Friday, December 30, 2005

The Vice-Predator!

The Arabic Satellite News Channel Al-Arabiyah has just aired an interview with the former Syrian Vice-President, Abdul Haleem Khaddam, currently living in Paris ostensibly to work on his memoirs in the quiet peace of the Parisian suburbs (the BBC also covered this in English).

In truth, of course, Mr. Khaddam, who resigned his post back in May 2005, is actually living in exile in Paris, his growing disenchantment with the current regime and its President having reaching a certain climax with the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafic al-Hariri, his longtime friend and business partner.

But, 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 make 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.

Well, he put it this way:

The assassination took place within climax of distrust and animosity towards Hariri, including threats by Rustom Ghazale and tough talk by the President himself on August 18, 2004.Hariri was still PM at the time, and reportedly had a nose bleed after that talk on account of rising blood pressure. The talk is said to have included, Ghazi Kanaan, Rustom Ghazale, and Muhammad Khallouf. The President himself told Khaddam about this incident later, so did Ghazale, and Kanaan. Khaddam was deputized to smooth things with Hariri, and he ended up advising him to leave the country for a while because his situation was too complex in Syria. But, Khaddam said he never expected the assassination to take place, and he denied taking apart in any meeting in which this was discussed, and in which he was supposed to have opposed the idea.

The assassination itself required the involvement of a whole apparatus, and could not have been committed by the likes of Ahmad Abu Addas, only an idiot would believe that, he said. He also said that such an apparatus cannot act on its own. The President himself in his Der Spiegel interview had said that the buck stopped with him. If so, and should the UN investigative Team reach the conclusion that a Syrian apparatus was involved, then the apparatus could not have acted on its own. Moreover, Mr. Khaddam, being a lawyer himself, praised the work of Mehlis and said that his reports were professionally done, and said that Mr. Mehlis mean to stress the technical aspects in his reports in order to avoid the politicization of the issue. The people who politicized the issue were the chief suspects, he said.

This is how Mr. Khaddam chose to implicate the President. Mr. Khaddam also implicated President Emile Lahoud as being one of the key instigators of the Syrian regime against Hariri.

The picture he draws is one of a country currently ruled by a crime syndicate headed by an impulsive buffoon.

The fact that Mr. Khaddam himself and his family had been part of the syndicate up until recently and that he benefited much from various corruption schemes in the country was brushed aside.

Mr. Khaddam also said that he knows much more than he would say at this stage. He will keep silent at this stage for the sake of Syria. He said that when he had to choose between the regime and homeland he chose the homeland.

When asked about Assef Chawkat and Maher al-Assad, he said he has no dealing with people in military positions in the country. As for the alleged suicide of Ghazi Kanaan, he said that he cannot deliver a final judgment on the matter, but that he wouldn’t rule suicide, for the man had been going through some very tough psychological conditions.

Mr. Khaddam also said that he was the extension for Lahoud and that he had cautioned the President against that, and the President had assured him that this won’t happen, only to hear a few days later while in Paris, that the decision to extend for Lahoud was made. He then called al-Hariri and advised him to accept the extension but resign his post. He said that he told al-Hariri that he could not handle opposing the decision directly.

Why Mr. Khaddam come out into the open at this point in time and not earlier? It seems that MR. Khaddam was leaning more towards spending the last years of his life quietly. But, this was made difficult for him on account of reports that his life in danger even as he lived in Paris, and indeed, it was said that French authorities had warned him against making too many public appearances. Also, 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.

My friend and colleague and head of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Martin Indyck, was mentioned a number of times in the interview as well, in reference to his meeting in 2004 with the Syrian President. Mr. Khaddam said that the President had briefed him on the content of this meeting among other such meetings with American officials. It seems that the President read too much into the American emphasis on Iraq and thought that this gives him a free hand in Lebanon. Khaddam warned the President against such thinking, to no avail.

Indeed, to his credit, Martin soon realized the tendency of the Syrian President to misread messages. In fact, his talk with the President centered more on the possibility of a track 2 exercise involving Syrian, American and Israeli officials by way of paving the way for an eventual, resumption of the Syrian-Israeli peace talks. I know this, because I was at Brookings at the time, and I was involved this effort. We were hoping that by reaching a peace agreement between the Syrians and the Israelis will pave the way for some internal reforms inside Syria. I was never really convinced of this line, but I also believed that we should try everything to get some movement on the internal front. Our efforts did not work, of course.

I will have to reveal more about my former behind the scene activities in due course of time, I guess. But for now, let’s see how the Syrian regime deals with this little bombshell.

Meanwhile, and while some has begun calling for the UN team to talk to Mr. Khaddam as a witness, I think that it is quite probable that the new witness referred to in Mehlis 2 is indeed Khaddam.