A sense of nightmarish unease must have descended on ruling circles in Damascus when former Syrian vice-president Abd al-Halim Khaddam became, shortly before the start of the New Year, the country’s first high-level official to break ranks with the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad. This is the most potent threat so far to Asad’s five-year presidency, and comes as international pressures are mounting on Damascus over accusations that it played a role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri on February 14, 2005, in Beirut. The truck-bomb involved also killed 22 others.
From his self-imposed exile in Paris, Khaddam launched a vicious public campaign against Asad. In a series of interviews, he called on the Syrian opposition to join him in toppling the regime, describing the Syrian president as a “traitor” who has inflicted “serious damage” on the country, and linking Asad to Hariri's assassination. Khaddam told al-Arabiya satellite TV-station that Asad had threatened Hariri several months before he was killed. He said that in August 2004 Asad warned Hariri that he would “crush anyone who attempts to overturn our decision” to extend the term in office of Lebanese president Emile Lahoud (Hariri's arch political enemy). In a subsequent interview with the daily ash-Sharq al-Awsat of London, Khaddam expressed his belief that Asad’s regime "cannot be reformed. The only alternative is to overthrow it.”
The seriousness of Khaddam’s accusations against Asad does not only lie in the cracks it exposes within the regime, thus bringing to the fore the prospect of the first real internal challenge to the Ba’athist regime in Damascus in many years, but also in the fact that it adds fuel to the US-led effort to bring the international inquiry into Hariri’s assassination closer to the Syrian presidency. The investigative team, which interviewed Khaddam on January 6, has moved to renew its request to interview Asad and his foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara’a. Maintaining sovereign immunity for the president from questioning, the Syrian government has said only that Shara’a will meet with the commission. In October, the 15-member UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 1636 demanding that Syria hand over to UN investigators anyone suspected of “involvement in the planning, sponsoring, organizing, or perpetrating” of Hariri’s assassination. This came shortly after the UN investigating commission reported that there is “convincing evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement” in Hariri’s murder.
The response from Damascus to Khaddam’s explosive and scathing accusations was no less biting, angry and loaded with accusations that turned the whole affair into an episode of mudslinging par excellence. The Syrian parliament called Khaddam a “traitor” and passed a binding measure to launch a criminal investigation into charges of treason and corruption against the former vice-president. The ruling Ba’ath party stripped him of membership and joined parliament in demanding his trial on the charge of high treason, which is a capital offence reserved for high-ranking officials. A party statement said: “Khaddam has joined the band of enemies who are targeting the country and its attitudes. Khaddam has betrayed the party, the country and the [Arab] nation. The National Leadership has decided to dismiss Khaddam from the party and put him on trial.” The Syrian finance ministry also moved to freeze the assets of Khaddam and his family.
By engaging in this round of mutual recriminations and accusations of corruption, Khaddam and officials of the government and Ba’ath party in Damascus unwittingly underscored the Byzantine labyrinth of corruption, sleaze and cronyism that has for years been strangulating Syria’s economy. The fact that Khaddam opened fire on the Syrian regime from his lavish Parisian mansion is indicative in this regard. The extortion practised by Khaddam and his circle, including his children, is well known in Syrian business circles. But the unfortunate fact of life in Syria is that the sordid ways of Khaddam and his family permeate much of the Syrian ruling class. Khaddam himself wasted no time in pointing out in an interview with Sky television on January 12 that Bashar “has practised corruption so much that you see his cousins control everything.”
A lifelong Ba’athist who joined the party at the age of 17 in his hometown, Aleppo, in northern Syria, Khaddam, who was educated as a lawyer, began his political career shortly after the Ba’athists came to power by a military coup in March 1963. In 1964 he was appointed mayor of the northern city of Hama, which was known as a hotbed of Islamic activism. During his tenure as mayor there were clashes with Islamic activists in which a number of activists died. The crisis was defused by the intervention of the late Shaykh Muhammad Hamed, then the city’s foremost ‘alim. His political career took off in 1970 after the internal military coup in 1970 that was pulled off by the late Hafiz al-Asad, Bashar’s father (who died in 2000), bringing to an end years of intra-Ba’athist power struggles. For more than 30 years Khaddam was a fixture in the Syrian government. Under Hafiz, Khaddam became the second most powerful man in Syria. In 1984 he was appointed vice-president after Hafiz fell gravely ill. He had earlier served as minister of foreign affairs and deputy prime minister. He became the country’s nominal leader for a brief period after Hafiz’s death, during which he oversaw the arrangements that paved the way for Bashar’s assumption of power, including fast-tracking a constitutional amendment to enable the 34-year-old Bashar to take over power.
Khaddam was the most prominent member of the trio that orchestrated Syria’s policy in Lebanon for 25 years. The other two were Hikmat al-Shihabi, former Syrian chief of staff, who was removed from his position in 1998, and Ghazi Kina’an, the country’s former interior minister, who is supposed to have committed suicide last October and had once been the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon. In his capacity as the principal architect of Syria’s policy in Lebanon, he forged close ties with Hariri, and is believed to have benefited financially from these ties with the late Lebanese prime minister, a tycoon with a vast business empire. Little wonder that tensions between Khaddam and Asad escalated in 2004 when the Syrian leader launched his push for a three-year extension of Lahoud’s term in office.
However, the power and influence of the former vice-president began to wane after Bashar assumed the reigns of power in 2000. He was seen as a prominent member of the regime’s sclerotic old guard, who were resistant to the limited reform measures that Bashar was introducing. His political career came to an ended last June, when he resigned from the vice-presidency and submitted his final report to the congress, criticising the policies of Shara’a, Syria’s foreign minister.
Clearly Khaddam’s declaration of his break with Asad suggests fraying within the regime. In his interview with ash-Sharq al-Awsat, he claimed that his aim is to bring about some sort of "Orange Revolution." He said that he was “working to bring about the suitable conditions for Syrians to pour into the streets and act to overthrow the Syrian regime so that things go well.” Yet the late conversion of the 73-year-old Khaddam to the opposition dents his credibility as an oppositionist and casts doubt on his ability to unite the country’s floundering and fractious opposition. Moreover, his ability to command mass popular support inside Syria is virtually non-existent. Few in Syria are likely to be ready to forgive his wrongdoings during his long political career.
But signs that the Syrian opposition in exile may be coming out of its long period of fragmentation had already appeared before Khaddam turned publicly against Asad. In fact, efforts to unite the opposition started last autumn. A loose alliance was formed bringing together the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) and a number of secular opposition groups under the umbrella of the Damascus Declaration. The Ikhwan is banned in Syria under Law 49 of 1980, which makes membership of the group a capital offence. During the early 1980s the Syrian government’s brutal efforts to crush the armed uprising spearheaded by the Ikhwan resulted in the death of somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people and the total destruction of Hama, a city in the north of Syria. Yet, despite the ban, the Ikhwan still maintains wider grassroots support than all the other opposition groups combined, benefiting from a recent increase in religious awareness and motivation in Syrian society. The group has moved away from military action and is now committed to political action as a way to bring Syria out of the dictatorship of the Asad regime.
The fact that the Ikhwan is the only serious alternative to the Ba'athist regime has forced Washington to modify its concept of “regime change” for Syria. Much as the US would like to see this government toppled, it is by no means prepared to let it be replaced by a government dominated by Islamic activists. Without the possibility of regime change a la Iraq or Afghanistan, the US government’s strategy has changed to galvanizing international diplomatic and economic pressure on Syria to modify its behaviour. The main changes to Syria’s policies thatWashington wants include: an end to Syria’s role in Lebanese politics; no more safe passage through Syria for insurgents to and from Iraq; likewise no sanctuary or material aid for them; and no more Syrian support for Palestinian resistance movements. These were summarised by John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, who accused Syria in a speech in October of “destabilizing Lebanon, permitting terrorists to use its territory to reach Iraq, and giving safe harbour to Palestinian terror groups.”
When contrasted with its strong desire to topple the Ba'athist government in Baghdad by military means, Washington’s more nuanced and patient approach to Syria is striking. America’s increasing difficulties in Iraq explain Washington’s shift towards diplomacy, in cooperation with the international community, in dealing with Syria. Toppling the Asad regime might also bring about Iraq-type consequences. It could bring to the surface long-simmering ethnic and sectarian conflicts that have long been present beneath heavy political repression. Worse still, the overthrow of Asad could encourage the spread of ‘salafist jihadism', which the US and its Western allies fear above all else. In Syria there have already been clashes with armed elements belonging to a supposedly al-Qa’ida-linked group known as Jund al-Sham ("soldiers of [geographic] Syria"). Fears that Syria might possibly descend into open civil conflict and widespread violence if Asad is removed have already prompted other governments, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to try to mediate between Syria and the US.
The Hariri investigation has emerged as the linchpin in America’s diplomatic campaign against Syria. Regardless of what Syria does, it can always be accused of lack of cooperation. In one of the latest twists in this US-led campaign, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice threatened on January 11 to send the inquiry back to the Security Council if what she called Syrian “obstruction” continues. “Syria must cease obstructing the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Hariri and instead cooperate fully and unconditionally as required by UN Security Council resolutions,” Rice said in a strongly-worded statement.
But America’s determination to turn up the heat on Damascus is creating an anti-American backlash among Syrians. Certainly this increase in anti-American feeling is not lost on the Syrian government, which can exploit such sentiments to ride out heightened international pressures. By constantly raising the price of cooperation, America might already have led the Syrians to reach the conclusion that the price of cooperation is greater than the price of defiance. After all, without the possibility of a US-led military attack, because the requisite international diplomatic cover is lacking and the US military is already stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, sanctions are preferable for Syria to the humiliation of handing over high-ranking intelligence and other state officials to international investigators, regardless of how detached and impartial those investigators are supposed to be.