Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2006
Issue No. 776
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The fox speaks

Are cracks now appearing that may lead to the collapse of the Syrian regime? Sami Moubayed reflects on the evidence

Click to view caption
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, left, and Vice-President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, observing last June a minute of silence for the late Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad and Arab martyrs at the opening session of the 10th Regional Conference of the Baath Party

Commentary: Revelations

Surprising everybody around him, former Syrian vice-president Abdul-Halim Khaddam appeared from his Paris- based residence on Al-Arabiya TV on 30 December declaring his variance from the Syrian regime that he had co- created with Syria's late president Hafez Al-Assad in November 1970. What seemed like a calm Khaddam -- once known as the fox of Syrian politics -- got more aggressive as the hour-long interview progressed. He started by explaining that he had not been exiled to France, but that he was in Paris because he wanted to write his memoirs in peace. His family had come to spend the Christmas holidays in France, he said, "but they will return to Syria". He said that he had met President Bashar Al-Assad prior to his departure and that they enjoyed an excellent relationship "despite differences in opinion". He described Al-Assad as having "high manners" who "showed me affection and respect because he knew of the nature of the relationship between his father and I".

He added that he was not threatened by anybody, "at least not until now," but feared that "those who mislead him [President Al-Assad] will instigate him [to threaten Khaddam]."

When asked if he feared that he would be brought to court for attacking the regime from exile, he replied: "the Syrians know who Abdul-Halim Khaddam is and the sacrifices he made to raise Syria." Khaddam pointed out: "if anybody dares to think about bringing me to trial he must calculate that one day, he will stand trial in the courtroom!" Ironically, hours after Khaddam's interview, the Syrian People's Assembly gathered in Damascus in a public and televised meeting and cursed Khaddam as a corrupted agent who had sold out to the Americans, demanding that he be brought to trial in Syria "for high treason". Hours after that, he was expelled from the Baath Party, accused of having done "a cheap favour" to the "American-Jewish campaign against Syria". The Baath held him responsible for all mistakes in Lebanon saying that, "history and the people will not show mercy with those who betrayed [Syria, its leadership, and the Baath Party]."

Khaddam attested in his interview that he had "left Syria during difficult times, but left it for the sake of Syria". He then lashed out against regime officials, saying they were amassing millions while average Syrians were getting poorer. "When millions of Syrians cannot find anything to eat, and some search in trash cans, wealth accumulates in the hands of some people." This is done, he says, "because the law is absent and what is present are the benefits of the limited circle that surrounds the regime." He added, "You cannot stand up to foreign pressure if half the rights of the Syrian people are confiscated and forbidden from political activity, and they are governed by the security services." He added that there must be dialogue between the regime and the opposition, pointing out that all the opposition is nationalistic, "including the Muslim Brotherhood" which were outlawed when Khaddam was minister of foreign affairs in 1980 for trying to assassinate the late president Al-Assad, eventually being rooted out of public life in a massive purge after they attempted a rebellion in Hama in 1982.

When asked why he had not raised the issues of democracy or corruption while he was in power, Khaddam noted that he had talked about both issues at party meetings, especially after President Bashar Al-Assad came to power in June 2000. Counter-arguments came out of Damascus, mainly from the Syrian opposition, who said that it was Khaddam who had outlawed the political saloons in February 2001, telling the opposition that he would not allow them to transform Syria into Algeria (meaning, to be torn apart by civil war caused by Islamic fundamentalists). All talk about him having been an obstacle to reforms, he said, was fabricated by the security services, which spread a story in Syria saying that the old guard was opposed to change. The reason for these problems, he pointed out, is "the monopolisation of power" by President Al-Assad. He also accused the Syrian president of misreading international affairs and thinking that the Americans will keep Syria in Lebanon so that the Syrians can cooperate with them on Iraq. He then lashed out harshly at Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa -- animosity between both men being well known -- saying that Al-Sharaa was not the number two man in Syria, "not even the tenth man in Syria at all". He said that he had advised President Al-Assad "to send [Al-Sharaa] home" because he was responsible for UN Resolution 1559, but Al-Assad had said "we can't punish anybody at this time."

Khaddam then defended the Syrian story that Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan had committed suicide in October 2005 right before the UN judge Detlev Mehlis presented his report on Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination to the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Khaddam said: "some wanted to make Ghazi responsible for what happened in Lebanon, and they forgot Rustom Ghazaleh. Ghazi made his mistakes in Lebanon, nobody doubts that, but he used to make mistakes politely and apologise politely; Rustom used to act as if he were the supreme ruler of Lebanon." He added: "at one point I found out that [Ghazaleh] had insulted Prime Minister Al-Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri. He also insulted Walid Jumblatt. I asked President Al-Assad, 'why are you keeping him in Lebanon? He is giving you a bad name and giving Syria a bad name.'" Al-Assad agreed, telling Khaddam that Rustom had also insulted Najib Mikati (who became prime minister in mid-2005) and Suleiman Franjiyeh. The Syrian president reportedly then told Khaddam that Ghazaleh had embezzled $35 million from Al-Madina Bank in Lebanon, adding: "he is a thief indeed. Look at the palace he built for himself in his village."

In amazement, Khaddam continued addressing the president, "you are army commander and president of the republic. You know that an officer under your command has committed all of these mistakes why are you keeping him?" He added that after Al-Hariri's assassination he met President Al-Assad on 28 February 2004 and said: "bring this murderer and chop off his head. He is the one who created this situation in Lebanon." He added that he advised the president to create an investigating committee to interrogate those who had blackened Syria's name in Lebanon. "Let them shoulder responsibility for their mistakes in Lebanon. Why should the state take responsibility? Why should you?" President Al-Assad replied that nobody could be punished until after the Baath Party congress of 6-9 June 2005. The congress did take place, and to Khaddam's surprise, Ghazaleh was appointed director of intelligence in the area of Damascus.

According to the Lebanese daily An- Nahar, Ghazaleh called Al-Arabiya to object to Khaddam's statements but then changed his mind, deciding to take the matter to Syrian courts and accuse Khaddam of defaming him by claiming he had embezzled $35 million. The Lebanese New TV corrected the ex- Syrian vice-president, saying that the real number was $72 million.

Khaddam then enraged the Syrian regime and said that "many threats" were made against prime minister Al-Hariri. One was from Ghazaleh himself, who allegedly addressed the Lebanese prime minister while playing with his revolver. "Dangerous things" were said to Al-Hariri, Khaddam added, saying that at one point he was summoned to Damascus "and subjected to very, very harsh words". He said that Al-Assad had spoken harshly to Al-Hariri in the presence of senior Syrian officers, including Ghazaleh. Al-Hariri had left the meeting in bad health, with a bleeding nose, and complained to interior minister Kenaan. Khaddam strongly denied, however, that a meeting of Syrian officials, with him included, had discussed eliminating Al-Hariri months before his assassination on 14 February 2005. He added, "no security agency in Syria can independently take such a decision." Most troubling to Syrians was Khaddam's defence of the Mehlis investigation and report, which Syria, since October 2005, has been trying to denounce as lacking credibility, being steeped in bias, and politicised to incriminate Syria. "I am a lawyer," Khaddam noted, adding, "the report is technical and professional. Mehlis is a professional man and well-known judge; his report is professional and good. He avoided politicising the interrogation although the crime is a political one."

The earthquake of Khaddam's comments has sent shockwaves throughout Syria. Not only has it aroused the anger of the state media, parliament and Baath Party, but apparently, it has also struck a raw nerve in Lebanon. Baabda Palace issued a statement on 1 January denying that President Emile Lahoud had threatened or manipulated anybody against prime minister Al-Hariri. Saad Al-Hariri, a close friend of the Khaddam family due to Khaddam's friendship with his father Rafik, issued a statement praising Khaddam's statements, and so did the Druze leader Jumblatt, another good friend of the former vice-president. Jumblatt's statement read: "nobody can doubt Abdul- Halim Khaddam's Syrian nationalism."

On 2 January a spokeswoman for the UN said that the investigating team looking into the assassination of Al-Hariri would like to meet Khaddam, along with Foreign Minister Al-Sharaa and President Bashar Al-Assad. Although not stated directly, this request was a direct result of Khaddam's interview on Al-Arabiya. Syria has not yet responded to the UN request and it was unclear when this request had been made to Damascus. Analysts have been working to explain Khaddam's move. The regime sees it as stupidity, claiming that he is a paid agent of the West, the Al-Hariri bloc in Lebanon, and Israel. Others see that Khaddam is a master tactician who would not have risked his reputation and history unless he had received a hefty reward in return -- either money from Saad Al-Hariri, or the promise of office from the Americans. Still others say that Khaddam had indirectly presented himself as an alternative to the Syrian regime from Paris.

Abdul-Halim Khaddam was born in the coastal city of Banyas in 1930 and studied law at Damascus University. During his studies, he joined the Baath Party. While still a university student, he befriended Hafez Al-Assad, another young party member who was serving as an air force pilot. In March 1963, the Baath Party came to power in Syria and Khaddam became governor of Hama, a conservative city in the Syrian heartland that was overwhelmingly opposed to the regime of President Amin Al-Hafez. In April 1964, the Muslim Brotherhood launched a military uprising from Hama, occupying a local mosque and calling for war against the government. Khaddam tried to resolve the crisis with diplomacy. When that failed, President Amin Al-Hafez ordered an air raid of the mosque and transferred Khaddam to the governorate of Qunaytra, the central town in the Gulan Heights. Khaddam was forced to flee the town on 5 June 1967 following the Israeli occupation of Qunaytra.

In 1968, President Nureddin Al-Atasi appointed him briefly as governor of Damascus and then made him minister of economy in May 1969. When Hafez Al-Assad came to power in November 1970, Khaddam became minister of foreign affairs and deputy to Prime Minister Abdul-Rahman Al-Khlayfawi. He retained both posts under all cabinets in the Al-Assad era until 1984. He also served as a deputy in the first parliament under President Al-Assad from February to December 1971.

In November 1983, Al-Assad suffered a heart attack and appointed Khaddam to a six-man presidential committee delegated to deputise state affairs while he was recovering. During the troubled 1980s, along with Information Minister Ahmed Iskandar Ahmed and Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas, Khaddam became one of the closest three officials to the Syrian president. In 1984, Khaddam became vice- president of the republic and stayed in this position until stepping down at the Baath Party Congress on 9 June 2005. Khaddam played an instrumental role in bringing Syria out of the isolation it had experienced during the early Baath years, 1963-1970. He strengthened Syria's foreign relations with its Arab neighbours, especially Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He was the mastermind of Syrian diplomacy in the Lebanese Civil War, which broke out in April 1975, and architect of the Syrian- Iranian alliance after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

In 1985, he orchestrated the Tripartite Agreement in Syria, coordinating Druze militia leader Walid Jumblatt, Shia militia leader Nabih Berri and Maronite militia leader Elie Hobeika in a joint call for a ceasefire and restoration of calm in Lebanon. In October 1989, he helped draft the Taif Accords in Saudi Arabia, a framework agreed to by most Lebanese parties to end the 17- year civil war, and negotiated the surrender of General Michel Aoun, prime minister of Lebanon. He also created, along with Al-Assad, the post-war administration of President Elias Al-Hrawi and backed the election of prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri both in 1992 and 2000. Throughout the 1990s, Khaddam was popularly labelled the wali (governor) of Beirut, in reference to the paramount influence he exercised over Lebanese politics.

Khaddam remained in charge of the "Lebanese Portfolio" until 1998, when it was transferred to the then president's son, Bashar Al-Assad. When Hafez Al-Assad died in June 2000, Khaddam became acting president of the republic for an intermediary period that lasted from 10 June to 17 July 2000. During this time, he appointed Bashar Al-Assad as commander-in- chief of the Syrian army and promoted him in military rank. In July 2000, Bashar Al-Assad became president and kept Khaddam as vice-president. He played an important role in negotiating Syria's relations with the tribes of Iraq after the downfall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

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