Abdel Halim Khaddam , former Vice President of Syria, appears to be trying to set himself up as a viable alternative to the regime of current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (see photo: Ricardo Stuckert_ABr). In an interview with al-Arabiya television, the former Vice President, exiled in Paris, implicated al-Assad in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri , saying that the Syrian President had threatened Hariri and that such an assassination operation?in which a bomb was planted underneath the pavement of a road upon which Hariri?s motorcade was predicted to pass?could not have taken place without al-Assad?s knowledge.
Al-Assad responded with rage, accusing Khaddam of treason and demanding that he be tried in Syria. The presidential catfight escalated when Khaddam responded, in an interview with the pan-Arab paper Asharq Alawsat, saying ?the traitor is the person who brought damage to his people and country?the traitor is the leader of the regime,? adding, ?if there is someone who needs to appear in front of court, it is Bashar al-Assad.? Khaddam went on to say in the interview that ?[the Syrian government] cannot be reformed, and nothing remains but to bring it down.? He asserted that he was engaged in an effort to unite Syrian opposition elements to confront the al-Assad regime. He specified, however, that this must be accomplished with the help of ?the Syrian people,? rather than by way of military coup or outside powers.
While some elements in Washington may be searching for a viable alternative to the current Syrian regime that does not involve the two largest Syrian opposition parties?the communists and the Islamists?Khaddam should be viewed with an eye of suspicion. Both his motivations and abilities are dubious and any western country that supports his machinations should be wary that they may have another Ahmed Chalabi or worse on their hands.
First, Khaddam is not likely to be popular with the Syrian people. He is known as a Mafioso whose control of many business interests in Syria (to the point where he almost controlled the business atmosphere in Syria) impeded foreign investment and economic reforms. Also, opposing al-Assad by capitulating to the UN and calling publicly for regime change will resonate poorly among Syrians, who fear anything that could be used by the United States as justification for toppling the regime, or anything that could give the US an inkling that a regime change would be effective and easily accomplished in Syria. Even those who want Syria?s government to change are not likely to want this to happen now, at a time when the US is perceived in Syria to be positioning for possible military interference. The prospect of regime change and the subsequent instability is doubly feared when barbarians are at the gate.
Second, Khaddam?s motivations are not necessarily sound. In Middle Eastern politics, the cardinal rule may be that political calculations are nearly always influenced?if not directed entirely?by prospects for personal financial gain or other resource allocation considerations. This may be the driving factor behind Khaddam?s tirades. The world of Syrian business dealings and Khaddam?s personal finances are not exactly transparent, but an analysis posted by renowned Syria expert Joshua Landis on his blog, “Syria Comment,” may offer insight into Khaddam?s real motivations (source). Written by a Syrian living inside the country and endorsed by Landis as some of ?most interesting analysis? seen on the Khaddam issue, the essay suggests that Khaddam?s resentment of Bashar al-Assad derives from his disenfranchisement from a number of business ventures. Before al-Assad took power, it was difficult for any foreign investor to gain a foothold in the Syrian market without aligning himself with and paying off Khaddam or someone in his cabal. Rafiq Hariri, according to the analysis, was able to make money off of business ventures in Syria because he was sponsored by Khaddam, whereas nearly all other Lebanese investors were blocked out. According to this analysis on “Syria Comment,” even the world famous Saudi investor Prince Walid bin Talal was unable to enter the Syrian market fully until Bashar al-Assad began phasing Khaddam out of power because under Hafez al-Assad, Talal was harassed by Khaddam to pay ?partnership fees? in business endeavors. The analysis alleges several examples of considerable Khaddam/Hariri investments in Syria and alleges that al-Assad phased Khaddam out of both business and politics in an effort to weaken Khaddam, a main political rival in Syria; to punish Hariri, a main political rival in Lebanon; and in order to court Gulf investors who were interested in Syria?s newly opening economy but were not interested in partnering with Khaddam or his sons or cronies. Khaddam, therefore, finds himself being phased out of both political power and out of his large personal fiefdom of Syrian businesses and foreign investors who had for years been forced to pay him fealties.
There is Khaddam?s political fall from grace to remember. It was Khaddam who was in charge of what in Syria is called ?the Lebanon [Country Profile] File? or ?the Lebanon Portfolio,? a highly lucrative position at the head of the occupation of Lebanon, until he was replaced by Bashar al-Assad in 1998. After the younger al-Assad took power, Khaddam was slowly and ungracefully squeezed out of the inner circle.
Khaddam?s words, especially those to Asharq Alawsat, seem to reflect vengeance, the fury of a mogul scorned, rather than a calculating statesman. He is not the solution to the Syrian problem, and while his anger should be exploited by the West for intelligence he may be inclined to provide, it would not be wise to court him as a potential ally in a bid to topple al-Assad.
The other story worth investigating is Al-Assad?s reaction. He has not responded well to the pressure. He has chosen to believe, or at least try to convey, that the UN investigation into the death of Hariri is not just an investigation into the assassination but rather the act of putting his very sovereignty on trial. Under this calculation, a guilty verdict for Syria is a mandate for an overthrow.
He has made rounds to Saudi Arabia and Egypt in an effort to shore up support. The Saudis have apparently used their most relied upon and most convenient deflection to avoid putting its own relationship with Washington directly on the line. The official statement issued from the Syrian-Saudi ?summit,? from excerpts published in Asharq Alawsat, has a focus on ?occupied Palestine,? in which the Saudis ?emphasize their call for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab and Palestinian lands and the establishment of the state of the Palestinian people with its capital in Jerusalem…[as well as]?the necessity for complete Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Syrian Golan [Heights] to the June 4, 1967 line, and the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanese Shebaa farms.?
In this way, Saudi was able to show solidarity with Syria on an issue opposed by Washington, showing, to the greatest extent possible, that it stood with Syria against the US, at least on one issue. At the same time, Saudi knows that Washington has long tolerated its maniacal ranting about Israel, and such statements will not threaten its own relationship with the US. Apparently, Saudi settled on making Syria-friendly statements regarding contentious issues vis-?-vis Israel rather than coming down firmly on Syria?s side vis-?-vis other, more immediately, pressing areas of contention with the US.
It is unlikely that Syria got any better promises of support out of Egypt or will be able to get any more out of other Arab countries. To a delegation of Jordanians, al-Assad gave a speech that, according to sources in the pan-Arab paper al-Hayat, focused on ?direct interferences to which the Arab region has been exposed? and ?the efforts undertaken by Syria and those that will be undertaken by Syria [in the future] in order to oppose the plan to target it and the plan to target the pan-Arab nation in general.?
Bashar al-Assad can make the rounds all that he wants, but Arab countries are more interested in preserving their own relationship with Washington than they are in standing with Syria. Once President al-Assad realizes he is likely to get no more than sympathy in his stand off against the US, he may come around to capitulation to US and international pressures.