Syria’s Khaddam Bombshell

Massoud Derhally analyses the likely effect on the Syrian government of ex-vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam’s explosive television interview last week.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  January 8, 2006

|~|khaddam2.jpg|~|The interview of Khaddam (pictured behind and to the right of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad) has increased the pressure on Damascus.|~|It was a bombshell Damascus would have liked to avoid. The damage from the defection of Abdel-Halim Khaddam, Syria’s former vice-president and long-time pointman in Lebanon, in an interview with news channel Al Arabiya on the eve of the new year was as devastating as it was stunning. Khaddam's revelations not only substantiated many of the recent findings of two UN reports, which implicated Damascus in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and of the prevalent corruption in Lebanon at the time. They also demonstrated that the Syrian regime is under the iron rule of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad and that no formidable decision can be taken without the consent of the executive branch. Khaddam admitted that, before the assassination, he advised Hariri to step down and leave Lebanon as the atmosphere there had become electrified. “But it never occurred to me that Syria would assassinate Premier Hariri,” he remarked. “Yes, many threats were directed face-to-face to the late Premier Hariri,” he added. He also said that the Syrian president had told him he had warned Hariri. “Assad told me he had delivered some very, very harsh words to Hariri... something like ‘I will crush anyone who tries to disobey us’.” The testimony of Khaddam is also highly damaging to theories that a Muslim extremist by the name of Ahmad Abu Adass had killed Hariri in a suicide bomb. The former Syrian official — now considered a traitor by Damascus — said no individual could manage to muster 1000 kilograms of TNT and jam the highly sophisticated communications used by Hariri's security. In response to Khaddam’s interview, the Syrian parliament (majlis al shaab) erupted in a show of support for the Syrian president, and lambasted the former ex-vice president. Some MPs called for his citizenship to be revoked, while others engaged in an endless polemic of criticism against him and asked for his trial as he had committed treasonous acts. Some see the unfolding events in the parliament as an extension of the overall system that has the aura of a Stalinist state, and an attempt to deter others from supporting Khaddam. Ammar Abdul Hamid, a Syrian fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes the entire parliamentary session is a mockery and typifies the canard of what Syrians have become accustomed to under decades of Baathist rule. “Members of the Majlis were following instructions and the entire session, as messy as it was on account of a lack of rehearsal, came as an enactment of a given script. There are no real independent voices in the Majlis. After the problem with Riad Saif and Mamoun al-Homsi [Syrian political prisoners], the Syrian authorities made sure that the elections brought only the people they wanted to the Majlis — that is, people who will never have the audacity to present any serious challenge to the authorities,” explains Abdul Hamid. “As such, the freakshow that took place in the Majlis is a reflection of both the insignificance of the Majlis and the corruption of its members, and the stupidity and desperation of the regime inner clique who composed the script for the session, as they did not realise that such a sweeping condemnation of Khaddam will reflect negatively on them as well.” Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and until recently a Fulbright Scholar living in Damascus, believes that Khaddam’s testimony must be put into context; that he no longer is part of the clique that rules Syria and has little following in the country. “Khaddam and family are washed up in Syria — that is why he must now turn to America and the opposition and the UN process,” says Landis. One message that Khaddam may have wanted to send to those within Syria, who yearn for change or those on the outside, who would like to increase the pressure on Damascus, or in the most extreme of cases bring about regime change, is that he is a viable alternative to the Assad rule. Washington, which has not vocally endorsed any members of the Syrian opposition, has also unnerved Syria by holding meetings at the State Department level with exiles residing in the US. But whilst things appear unclear in this respect, Khaddam’s credibility in the eyes of many is also questionable. The ex-vice president ruled Syria in conjunction with the late Hafez Al Assad for decades and was a close friend and business partner of Hariri. It is widely known that he and his sons carry Saudi passports and that his eldest son Jamal is a business partner of Saad Hariri — the son of the late premier slain on February 14, 2005. “I don’t think he is an alternative,” Landis says of Khaddam, adding that “some Sunnis will hope he can shake the place — evidently some Islamism websites are saying as much and welcoming him to their ranks. “He has managed to put Bashar in a very embarrassing position though and the new UN demand will force Bashar to make a very difficult decision and may lead to sanctions, which Bashar had previously avoided,” he adds. Some observers and detractors of Khaddam have said that the ex-vice president was bitter that Assad gradually marginalised him after his father died in 2000, in an attempt to get rid of the ‘old guard' and install new blood in the leadership. There is also another theory that Khaddam is resentful because he and his sons were not shortlisted for a lucrative mobile contract worth US$700 million, which was instead given to the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who also runs a chain of duty-free outlets. However, in an interview with Arabian Business, Michel Kilo, a prominent Syrian opposition figure, discounts the idea that Khaddam has been motivated by monetary gain. “Hafez Al Assad presented his son as the man of reform and when the man of reform came he stymied reform and then put Syria in a confrontation with the outside world that it cannot win,” says Kilo. “The son adopted a policy that is clearly opposite of that of his father and the interests of the regime. “This is what Khaddam said. This is the reality. The mobile issue is from five years ago, no one breaks away because of a mobile deal and Khaddam is not in need of money.” Abdel Hamid agrees, believing that Khaddam forceful emergence stems largely from the escalating situation surrounding Syria since the killing of Hariri and the precarious position the country finds itself — one that could well lead to its total isolation and implementation of sanctions. “The timing at this stage seems related in part to increasing reports that his safety was in danger, and another to the way the ruling clique was behaving since the publication of the [second Mehlis report]. There was just too much foolishness and hubris, and the regime seemed poised to heat up the situation along the Lebanese-Israeli borders again. “So, the Saudis and the French, who clearly don’t want to see this kind of escalation taking place, might have had some hand in convincing him to go public at this stage,” he explains. There is also the fact that there was talk in the media of backdoor negotiations between the Americans and the Syrians about cutting a deal that Syria believed would ultimately ease the pressure on it and allow it a free hand in Lebanon. In 1990, Syria joined the US coalition to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait whilst American turned a blind eye as Damascus extended its security apparatus and hold over Lebanon for the next 15 years. As a result, there is reason to believe that Damascus, as well as pro-Syrian parties in Lebanon, thought it had found a way out of the present predicament. And this was a seen as a sign by members of the government of Lebanese ex-premier Omar Karami, a Syrian loyalist, that they could regroup and put pressure on the government of premier Fouad Siniora — who is struggling to retain a united government after Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal threatened to resign from his cabinet. With such a backdrop, it seems only opportune of Khaddam to seize the moment and unleash the bombshell of an interview that he did. The Syrians “forgot that this regime’s real problem was and continues to be with France, and that means that the real concessions needed to be made in Lebanon, not Iraq. The French cannot be snubbed, again. But that’s exactly what happened,” explains Abdel Hamid. “The Americans and the French seem to have perfected, unintentionally though, a kind of a ‘good cop bad cop' act with the [Syrian] regime. “Net result — the regime is now on the ropes, its legs failing. But the knockout blow may still be a while in coming. A few more threads need to come together before that. The internal opposition needs to get its act together as well.” Hence the Khaddam interview. The question now is will Khaddam’s testimony change the dynamics of local politics in Syria? “Without a doubt, he opened a door on this regime, which appeared closed,” says Kilo, the prominent opposition figure. “It is the path of dissent and of internal struggle among the internal groups that could clash.” Abdel Hamid agrees and believes “public discontent will likely become a more pronounced factor from now and on, and this could afford the internal opposition a chance to be heard.” That remains to be seen though as the Syrian opposition has largely remained fragmented and the only viable leader internally, Riad Saif is imprisoned. The one other alternative is Riad Turk, a charismatic yet elderly figure in Syria who has been in and out of jail for the last 20 years. In the realm of the UN investigation into the killing of Hariri though, the pressure is mounting on Damascus. Khaddam’s testimony not only corroborates the findings of the Mehlis report and confirms that Rustom Ghazaleh, the Lieutenant General and Syria’s viceroy in Lebanon acted contemptuously but it also clearly minimises any doubt one may have had with respect to the authenticity of other witness testimony. Coincidentally, Ghazaleh, who was named as a suspect in the first Mehlis report, offered to resign only a few days after Khaddam accused him of taking US$35 million from Lebanese Bank Al Madina, which collapsed two years ago. Ghazi Kanaan who was preceded Ghazaleh in Lebanon and looked over Lebanon for decades is alleged to have committed suicide by the Syrian regime. No doubt Syria also finds itself in a tight situation after pictures of Husam Taher Husam, the ‘masked’ witness of the Mehlis report who subsequently recanted his testimony publicly on Syrian television, surfaced, placing him at the assassination site of George Hawi, the head of the Communist Party. The pictures, which were supplied to Arabian Business by the photographer Wael Ladki, show Husam in the background as Hawi’s friends and family members grieve over his death. It thus comes as no surprise that the UN commission has requested to interview the Syrian president and Farouk Al Sharaa the foreign minister among others. This all according to Abdel Hamid, makes “it clear that the impact on the regime is going to be far harsher than expected. This leaves us with only one option: it is the President and the upper echelon that need to be scapegoated. In other words, the suicidal tendencies of the regime are proving once again to be too strong.” The Khaddam interview has now put Syria in a corner, prompting the UN commission looking into the killing of Hariri to request an interview with the Syrian president and foreign minister among other individuals. Though the Syrian regime may not be on the verge collapse, what have become palpably clear are the cracks within the system, which increase the pressure on the leadership and concurrently cast doubts about its lifeline. The evidence pointing to Damascus’s complicity seems only to be mounting in the eyes of the UN commission and the international community. Undoubtedly the choices before the present regime are few. As Kilo, the prominent opposition figure, says from his home in Damascus: “The regime cannot surmount the present challenges, it has a choice of reconciliation with the outside and reform on the inside, meaning a different political system. There is no other choice or else.” ||**||

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