When Hugo Chavez was running Venezuela, he did what he could to help friends in need around the world. Cuba's economy is struggling? Send in tens of thousands of barrels of cut-rate oil. The financial markets are giving Argentina the cold shoulder? Buy up those dud government bonds from Buenos Aires.
It was all part of the populist leader's charm offensive, meant to garner allies and spread his "Bolivarian" revolution for "21st Century Socialism." All the better if you could take a poke at Washington along the way by comforting the enemies of the global capitalist gringo conspiracy. From Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to North Korea's Kim Jong-un, Chavez's policy was to leave no pariah behind.
El Comandante is gone, having succumbed to cancer earlier this year, but Chavismo flourishes and now has added a new item to its diplomatic arsenal: the lawmaker. Consider Abdel el-Zabayar, a 49-year-old Venezuelan politician of Syrian ancestry, who gave up a comfortable job in Caracas to fight for the besieged government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The venue isn't new. Even as civil war raged, Chavez went out of his way to embrace the Syrian strongman, encouraging bi-national trade and sending tanker ships of fuel oil to Damascus despite an international embargo. What's noteworthy is that el-Zabayar is an elected Venezuelan congressman and a proud member of the ruling United Socialist Party majority.
Last month, he traveled to Syria, the country of his ancestors, ostensibly to visit his ageing mother who was said to be ill. But apparently he had something bigger in mind. President of the Arab Federation of Venezuela, El Zabayar had taken care to file for an indefinite leave of absence with the unicameral National Assembly. Soon after he was seen stumping for the Assad regime in his ancestor's conflagrated homeland.
In a widely distributed snapshot, he leans casually against a stone wall in some hardscrabble setting, presumably Syria, a Kalashnikov on one knee and flanked by two rather more robustly kitted-out soldiers. Gray headed and full bellied, he looks less like a soldier of fortune than he a tourist trolling for thrills. Then again, frontline duty in Venezuela's National Assembly is not for wimps, as a recent brawl in the legislature graphically illustrated.
His precise role in the Syrian conflict is unclear. Media reports described him as assigned to surveillance duties at some undisclosed location. "We cannot say where, due to security precautions," his secretary, Doris Bautista, told reporters in Caracas.
Whatever skill set he took to Syria, his timing was impeccable. El Zabayar landed in Damascus in mid-August, around the time when government forces turned chemical weapons on rebel strongholds. El Zabayar is quick to blame Syrian insurgents and "terrorists" in service to "American imperialism" for the gas attacks, toeing the Damascus-Moscow line that Western powers have "yet to show a shred of evidence" linking Assad to the chemical weapons attack.
And if he’s not exactly a battle-tested mercenary, he is a warrior on Twitter, where he squeezes off pro-Assad tweets to his 15,000 - plus followers. "If Obama failed to convince his wife and two daughters on an attack against Syria, how does he think he'll convince the people of the United States?" he posted on Sept. 11.
For all the headlines he has generated, El Zabayar's Syrian expedition seems to have caught many Venezuelans by surprise. A low profile legislator from the state of Bolivar, he was never a leading voice in the National Assembly. "He's a complete unknown," says Diego Arria, a former ambassador to the UN and a onetime candidate for president. "Chavismo has over 120 legislators, but only about eight of them matter. He is not one of them."
He's also something of an anomaly for Venezuela, where the estimated 1.6 million people of Arab descent – lumped together colloquially as "Turcos" or Turks – are "mostly conservative and apolitical," Arria says.
And yet by joining the fray in Syria, El Zabayar has managed to make an impression, and even become something of a celebrity among diehard Chavistas. After a particularly contentious interview on CNN in Spanish , his supporters rallied to his defense, posting the exchange under the title "Bullied by the assassins from CNN."
"I and all the Venezuelan people salute you, deputy Abdel el Zabayar, for your dignity," president Nicolas Maduro said recently. "You are following your conscience."
Others were not so impressed. "The Syrian government is doomed!" commented one reader in a web post.