When Countries Support Neighboring Rebellions

A sovereign state is, by definition, supposed to manage affairs inside its borders. But that's not always the case, especially when it comes to disputes involving guerrilla movements. After all, moral equivalency or not, one nation's terrorists really are another's freedom fighters, and foreign governments sometimes cross international borders to protect antigovernment forces elsewhere, reinforce ethnic movements, or simply to make their presence known. Last week, for example, documents revealed that Venezuela is still supporting the FARC guerrillas in Colombia.

Not surprisingly, this uninvited meddling is not received warmly; intrusions often cause major international crises. By offering military aid, financial support, and political alliances to rebel groups, nations can sour relations with their neighbors (as with Venezuela and Colombia) or even with distant foes (as with Saudi Arabia and Russia). Here is a brief overview of nations that have wreaked havoc by meddling in the business of other countries.

Years: 1964-present
The meddler: Venezuela
The transgression: Caracas provides money and political support for Colombia's FARC guerrillas.
Considered a terrorist organization by a number of countries, including the United States, FARC guerrillas have been fighting to overthrow the government in Colombia since the 1960s. They operate inside the jungles along Venezuela's border and represent the largest Marxist insurgency in Latin America. The group is infamous for its kidnappings of foreign citizens and violent attacks against Colombian targets. Since coming into power in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe, whose own father was killed in a FARC kidnapping attempt, has successfully battled the insurgents; but he still hasn't found a way to cut off the aid that FARC militants receive from abroad.

Venezuela is considered to be sympathetic to the FARC. In an effort to legitimize the group's plight, President Hugo Chávez has urged Colombia to recognize it as a "belligerent force" instead of "terrorists." Chávez's ties to FARC are so close that, in August 2007, Uribe asked the Venezuelan president to serve as a mediator in talks over freeing hostages held by the group. When the negotiations fell apart, the two leaders traded public insults (Chávez compared Uribe to a "mafia boss"; Uribe reiterated by calling him a "legitimizer of terrorists"). Chávez has repeatedly denied his government's collaboration with the rebel group.

But in March 2008, when Colombia raided a FARC camp in Ecuador, its analysts discovered intelligence that suggested Venezuela had given $300 million and military support to the FARC. Venezuela responded by sending troops to its Colombian border. Last week new evidence obtained from rebels showed that Venezuelan officials still assist the FARC by securing arms deals and facilitating the rebels' movement inside Venezuela.

Years: 1985-1986
The meddler: The U.S.
The transgression: Washington funded contra rebel group in Nicaragua with arms sales to Iran.
During the Cold War, the United States did its fair share of intervening, under the Reagan Doctrine, to prevent the spread of Soviet-backed communism. One particular case erupted into a scandal involving two otherwise little-related nations, Nicaragua and Iran. The anticommunist opposition in Nicaragua, the contras, was formed in 1979 to fight the socialist regime. They often used violent means, such as rape, torture, and murder, during their struggle. But because they were fighting the Cuban-backed Sandinista government, they were the "moral equal of our Founding Fathers," according to President Reagan, and thus the recipient of large financial and military support from the United States. The U.S. was also influential in strengthening the contras by unifying and training the largely disorganized groups that made up the opposition.

Congress caught wind of the contras' brutal methods in 1984 and restricted the aid Reagan could provide them. So, in secret, administration officials used the profits from covert arms sales to Iran (which had released 52 American Embassy hostages just three years earlier, after 444 days in captivity) to fund the contras. The Iran-contra affair was revealed in 1986 and damaged both Reagan's popularity domestically as well as America's image internationally. Lt. Col. Oliver North, a Marine officer, later took the blame; he was fired from his position as the administration's counterterrorism coordinator and prosecuted. Although he was found guilty on three counts, his convictions were later overturned. Others officials involved in the scandal were later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.

Years: 1980-1998
The meddler: Syria
The transgression: Damascus housed and trained Turkey's PKK terrorists, among others.
The PKK has been waging an armed guerrilla battle against the Turkish state since the early 1980s, with the aim of creating an ethnically Kurdish state, and it was largely backed by Syria, home to nearly 2 million Kurds. In 1980, the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, fled across the border into Syria, where his fighters received arms, military training, and a safe haven for nearly two decades. Their activities were especially concentrated in the Bekaa Valley, a central Lebanese region controlled until recently by Syria. Here, the rebel army not only trained in terrorist tactics, but also cultivated opium to fund its operations.

According to some analysts, the Syrian government harbored the PKK for so long in order to have a bargaining tool in relations with Turkey. The two countries have long bickered over territorial and water claims. In fact, then-president Hafez Assad's support for the PKK increased when Turkey finalized its plans for a massive dam project that would drastically reduce water flow to Syria. By the late 1990s, tensions had risen so much that the two countries were on the brink of war. The crisis was averted in 1998, when Syria, under pressure from Turkey, expelled Ocalan and closed down the PKK camps. Although Ocalan was captured shortly afterward in Kenya, the PKK's influence in Syria has remained strong. Thousands of Syrian Kurds have joined the PKK over the years; Syrian members are thought to represent one third of the group.

Years: 1982-present
The meddler: Iran
The transgression: Tehran masterminds Lebanon's Hizbullah.

Hizbullah, the militant Shiite group in southern Lebanon, has had close ties with Iran since its founding in 1982. Some U.S. and Israeli officials have even suggested that the group operates in accordance with Iran's regional agenda. The deep links between Hizbullah and Iran are rooted in shared religious, ideological, and political beliefs (Iran is one of the world's only Shia-majority nations). In fact, Hizbullah's creation was largely inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran. Originally, Hizbullah wanted to establish a similar Islamic state in Lebanon. Although it later abandoned this goal, the group has remained loyal to the principles of the Islamic Republic, often turning to the Supreme Leader in Tehran for spiritual guidance.

The true extent of Iran's involvement in Hizbullah's activities is unclear, but it is estimated that Iran covers somewhere between $60 million and $100 million of the group's annual expenses. Many of the weapons Hizbullah has used against Israel are believed to be supplied by Tehran. In 2002, Israel seized a cargo ship named the Karine A and discovered 50 tons of Iranian weapons that were being supplied to the Palestinian Authority through Hizbullah, according to Israel and the United States. (Hizbullah denied this.) The Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been involved in the military training of Hizbullah fighters and commanders, both in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley as well as in Iran proper, where Hizbullah has an office.

Years: 1994-present
The meddler: Saudi Arabia
The transgression: Riyadh is thought to have indoctrinated Chechen rebels with extremism and supported their independence from Russia.

Throughout Chechnya's struggle to gain independence from Russia in the northern Caucusus, Chechen rebels were supported by Turkey and even the United States, but their strongest ally was always Saudi Arabia. During the Chechen wars of 1994-1996 and 1999-2004, the Wahhabi state aided Chechen militants with money, arms, supplies, and training. Russia also blames Saudi missionaries for spreading Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam, in the region and fueling extremism.

Saudi Arabia was influential in promoting the Chechen cause internationally, especially in the Muslim world. In January 1995, the Saudi government tried to get the U.N. Security Council to bring the war to an end, and, using its influential voice in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, called on Muslim nations to support Chechen separatist aspirations.

But when Chechen militants hijacked a Russian plane and forced it to land in Medina in March 2001, Saudi officials said they condemned terrorism. Yet when Chechen terrorists took hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002, Moscow claimed they had been funded by Riyadh; cell-phone records showed the rebels made calls to Gulf states during the siege. Saudi officials denied the claims, but the accusation frayed relations.

Years: 1976-present
The meddler: Algeria
The transgression: Algiers backs the Polisario Front, which seeks Western Sahara's independence from Morocco.
The Polisario Front is a rebel movement founded in 1973 that calls for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco. Since Spain's withdrawal from the colony and Morocco's ensuing claim over the territory in the mid-1970s, the group has waged a guerrilla war against Rabat. In 1976, when the Polisario Front declared the sovereignty of the disputed region, Algeria became the first nation to recognize it. Since then, the group has been based in Algeria, which provides it with military, financial, and political backing.

For more than 30 years, nearly 200,000 natives of Western Sahara have been living in Polisario-run camps in western Algeria, in a region the Algerian government has effectively ceded to the guerrilla group. Although Algiers reduced its support for the group in the 1990s, its relations with Morocco are predictably bad: the border between the two countries has been closed since 1994, and, despite efforts by the U.N. and neighboring African nations, relations have yet to be normalized (although last month Moroccan King Mohammed VI suggested he wanted to improve ties and said he would allow for some degree of autonomy in Western Sahara).