ties.

"Bilateral relations and developments in the Middle East and Latin America" will dominate discussions in the four countries, the official SANA news agency said, without providing a detailed schedule of the visit.

"This is a trip that was envisaged for a long time but was not carried out for various reasons," said a Western diplomat in Damascus.

Boycotted and sidelined for decades by the United States and the West for allegedly supporting terrorism, Syria has begun to assert itself as a key player in the Middle East.

Last month, shortly after the United States accused Syria of supporting "terrorist" groups and renewed sanctions for another year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev described Damascus as a key political player in the region.

Assad`s Latin American visit seeks to strengthen ties with a continent that is home to millions of Syrian-origin émigrés, said the Western diplomat.

The tour is intended "to reinforce the economic bonds" with the Latin American countries, "particularly with the émigrés of Syrian origin" and especially those in Brazil, which has between three and four million, he said.

The majority of the millions of Syrian-origin émigrés in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela are businessmen, engineers, doctors, politicians and even a former president -- Argentina`s Carlos Menem.

The visit -- to countries like Venezuela and Cuba that share Syrian hostility toward the United States and to leftist-governed countries like Brazil and Argentina -- is aimed at "reinforcing economic ties", official Syrian media have reported.

Assad also will meet with Arab communities in those countries.

He will be received in Venezuela on Friday by President Hugo Chavez, who visited Syria in 2006 and 2009.

Cuba and Syria, together with Iran and Sudan, are on a US State Department blacklist of nations that support terrorism, an accusation they all deny.

In Cuba, a traditional Arab ally, Assad will meet with President Raul Castro whose predecessor, his brother Fidel, paid a visit to Syria in May 2001, months after Assad succeeded his late father, Hafez.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also visited Syria in 2003, and last March Brazil`s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim carried an invitation to Assad.

In Argentina, Syria`s "traditionally good" relations "will be consolidated" by the signing of nine transport, tourism and cultural agreements, said a senior official at the Argentine embassy in Damascus.

Ten percent of Argentina`s population is of Arab origin, including 2.5 million of Syrian ancestry and 1.5 million of Lebanese descent, the embassy said.

Bureau Report