Q&A: How Likely—and How Costly—is a Potential Colombia-Venezuela Military Clash?

Tensions between Venezuela and Colombia have been been high for years, but in recent months they appear to have reached new heights. At the UN General Assembly in September, Colombian President Iván Duque presented a dossier highlighting longstanding allegations of Venezuelan collusion with armed guerrilla groups. Member countries of the Rio Treaty are drawing attention to Venezuela as a challenge to regional stability and Colombia’s U.S. recently referred to Venezuela as an “existential” threat. With all of this unfolding I wanted to speak to an expert on defense, security, and peacebuilding in Latin America: WOLA’s Adam Isacson. Below is our conversation on the sobering prospects of an armed interstate conflict breaking out between Venezuela and Colombia.

Geoff Ramsey: There have been tensions between Venezuela and Colombia over the last 20 years. Most famously, Chávez and Uribe nearly came to blows in person at a summit in 2010. The border has been closed on either side at various points over the years. So tensions between Venezuela and Colombia are nothing new… What makes this moment different?

Adam Isacson: Unlike in 2010, which was the last time we saw Colombian diplomats presenting evidence of guerilla encampments on Venezuelan soil in international forums, now you have a couple thousand Venezuelans everyday crossing the border. You have much more specific talk about military threats, at least among some elements of Chavismo talking about what a conflict with Colombia would look like. They’re actually envisioning it. There are also frequent incidents along the border—although the reporting isn’t great, something makes the news every few weeks about somebody crossing the border or shots being fired somewhere. Sources in the Colombian military have actually told me that those incidents occur every couple of days. That wasn’t so much the case in 2010. 

Geoff: You’re saying that sources in the Colombian military have said that they’re actively evaluating what a conflict with Venezuela would look like?

Adam: Some actors in Chavismo are talking about targets that could be hit in Colombia which is probably all bluster, but I don’t remember hearing that before. This is the first time Colombia has absolutely not recognized the existence of the government in Venezuela, and there is an international effort to clamp down.

Geoff: Can you talk a bit about the internal politics here in Colombia? How popular is President Iván Duque at the moment? Does this have a bearing on the incentives for his administration to perhaps spark an armed incident in Venezuelan territory or go after FARC dissidents or ELN leaders across the border in Venezuela?

Adam: Duque is having a hard time. His approval rating is in the high 20s in the polls. He cannot really get legislation passed because he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. His own party does not have a congressional majority but is very hardline.

Duque can’t really reach out to moderates in the opposition because of who is in his party, so he is sort of adrift right now. He’s constantly being harangued by ex president Álvaro Uribe, who is now a senator, and also other senators from the far right like Paloma Valencia and others who have presidential ambitions after Duque.

Also, the economy is stagnant right now and people are upset over corruption scandals, and if there was any possible event on the horizon that could unify Colombians behind their president it would be something happening that could be construed as a national security threat, which would allow Duque to appeal to people’s patriotism.

Colombians are not at all fond of Venezuela and its government right now. While Duque’s approval rating is in the high 20s, Maduro and Venezuela’s government in general is usually 1 or 2%.

Luckily so far, Colombians have been generally supportive of the Venezuelan population inside of Colombia. There is a slim majority in favor of taking them in, which is good.

Interestingly, there has been a sharp rise in the Gallup poll, which happens every two months, in the number of Colombians who favor a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela. It is now in the mid to high 50s [note: an August 2019 Gallup poll found that 54% of Colombians would support this].

Geoff: So the majority of Colombians would support a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela?

Adam: That’s what the polls say. It was below 50 about four or five months ago. But this is support for an intervention carried out by the U.S., and not involving Colombian military. 

Geoff: That’s a very important distinction. From a purely realist perspective, it seems to me that Colombia has important incentives not to intervene. As WOLA has documented, Colombia is struggling to provide documentation to fleeing Venezuelans, and to ensure they have access to the formal economy. There’s something like 2 million Venezuelans in Colombian territory. So, they have a refugee challenge, they have a governance crisis in rural areas of the country, which is related to the struggle to fully implement the peace process. None of that gets better with a military conflict with Venezuela. Wouldn’t any military action in Venezuelan territory be counterproductive against Colombia’s own interests? 

Adam: You don’t see a lot of war fever inside of Colombia right now. The border zone all the way from La Guajira to Vichada is very ungoverned right now. The only significant city is Cúcuta, a city of about 800,000 people, and most of the rest is very rural. Smuggling has long been a cornerstone of the economy in a lot of these border cities. It’s not an area that people in Colombia have thought much about to be honest. 

But it’s also an area—for instance in Arauca and Catatumbo—where guerrillas have long been strong, where coca has long been produced. They’re already having a hard enough time trying to improve government presence, offer services, and fight impunity in those areas. If there was actually a conflict, all of this would be made many times worse. That said, because those areas are so ungoverned and lawless, and there is so much illegal activity already going on, that just makes the likelihood of some triggering incident even greater because it’s not a very well controlled area. 

Geoff: I’m glad you mentioned the possibility of a triggering incident and a potential response. That seems like the most likely scenariosome attack by armed groups in Colombian territory that is linked either implicitly or explicitly to Maduro. Recently, the states party to the Rio Treaty have convened and agreed to try to step up pressure through sanctions, invoking a treaty based on the principle of reciprocal defense. It’s interesting, though, because this resolution was signed by countries like Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, and others that have rejected the use of force in responding to Venezuela. To me that suggests they received assurance that this treaty would not be used to justify military action in Venezuela. Otherwise I’m not sure they would have gotten on board. Is your read that convening the Rio Treaty and framing Venezuela’s crisis as a threat to regional stability gets us closer to a Venezuela-Colombia armed conflict? 

Adam: Symbolically, perhaps. But not practically… There have been so many objections from countries to the whole idea of military intervention in recent months. But, if you are just talking about diplomatic pressure and you confine your discussion to diplomatic pressure and sanctions, there are pre-existing tools in place like the Lima Group and to some extent the OAS. Invoking a mechanism that contemplates military intervention when there are already existing mechanisms that don’t is a new dynamic.

I agree that this doesn’t bring us much closer, but it does bring us slightly closer. Suddenly you have invoked something that holds this out as a possibility. It’s a recognition that you would never be able to do this under this under Article VII of the UN Charter because of the lack of consensus in the Security Council, whereas you do have consensus in the Rio Pact. But, it’s still more at the level of symbolism. 

Geoff: Let’s turn to internal dynamics in this country. We saw recently that an alleged Iran-linked attack on the Saudis was met with a U.S. response that prioritized diplomacy and sanctions over a retaliatory military strike. Let’s say a conflict were to break out and actors in Venezuela do go after targets in Colombian territory. Is the U.S. really interested in getting bogged down in that? Can we actually count on the U.S. to intervene militarily if things were to escalate?

Adam: I think yes, if things escalated in the way you just described. Several U.S. officials have given oral guarantees of a response for Colombia if they are attacked by Venezuela. I don’t know if those have been written, if they are, they certainly haven’t made it into public domain at all.

But oral guarantees have been pretty frequent over the last 15 months or so. So, we would probably have to keep our word at some point even if the endgame is far from clear. You’ve taken out Maduro militarily, what are you going to do next? That’s the main reason I think there is so much hesitation in the U.S. military, in Southern Command, etc. on going all out on this. But in at least helping Colombia respond to military aggression from Venezuela, the U.S. would move in. Probably not committing a lot of troops, or boots on the ground, which I doubt Colombia would want. But I think the U.S. military would respond with air support in particular, in addition to targeting, advising, and intelligence. 

Geoff: I know you have written about this, but what does the worst case scenario look like? Some kind of escalation of the current tension leading to armed conflict? What would that look like, both in Colombia and in Venezuela?

Adam: In Colombia, I think Venezuela can do some damage initially, even if they only have two working Sukhoi fighter jets, they can still fly a lot of sorties with those. They also seem to have a couple thousand Igla missiles, these medium range surface to air missiles that can also do a lot of damage.

The ultimate worst case scenario would be if Russia were to actually commit some sort of military assets as well, which I don’t think would happen. I have not heard Russia give those same guarantees to Venezuela. So there is reason to suggest that in the scenario you described it would  be over pretty quickly. There would be some deaths, there would be some real serious property damage inside of Colombia, but Colombia’s military is clearly superior to Venezuela’s on the ground. If the U.S. got involved it would probably overwhelm whatever aerial advantage Venezuela briefly might have had. 

The real problems would start once they actually did get the Venezuelan military to surrender, or disintegrate, and Maduro either is killed or kicked out of the country. What happens next? Who has the legitimacy to really be the next president and rally everyone together? How big would an inevitable insurgency be and what kind of damage can they do in both countries? They’re certainly well armed, and even if it’s a fraction of Chavismo there are militias and colectivos, ELN, and some FARC dissidents. God knows that they can all coalesce inside Venezuela if there was an occupying force or president that a significant portion of the country didn’t see as legitimate. That could drag out for a very long time. 

Geoff: So what you’re saying is this shows why it’s in the interest of cooler heads to prevail. Realistically it is not in the U.S. or Colombian interest to send an indefinite occupying force or support a potentially destabilizing conflict that could worsen a refugee crisis across the region. Instead it’s in everyone’s interest to look for some kind of institutional transition that incorporates international stakeholders like Russia and China as much as possible and reduces the potential for fragmentation.

Adam: Yeah, that’s the number one reason you’d want a negotiation that can bring a soft landing, one that gets the buy-in of far more people than an alternative method would. 

Geoff: Is there anything else you think we should be keeping an eye on?

Adam: We’ve talked about the likelihood of a border incident, and border incidents do happen all the time. I had a high ranking Colombian military official tell me late last year that in the previous two years they’ve counted about 147 incidents where shots were fired on the border. Most of those probably involved organized crime, and not any state forces. But the fear is that one of these gets out of hand and Venezuelan forces actually do something that results in loss of life on the Colombian side. Or people who want a conflict actually manage to invent something, whether it happened in reality or not. We have to be very vigilant of that because it could destroy the likelihood of any negotiations that could bring the soft landing that we need.