Abdel Halim Khaddam… Watch Syria’s expansion and decline

publisher: الشرق الأوسط Al-Sharq Al-Awsat

AUTHOR: ابراهيم حميدي

Publishing date: 2021-04-21


نائب الرئيس السوري السابق عبد الحليم خدام

Former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam

Abdul Halim Khaddam witnessed pivotal events in the contemporary history of Syria, from the Ba’ath Party assuming power in 1963 until his departure from the country and declaration of defection in 2005.

Over decades, Abu Jamal moved between several positions. He served as the governor of Hama during the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1960s and was close to Quneitra when it fell at the end of that decade. He served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and later as the Vice President during key milestones in Syria’s history and its expansion into Lebanon and the region.

Born in 1932 in Baniyas on the coast, Khaddam received his education in its schools before studying law at Damascus University. He joined the Ba’ath Party under the leadership of Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Bitar. During his university years, he became a “companion” to the emerging pilot Hafez al-Assad and a member of the military committee in the Ba’ath Party that led the coup in March 1963.

The Military Committee

The Military Committee included Salah Jadid, Hafez al-Assad, Mohammed Imran, and others, forming alliances and later conflicting. Jadid was promoted to the rank of general in the army, then abandoned the military position in 1965. Assad became the commander of the air force and later the Minister of Defense. Khaddam, at that time, became the governor of Hama before being succeeded by Abdul Rahman al-Khalifa. The Major Mustafa Tlass replaced him as the commander of the central region in the army at the moment of the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in 1964.

At that time, Hafez al-Assad was appointed as the head of the “National Council for the Leadership of the Revolution” at the end of July, then the president of the “Presidential Council” in May, before leaning towards Michel Aflaq in 1965. Hafez found himself in confrontation with Salah Jadid, the “man of decisions” since the late summer of 1965, weaving political and military alliances, including Prime Minister Yusuf Zayen and Defense Minister Hamad Ubaid, and his “companion” in the military committee, Hafez al-Assad. On February 23, 1966, Jadid led a coup against Hafez, and all authorities fell into the hands of the “mysterious man,” Salah Jadid.

After the “February 23 Movement,” Nour al-Din al-Atassi and Prime Minister Yusuf al-Zuain were in the forefront. As for Jadid, the “man of the first word” in the country, he led the government from behind the scenes, and he was among the listeners. He did not give press interviews or speeches and ruled silently between 1966 and 1970.

A year after 1967, the conflict intensified. Two trends emerged in Syria: a leftist one talking about “resistance” and nationalization, and a moderate pragmatist with “balanced” relations and efforts to break the isolation. The second accused the first of being a “childish leftist.”

Before that, Salim Hatoum attempted to arrest Jadid and al-Atassi in the branch of the party in Sweida, and Assad, the Minister of Defense, responded by threatening to bomb the city unless his "archenemy" was "liberated." After the "June setback," the rivals, Jadid and Assad, exchanged accusations. Some placed the responsibility on the Minister of Defense, who attributed the defeat to Chief of Staff Ahmed Suweidani.

The struggle of the two comrades

The conflict between the “comrades” was at its peak at the top of the party hierarchy. The Fourth Ba’ath Congress in September 1968 announced openly the power struggle and the “comrades’ conflict”: Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad. The latter did not hesitate to take appropriate measures against Jadid’s supporters, putting Salah Jadid on the defensive. Before the congress, we “agreed” to appoint Mustafa Tlass as the Chief of Staff, replacing Suweidani.

The next step was the suicide of the intelligence director Abdul Karim al-Jundi in March 1969. Assad showcased his strength in the newspapers “Al-Thawra” and “Al-Ba’ath” in Damascus. As for Khaddam, he was appointed briefly as the governor of Damascus in 1968, and then as the Minister of Economy in May 1969.

The crucial move came from Jordan in 1970. When Jadid supported the intervention of Syrian ground forces, Assad refused to provide air cover. Jadid called for an emergency conference of the National Leadership of the Ba’ath Party on October 30, 1970, to hold Assad, the Minister of Defense, accountable. Before the ink of the support declared by the conference for Jadid’s position dried, Assad responded on November 16, 1970, with the “Corrective Movement” and arrested his opponents. Jadid and al-Atassi were sent to Mezze Prison. Jadid died in prison in 1993, while al-Atassi died about a year after his release. As for Makhlouf, he fled to Algeria.

When Assad assumed power in 1970, he became the Prime Minister. Ahmad al-Khatib was appointed as the Head of State, and Khaddam, the “Friend of Youth,” became the Foreign Minister in February. Khaddam remained in his position when Assad ran for the presidency… until 1984.

Equinox line

In May 1974, Khaddam rallied support for the “Line of Moderation” against the opponents of the “Disengagement Agreement” with Israel, sponsored by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger after the October 1973 War.

In April 1975, Khaddam became Assad’s special envoy in Lebanon, mediating between the parties in the Lebanese Civil War. He later collaborated with Ghazi Kanaan, the head of Syrian intelligence (who died in 2005), and the late intelligence official in Damascus, Muhammad Nasser Khayyer Beyk (who died in 2015), to expand Syrian influence after the entry of the “Arab Deterrent Force” in 1976.

In 1978, Khaddam represented Assad in opposing the initiative of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and later contributed to strengthening relations with Iran after the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in February 1979. In August 1979, he visited Tehran, describing the revolution as “the most important event in our contemporary history” and played a role in building an alliance with the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.

When Assad suffered a heart attack in November 1983, Khaddam was appointed to a six-person presidential-military committee to oversee state affairs, aiming to curb the ambitions of Rifaat al-Assad, the president’s brother, who had strengthened his military power through the “Defense Companies” and considered himself the heir to his brother. When Assad recovered from his illness, Khaddam grew closer to him, alongside the late Defense Minister General Mustafa Tlass (who died in Paris in June 2017). Assad appointed three deputies in 1984: Khaddam for political affairs, Rifaat Assad for military affairs, and Mohammad Zuhair Masharqa for party affairs. Farouk al-Sharaa was appointed as the Foreign Minister.

Khaddam’s role gradually emerged in the “Lebanon file,” and he played a part in resolving the crisis of Syrian missiles with Israel in Zahle in 1981. He contributed to conveying messages to Arab countries and enhancing cooperation with Saudi Arabia in Lebanon. He witnessed the establishment of Iran’s “Hezbollah” in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982, as well as a military strike against it at the “Fathallah” barracks in Beirut in 1987. He engaged with Iranians and advised them not to place Syria and “Hezbollah” on parallel tracks.

In 1985, he coordinated the “Tripartite Agreement,” persuading Walid Jumblatt, Nabih Berri, and Elie Hobeika to “ceasefire and restore peace.” In October 1989, under Syria’s auspices along with Saudi Arabia, he played a role in crafting the “Taif Agreement” among Lebanese factions to end the 17-year-long war. Later, he negotiated the withdrawal of Prime Minister Michel Aoun from Lebanon and played a role in crafting agreements, including the “April Understanding” after the Israeli invasion in 1996.

Supporting a friend... And his farewell

Khaddam supported the election of Elias Hrawi, a close ally of Assad, as president. In 1982, Hrawi’s friend, Rafik Hariri, was presented to Hafez al-Assad, who later tested him unexpectedly. When Hariri passed the “test,” he became Prime Minister between 1992 and 2000. Throughout the 1990s, Khaddam was known as the “political governor” in Lebanon, and Kanaan as the “governor of Anjar,” referring to his headquarters in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley.

The “Lebanese file” remained under Khaddam’s control until 1998 when Assad transferred it to his son, Dr. Bashar, who returned from London after the death of his elder brother, Bassel, in 1994. This move was uncomfortable for Khaddam and his allies in Lebanon. Upon Assad’s death in June 2000, differences emerged in managing the Lebanese file. Khaddam tried to play a prominent role, but pressures and advice led to supporting the “smooth transition” between June 10 and 17. Bashar al-Assad became the army’s commander-in-chief, and in July 2000, he became president. Khaddam remained in his position as vice president. He attempted to regain his “role” in Lebanon and “enhance relations” after the September 2000 campaign launched by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. He also attempted to “mediate” in June 2001 between President Emile Lahoud, Rafik Hariri, and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri.

As his political role diminished in Damascus, the “Baath Party” conference was held in June 2005. Khaddam resigned from all his party and political positions. He held a farewell meeting with Assad, describing him as “warm.” Afterward, he went into exile in Paris. Farouk al-Sharaa became the vice president at the beginning of 2006, later relieved of the position years ago. Walid al-Moallem took over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from Sharaa in 2006. Al-Moallem passed away at the end of 2020.

After the assassination of Hariri, Damascus faced isolation. In the end, Khaddam announced his defection from Paris, accusing the regime of “killing Prime Minister Hariri.” He formed an alliance called the “Salvation Front” with the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayouni, to oppose the regime. In Damascus, he was accused of “great betrayal,” and his properties were confiscated.

Khaddam did not play a prominent political role after the 2011 uprising, dedicating his time to writing his memoirs. In 2003, he published a book titled “Contemporary Arab System” expressing his political views and stance on democracy and freedom.