WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Yet one more issue has arisen to sour ties between the US and Turkey: Venezuela.
Washington has come out strongly in support of interim president Juan Guaido, leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, while Ankara backs Venezuelan strongman, Nicolas Maduro.
Indeed, on Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu complained that those countries supporting Guaido were actually fueling Venezuela’s unrest and punishing its people.
Concern is rising in Washington that Turkey is helping Maduro to skirt economic sanctions. On Thursday, a senior US official warned that the US was examining commercial activity between Turkey and Venezuela, as he affirmed, “If we assess a violation of our sanctions, we will obviously take action,” Reuters reported.
The warning came days after a Venezuelan official, Tareck El Aissami, traveled to Turkey, where he concluded an agreement on gold trading with Ankara.
Aissami was sanctioned as a drug kingpin by the US several years ago. His family has ties to Iraq’s former Baathist regime. And, he, himself, is reported to have links with Syria, Iran, and Cuba, as well as Lebanese Hizbollah.
Aissami is described as having risen ruthlessly through the ranks of Hugo Chavez’ socialist regime—a brilliant organizer, who cultivated ties with Venezuela’s secret police and then used those relations to advance his own career.
“A cold-blooded man with the manners of a gentleman and impeccable grooming,” a Venezuelan official told the Wall Street Journal.
As many western countries, led by the US, as well as the Organization of American States and at least eleven Latin American countries, have recognized Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim leader, Turkey has joined Russia, China, Iran, and Cuba in supporting Maduro.
“Turkey has increasingly acted in coordination with the VIRTU countries, an acronymic club of authoritarian regimes that includes Venezuela, Iran, Russia, and Turkey,” Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained.
Of particular concern regarding sanctions is Turkey’s gold trade with Venezuela. “The Turkish government is coming under renewed pressure to stop buying gold from Venezuela,” the BBC reported on Friday.
In 2012 and 2013, Turkey imported gold from Venezuela as a way of circumventing US sanctions on Iran. After the “gas-for-gold” scheme was discovered and exposed, US criminal proceedings followed, including against a senior official at a major state-owned Turkish bank. He was tried in New York in 2017; found guilty; and received a 32-month sentence.
In the first nine months of 2018, Venezuela shipped 900 million dollars in gold to Turkey. Caracas claimed it was refining its gold there, rather than in Switzerland, where the valuable metal might be vulnerable to US seizure.
What Venezuela received in return is unclear, as there is no record of Turkey exporting refined gold back to Venezuela. Turkey might have provided some other goods, including food products, or the gold trade might be part of a continued evasion of Iranian sanctions. It could also be a way for Venezuela to obtain hard currency—or some combination of these explanations.
However, a former deputy head of the Turkish embassy in Venezuela, Imdat Oner, described yet another possible angle of the suspect trade, emphasizing the prospects for the personal enrichment of senior officials in both Turkey and Venezuela.
“A vast bribery and corruption mechanism that would benefit government officials of the two countries may play an important role,” Oner suggested.
Tareck El Aissami was born in Venezuela to a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother. As a university student, Aissami became involved in radical politics, meeting Maduro in 2001. He quickly joined—and rose—in the socialist party of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.
Appointed Venezuelan Vice President in January 2017, Aissami was sanctioned the following month by the US Treasury Department, which designated him a drug kingpin for “playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.”
Some two weeks ago, on January 16, Aissami visited Turkey’s Ahlatci gold refinery. The Venezuelan was in Turkey to “finalize a deal” on the gold trade, which had been agreed upon in a visit that Erdogan paid to Venezuela in December, Middle East Eye explained.
Two days later, Erdogan met with Aissami at the Presidential Complex in Ankara. Virtually nothing has emerged about what the two men said to each other.
Aissami’s father, Zaidan El Amin El Aissami, is originally a Druze from Syria. He became head of the pro-Iraqi Baath Party in Venezuela, after immigrating to the South American country.
A great-uncle of the younger Aissami, Shibli El-Aissami, was a major figure in the Baathist politics of Syria and Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s. For a brief period—December 28, 1965, to February 23, 1966—he was Vice-President in Syria’s first Baathist government before it was ousted in an intra-Baathist coup, after which he fled to Iraq.
In 1974, Aissami became Deputy Secretary General of the Iraq-based Baath Party National Command, a position he held until 1979. In 2011, while visiting Lebanon, he was kidnapped and is now presumed dead.
El Neuvo Herald, a Spanish paper published in South Florida, home to many Latin American emigres, reported that Aissami’s father, Zaidan El-Aissami, who is also known as Carlos Zaidan, actually has ties to Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Douri was number two in Saddam Hussein’s regime, and he remains a significant figure in the Sunni insurgency against the successor government in Baghdad.
Many reports also tie the younger Aissami to Lebanese Hizbollah. They include charges that he is involved in drug trafficking with the terrorist organization. The Wall Street Journal also claims that he is close to Cuba’s Raul Castro, as well as the governments of Iran and Syria.
Aissami has been involved in illegal passport sales, including at the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq, according to a major CNN story, based on the revelations of a former employee at that embassy turned whistle-blower.
“One confidential intelligence document” ties Aissami “to 173 Venezuelan passports and ID’s that were issued to individuals from the Middle East,” including individuals with ties to Hizbollah, CNN reported.
Aissami used the funds from drug trafficking and the sale of his country’s documents “to build a parallel national intelligence network” in Venezuela the Journal further explained.