Khaddam Damns Bashar al-Asad
Ex-Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who resigned at the Baath Party Conference in June of this year (2005) and moved to Paris, has officially announced his opposition to President Bashar al-Asad.
Al-Arabiyah on the 30th aired an interview with the former Syrian Vice-President in which he explained how President Asad had threatened Hariri shortly before his murder and that Syrian security could only have carried it out with the President's knowledge.
A must read is Tony Badran’s analysis at Beirut to Bayside, which I have just read after completing my analysis below. Naturally, Tony and I read the Khaddam story from different perspectives – Tony from the Beirut perspective and me from that of Damascus, but I don’t think we differ too much on the basic story. I agree with much of Tony’s analysis, but disagree on what the new year will hold for Bashar in Syria. Tony also has listed further valuable links, especially Kais' English summary of the Al-Arabiya interview here.
BBC reports that Syrian MPs demand Khaddam's trial. "Syrian MPs demand a treason trial for an exiled top politician who implicated President Assad in Rafik Hariri's death."
Former vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam says Mr Assad threatened the then-Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri months before his murder in a bomb attack. His comments were repeatedly denounced by members of Syria's parliament before they voted for him to be put on trial.BBC reported yesterday story:
A UN-led inquiry implicated Syria in the murder, but Damascus denies blame.
Mr Khaddam told al-Arabiya television: "Assad told me he had delivered some very, very harsh words to Hariri... something like 'I will crush anyone who tries to disobey us'."
In the interview, broadcast on Friday, Mr Khaddam also said the Syrian security services could not have taken a unilateral decision to kill Mr Hariri. But he insisted he did not want to accuse anyone of the murder, preferring to wait for the results of a UN probe into the assassination.
Mr Khaddam's comments drew a furious response from Syrian MPs in a session of parliament on Saturday. "What has been proved beyond doubt is that he has given victory to the enemies of the nation and cut off allegiance to the homeland, and this is the very definition of the cowardly act of treason," said one, Joseph Suwayyd.
Another MP, Umeima Khudur, told the session: "I demand... that Khaddam is judged because he has attacked the dignity of Syria and humiliated millions of Syrians."
As the session ended, speaker Mahmoud al-Abrash told parliament: "We call on the justice minister to try Abdel Halim Khaddam for high treason and to take the necessary measures."
Earlier, Syrian newspaper Ad-Diyar denounced Mr Khaddam as "Syria's Judas".
During the UN probe, witnesses told investigators that Mr Hariri was threatened by President Assad at a crunch meeting in August 2004.
Mr Hariri himself, in a taped account cited by the UN report, described the meeting as the "worst day of his life".
"When I finished my meeting with him, I swear to you, my bodyguard looked at me and asked why I was pale-faced," Mr Hariri recounted.
President Assad has previously denied any personal involvement in the murder.
Hariri 'threatened by Syria head'
BBC Dec 30, 2005
Mr Khaddam, 73, who resigned as vice-president in June, told al-Arabiya television he was formally cutting links with the president, whom he accused of authoritarianism.
He told al-Arabiya he was "convinced that the process of development and reforms, be they political, economic or administrative, will not succeed".
Mr Khaddam used to be in charge of Syria's Lebanon policy. Damascus was the effective power in Lebanon for many years, until it withdrew its troops under international pressure this year.
The BBC's Kim Ghattas in Beirut says Mr Khaddam's intervention would be seen as very significant, important, and potentially dangerous, and would attract the interest of UN investigators.
She said it was unclear why Mr Assad's former colleague, who is now living in Paris, had chosen to speak out now, but that he may be positioning himself as an alternative to the Syrian president.
Naharnet is reporting that
Khaddam said: Assad Felt Washington Could Not Care Less About Lebanon
Syrian President Bashar Assad was duped by his advisors into believing the United
States was indifferent about his grip on Lebanon and would 'come crawling on its knees" to win Damascus' support for its invasion of Iraq. According to Syrian ex-Vice ...more
The story of Mr. Khaddam’s disenchantment with the ruling clique dates back to the time before Bashar’s ascension to power. He was never in complete agreement with this move. Indeed, it seems clear considering that he was the VP at the time of Hafiz al-Assad as well, that he thought himself the more qualified person for the job. The rise of Bashar and the New Guard was problematic for him. The lot simply lacked the necessary experience and qualifications, and he obviously looked at them with much disdain.
Mr. Khaddam did not say this in a direct manner though. In fact, when he spoke in a direct manner about the President, he said that he was nice and polite and that their relations was cordial, and that the President had bid his farewell before his departure to Paris knowing that Khaddam will be there for a long time. But later, he also said that he was rash and easily influenced by the very narrow circle of people around him, and that he took matters his own hands. Indeed, he made him appear extremely foolish, rash, amateurish, dictatorial, and all but accused him of ordering the assassination of Hariri in some fit of anger...
There were reports in the Syrian press recently that reflected negatively on him, and reports that the remaining property that his family have in Syria was about to be confiscated. Indeed, the family of Mr. Khaddam had been busy liquidating their assets in the country for years now, so the family was for long preparing for such an eventuality. Their liquidation activities increased in the last few months.
(Read all of Ammar's post to get the specifics of how Khaddam claimed that Hariri could not have been killed without the president's knowledge. )
Before leaving Damascus on December 16th, several people had told me that Khaddam's sons' houses in Tartus had been police taped and were closed. Some said that the families businesses were being impounded. All this now seems to be true.
As Ammar has written the power struggle between Khaddam and Bashar began before he became president. The first overt signs of the power struggle revealed themselves before Hafiz al-Asad died. In the weeks leading up to Bashar's father's death, Hariri and Jumblat working with Khaddam, Shihabi and possibly Kanaan seem to have been plotting to push Bashar aside and eliminate the house of Asad from power.
The specifics of this are not clear, but evidently this is what Bashar was told by Lahoud and others who visited him from Lebanon. This news convinced Bashar to attack Shihabi, who was the weak link among his opponents. Shihabi was accused of corruption in a story leaked to al-Hayat only a week or so before Hafiz's death on the 10th of June 2000. A few days later a follow-up story was printed in al-Hayat, claiming that an "alliance of corruption" had been detected in Lebanon. Hariri was implicated and so were others. It was impossible not to associate Khaddam and Kanaan with this alliance, for they had been the architects of Syria’s Lebanon policy. Shihabi, who was in AUB hospital at the time, fled to the United States as soon as he could. Following his purge from the state, he moved to France. When his retirement was officially announced at the Bath Party conference of June 2005, he openly with Foreign Minister Sharaa about who had been responsible for losing Lebanon. Both Khaddam and Shihabi were rumored to be plotting against Bashar in Paris. Kanaan's suicide was announced shortly following the spread of these rumors making it hard not to link the three men in a possible conspiracy against the regime. The women at Kanaan’s funeral in his hometown of Bahamra chanted that they wanted the “truth.” Few believed his suicide was voluntary. Perhaps it was connected to Khaddam’s and Shihabi’s presence in Paris and the on-going Mehlis investigation, or it may simply have been a precautionary purge by a regime that felt it could take no chances, Kanaan being the last of the old guard in a position to organize from within the state system.
Bashar had been told by his father that in order to rule Syria, he had first to rule Lebanon. It would seem that Bashar took this fatherly advice to heart. Right from the beginning of his tenure, Bashar sought to cut the Gordian knot of money and personal connections that linked Riyadh, Beirut and Damascus together in a triangle of graft and influence. The old guard members who had overseen and nurtured the construction of this triangle over the 30 years of Syrian rule in Lebanon, believed they could direct affairs of state in Syria – preferably with Bashar in nominal power, but without him if necessary.
From 2000 on the main power-struggle in Syria was between the young president and his vice-president, Abdul Halim Khaddam. Bashar moved precipitously in 2000 to support Salim al-Hoss for Prime-Minister against Hariri. His effort failed because Khaddam and Kanaan outfoxed him and demonstrated their superior control of events. Hariri had become too important in Lebanon to be denied the position of Prime Minister. Bashar was forced to write off his failure to overthrow Hariri as an indication of his benevolence and intent not to interfere in Lebanese affairs. He claimed a new page had been turned in Syrian-Lebanese relations and that Syria would allow Lebanon more freedom. Bashar, however, was only biding his time. He needed to consolidate his position further inside Syria before he could move more forcefully against Kanaan and Khaddam, which would ease the way toward eventually pushing aside Hariri and Junblat. In his eyes, they were all of a piece. He moved Kanaan out of Lebanon in 2003 and whittled away at Khaddam’s authority little by little, moving his people out of ministries and, in particular, out of the relevant security agencies.
In this reading of events, Bashar’s burning of Franco-Syrian relations was only collateral damage in his effort to unseat Hariri – and ultimately Khaddam. In fact, he placed Syria’s foreign policy in the back seat as he tried to steer the affairs of state in such a way as to consolidate his hold on power in Damascus. He sacrificed good relations with his neighbors and with the great powers in order to get his hands firmly on the steering wheel and shove aside the old-guard.
Further evidence of the power struggle between Bashar and Khaddam is clear in the governments that were formed after the 2003 parliamentary elections and during 2004. The Utri cabinet is a case in point. Bashar tried to reduce the number of Baathists in the cabinet, but Khaddam eventually won out – or seemed to – with the appointment of 15 Baathist ministers.
The war in Iraq complicated Bashar’s efforts to consolidate his power. He was forced to bring Khaddam back in, when Sharaa’s policy of fighting America in Iraq proved a disaster. It is quite possible that Bashar chose to oppose the American invasion of Iraq so openly in order to contrary Khaddam, who claims he was in favor of a more pro-American policy. This may be another example of Bashar’s willingness to sacrifice relations with a great power in order to push aside the old guard and assert his independence from them. Bashar used the anti-American sentiment in the Arab street, and more importantly, in Syria in order to over-rule the pro-American policy that Khaddam was advocating. He gave Sharaa his head during the first months of the American invasion, when Syria’s Grand Mufti declared that it was an individual duty of all Muslims to go to Iraq to fight in the Jihad against America. This anti-American policy undermined Khaddam and was used to undermine his authority. When it proved too dangerous, Bashar brought Khaddam back into to the center of power, allowing him to win in the struggle for cabinets. He also let Khaddam try to recruit the Sunni tribal leaders of Iraq to Syria’s side. Khaddam organized at least 10 meetings of Iraqi tribal leaders at the Ebla Sham Hotel on the airport road during 2003 and 2004. This may have been Khaddam’s way of trying to make Syria useful to the Americans and to bring Syria into the center of the Iraq political drama. Khaddam’s policy of taming the Sunnis and delivering them to the Americans proved useless, however. Allawi lost out in the power struggle in Iraq. The Iraqi resistance grew at a dizzying pace and America moved ever closer to the Shiites and away from the Sunnis. Bremer dissolved the Army and moved forcefully against all the old Baathists in Iraq, which doomed Khaddam’s ability to organize and domesticate the Iraqi Sunnis, so he could deliver them to the Americans and show Syria’s utility and good intentions.
Khaddam’s strategy may have been doomed by Bashar, who was simplifying playing him, but it was also doomed by the ideological narrow-mindedness of the US administrators of Iraq and ultimately the Bush administration. Bashar allowed Khaddam to try out his Iraq policy, but when it failed, Khaddam also failed. This may have convinced him to move against Hariri in Lebanon at the time of the Lahoud extension. Washington would not cut Syria any slack on the Iraq front. Khaddam was wrong – or perhaps just too late. When the US began to demand greater independence for Lebanon as well, Khaddam could only propose to give it. Bashar over-ruled him at the last minute and extended Lahoud’s presidency and took Lebanon away from him and from Hariri, something he had been trying to do for years. In this interpretation, Bashar gambled on losing Lebanon definitively in order to gain power in Damascus.
Of course, he didn’t plan to lose Lebanon. He was hoping that the Lahoud gambit would work and that with Hariri pushed aside, the Lebanese would slip back into their back-biting confessional ways. Syria has always viewed Lebanon as a failed nation because it doesn’t embrace Arabism. Or rather as an ineffective state which contains four irreconcilable nations within it, each of which can be counted on to attack the others and undermine the integrity of the central government. What Bashar, and all the Syrians, failed to predict was the Cedar Revolution and the tremendous outpouring of national sentiment following the murder of their national hero, Hariri. But Bashar did not sack Foreign Minister Sharaa following the UN’s issuance of resolution 1559. It was widely rumored in Damascus that Sharaa should be sacked because he had assured Bashar that resolution 1559 would not pass the security council and that the world would not find unanimity following Syria’s tampering with the Lebanese constitution. Sharaa was wrong about that and Khaddam was right. Nevertheless, Sharaa’s mistake did not cost him his job. Most likely, this is because he was carrying out the president’s will. It was the President’s mistake. Or rather, one should say that Bashar was willing to take the gamble in Lebanon in order to destroy the triangle of money and influence upon which Khaddam had built reputation and power.
If I am correct in interpreting the main dynamic of Syrian politics over the last five years to be the internal power struggle in Damascus and not foreign policy, how does this color our interpretation of Bashar?
Tony Badran believes that Bashar is just a Baathist ideology, who is stupid, uneducated, and naïve. He has stumbled from one mistake to another. Most importantly he has pissed off the French and the Saudis, the two powers that could save him from Bush’s wrath. Tony believes that Bashar is doomed because the Saudis are backing Saad Hariri to the hilt and have moved fully into the Franco-US court. He focuses on King Abdullah’s short March visit to the Damascus airport in order to tell Bashar that the Saudis backed resolution 1559 and insisted that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Tony reads this frosty interchange to be the line drawn in the sand between Damascus and Riyadh.
I am not sure the Saudis have written Bashar off, despite their pique. Yes, they may not like him. They certainly do not trust him. After all, he took down Hariri, their ally and tangential family member. Bashar has undermined Saudi influence in Lebanon in a very direct and ham-fisted way, but I am not convinced, as Tony is, that the King will support any form of regime change as a result.
I would focus on the more recent Bandar visit to Damascus at the time of the President Bashar’s November 10 speech at the University of Damascus. The Saudis smoothed the way for the Vienna deal, which got Asef Shawkat off the hook and allowed for a compromise between Mehlis and the Syrians. King Abdullah quoted the Koran to the effect that “if one cannot do good, he should strive to do no harm.” I read this to mean that if Saudi Arabia cannot fix the Hariri murder, it should not try to help the US overturn the Syrian regime. King Abdullah was letting go of the Hariri affaire. It wanted Syria to be punished and held responsible by having the 5 generals sent to Vienna, but it didn’t want to bring further instability to the region.
In Saudi eyes, the biggest setback to its regional safety has been America’s misadventure in Iraq. The fragmentation of Iraq and the rise to power in the south of Shiite ideologues has seriously damaged Arabia’s interests. The damage done to Lebanon by Syria only comes second on its list. King Abdullah gave Bashar a pass on the Mehlis investigation. It did not support imposing any form of economic sanctions on Syria, even sanctions targeted against the President and his men.
Does this mean Syria is in the clear? No, it doesn’t. The Khaddam testimony will be very damaging to Bashar. It will revive the hopes of those who believe they can put together definitive proof of Bashar’s involvement in Hariri’s assassination, which could eventually result in real international sanctions being placed on Syria.
All the same, Khaddam no longer posses a real internal threat to Bashar. The only reason he testified on al-Arabiya is that he is completely washed up in Syria and has lost whatever influence he had to influence events there. Only when Bashar moved against his children and impounded his remaining assets in Syria did Khaddam come out openly against the president. My hunch is that Khaddam is no longer a real threat to Bashar internally. That explains why he is trying to present himself as an external threat. It is why Khaddam is throwing his lot in with Paris and Washington. He has no other choice. He can only pray that the Hariri investigation and the UN will somehow bring him and his children back to Damascus.
Can America help Khaddam? Time and again, we have seen the Syrian people support Bashar against American policy, which has become ship wrecked on the shoals of Palestine and now Iraq. Syrians have not seen a defection on the scale of Khaddam’s since Michel Aflaq and Salah ad-Din Bitar were pushed out by the neo-Baath in 1966. It is nerve wracking for most Syrians to have someone of Khaddam’s stature speak out against the Asad family. Since Hafiz came to power, the inner circle of the Syrian government has been very cohesive. Bashar’s consolidation of power has caused a number of defections. All the same, they are very few compared to previous changes of regime in 1966 or 1970. Khaddam was not loved. He may have been feared by many and respected by some, but he was admired by very few. In a few weeks, most Syrians will probably forget him.
America’s and the world’s attention is bolted on Iraq. Should the recent elections in Iraq somehow lead to the formation of an effective government there, the world may decide it is time to make Bashar pay for his transgressions and to punish him for snubbing just about every pro-Western government on the globe. Unlike Tony Badran and some others, however, I do not think Khaddam’s revelations will change the course of events in any major way. The world has already decided that Syria is guilty Hariri’s murder. The UN could have been much tougher than it was in December, when it decided not to impose sanctions on Syria and open the door to destabilizing the Asad regime. Saudi, Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, Israel, Russia and China all rallied to Syria’s defense. I don’t believe they will change their policies based on Khaddam’s authority.
So long as the Shiites in Lebanon are willing to troubleshoot for Bashar, Lebanon will remain a bad bet in the eyes of most governments. How will the US make Lebanon safe for Saad Hariri’s return? How will it disarm Hizbullah? These things will require force over and above the Hariri investigation or the threat of sanctions.
Will Bashar al-Asad change his ways now that he has consolidated power in Damascus? The pessimists will say that the young man who spoke so convincingly about reform in 2005 has become part of the system. His long battle to gain power has proven to him how important the Baath Party and security apparatus really are. Although Bashar may have spoken at one time about distancing the state from the Baath and from the heavy hand and of the intelligence agencies, he has now become one with them and depends on them more than ever.
Some of the more optimistic readers of Syria Comment prose that we should give Bashar another chance because he has been distracted from reform by the need to battle the old titans of his father’s regime. They could argue that with Khaddam and his other enemies out of the way, Bashar will now be in a better position to begin focusing on building up new institutions in Syria. They may argue that he will be able to appoint the ministers of his choosing without bowing to his competitors or thinking about how he can outfox Khaddam by playing to the street’s anti-Americanism. He may now even have the freedom to begin looking for a rapprochement with the US and France.
It is hard to see how he can mend relations with either the US or France so long as Lebanon’s future is undecided. I cannot foresee a rapprochement with the Western powers, nor or do I see an end to the competition over authority in Lebanon. My hunch is that Syria will be further isolated by the West. It will seek ever more trade with the East. Bashar will hang on because Syrians have little choice but to go along with his decisions and to hope that he will do something positive for the country. So long as the situation in Iraq and Palestine remains so messy and unattractive, the stability the Asads provide in Syria will look very good, both to Syrians and to many others in the region and in the world.
[End of my analysis]
As Safir has published names of 20 Lebanese and Syrian nationals, who
it says are regarded as suspects by the UN commission investigating
former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination.
The following is a list of Lebanese suspects as published in As Safir:
- Major General Ali Hajj
- Major General Jamil Sayyed
- Brigadier General Mustafa Hamdan
- Brigadier General Raymond Azar
- Ahmed Abdel Al
- Mahmoud Abel Al
- Raed Fakhreddine
- Former legislator Nasser Kandil
- Faysal al-Rasheed, a state security officer
- Colonel Ghassan Tufeili, former head of the Lebanese monitoring
services of military intelligence
- Majed Hamdan, brother of Brigadier General Hamdan
The following is a list of Syrian suspects as published in As Safir:
- Major General Assef Shawkat, Syria's intelligence chief
- Major General Bahjat Suleiman, former head of the internal security
- Major General Hassan Khalil, former head of military intelligence
- Brigadier General Rustom GHazaleh, Syria's former intelligence chief
- Jameh Jameh, Ghazaleh's assistance
- Sameeh Qashaami, an officer
- Abdel Karim Abbas, an officer
- Nazem al-Yussef, an officer
- Mohammed Zuheir Siddiq, a witness-turned-suspect (held in France)