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Venezuelan lawmaker vows to fight for Syria's al-Assad

By Rafael Romo, CNN Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
September 6, 2013 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Venezuelan legislator Adel El Zabayar is in Syria supporting President Bashar Al-Assad
  • El Zabayar's parents are from Syria
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro praises lawmaker as a hero
  • Some Venezuelans of Arab origin protested outside U.S. Embassy in Caracas this week

(CNN) -- The picture has created an uproar in Venezuela. It shows Venezuelan lawmaker Adel El Zabayar, holding an assault rifle and posing with two armed soldiers. What makes the photo particularly striking is that the 49-year-old legislator is in Syria supporting President Bashar Al-Assad.

El Zabayar was born in Venezuela, but his parents are from Syria. The lawmaker, who was little known before his trip to Syria, says he's willing to fight for the country of his forebears if the United States attacks the Arab nation.

In another picture, El Zabayar appears in the middle of a group of apparent military men. Like most of the others, he's holding an assault rifle.

In a recent phone interview with CNN en Español from Damascus, where he's visiting his ailing mother, El Zabayar called the U.S. government hypocritical.

"It has a double standard when it comes to al Qaeda," he said. "We need to think about that. The world has to start a debate about international terrorism."

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
Syrian civil war in photos
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El Zabayar is a member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. He accompanied the late President Hugo Chavez when he met with al-Assad in Syria in 2009. The Venezuelan National Assembly granted El Zabayar a leave of absence to travel to Syria, and President Nicolas Maduro praises him as a hero.

"He has decided to give his life for his land, the land of his grandparents, for the peace and dignity of the Syrian people. Well done, Mr. Legislator. You have followed your conscience," Maduro said on Venezuelan national television this week.

Venezuela has a sizable population of ethnic Arabs who have significant clout and political power. Tareck El Aissami, who has Syrian and Lebanese parents, is the governor of Aragua state and former minister of the interior and justice. Favored by Chavez, he has remained powerful under the new administration.

Just like El Aissami, a large portion of the Arab community in Venezuela has aligned itself with the socialist government. Members of the Arab-Venezuelan Union and the Sheik Ibrahim Mosque in Caracas marched last September to support Chavez's re-election.

A group of Venezuelans of Arab origin protested outside the U.S. Embassy in Caracas this week. They chanted "Long live Syria!" and "Down with the empire!" They were waiving Syrian flags, and one demonstrator displayed a picture of Chavez and al-Assad holding hands up in a sign of victory.

Hindu Anderi, one of the protest organizers, suggested the United States has ulterior motives on Syria.

"Enough of wars motivated by oil and energy resources. We don't believe the fairy tale of chemical weapons used against the civilian population in Syria by the government of Bashar al-Assad," Anderi said.

Maduro also shares that point of view. In a recently published open letter to President Barack Obama, the Venezuelan leader called a possible attack against Syria "unfair, disastrous and terrifying."

The rhetoric from Caracas, consistently anti-American for more than a decade, may heat up even more if the United States takes action on Syria.

El Zabayar, the Syrian-Venezuelan lawmaker, has a rather rosy view of the current situation in Syria, where a popular uprising spiraled into a civil war in 2011. "Everything is great," he said. "People are out in the street doing their normal things. You have to remember that before being invaded by foreign mercenaries from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Syria used to be known as one of the safest countries in the world."

Journalist Osmary Hernandez in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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