Abdul Halim Khaddam: Those Who Vote for Bashar Are Acting out of Fear

publisher: الشرق الأوسط

Publishing date: 2014-06-04


Asharq Al-Awsat speaks to Hafez Al-Assad’s former vice-president and foreign minister

Abdul Halim Khaddam met Hafez al-Assad in the early 1950s when he was still a student activist, marking the beginning of a lifelong partnership. This partnership witnessed Khaddam’s promotion to the position of Foreign Minister and later Deputy President.

His relationship with Syria’s current ruler, Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son, was less close.

Khaddam left Syria for exile in Paris in 2005 shortly after resigning as Deputy President.

The Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper interviewed Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former regime supporter and figure, asking him about the ongoing Syrian crisis, the recent presidential elections, and his thoughts on the Syrian opposition.

Asharq Al-Awsat : Will the Syrian people vote for Bashar al-Assad in the presidential elections?

Abdul Halim Khaddam: Ballots are just stacks of papers, the votes cast in the ballot boxes are meaningless, like piles of paper.

Those who choose Bashar al-Assad or anyone else will have to do so out of necessity or fear.

These are not [genuine] elections, and everyone knows that, but Bashar is keen on holding elections as a challenge to the international community.

Question: Who is responsible for what is happening in Syria?

Khaddam: There are two main responsible parties, Russia and Iran and the [Syrian] regime on one side, and on the other side, there are the Arab countries.

There is a significant difference between those who kill or participate in killing and those who can stop or limit the bloodshed.

The latter is what the Arab League did when, just six months after the Syrian revolution began, it thought about sending [Secretary General] Nabil Arabi to meet Bashar.

To be frank, the situation in Syria recalls the beginning of the Palestinian catastrophe.

Another important point that needs clarification is that Syria has never been extremist, nor is the Syrian people inherently extremist.

However, their sense of defeat and the feeling of being abandoned by the world pushed many Syrians towards extremism.

Question: Why did extremist groups emerge among the rebels?

Khaddam: When pressures increased on the Syrian people, alongside the weak stance of the international community, everyone started fighting. Of course, there are those who try to exploit this rampant enthusiasm.

Question: Are you referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front, for example?

Khaddam: Yes, and other armed groups. However, al-Nusra Front differs from ISIS in that the majority of its fighters are Syrians, and I can confirm that they will immediately put down their weapons once Bashar leaves power.

Question: Speaking of ISIS, who brought them to Syria?

Khaddam: Iran brought ISIS to Syria.

No one has any doubts about that, and I know what I am saying. Iran is a major player in the fighting in Syria.

There are Shia organizations, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Hezbollah, fighting alongside Assad.

The fall of Assad would be a painful blow to the Iranian regime.

If Assad falls, Iran’s presence in Iraq will end, and Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon will weaken, or as we say, it will disappear.

Question: Under what scenario would Iran abandon Assad? Reconciliation with Gulf states or a broader international agreement?

Khaddam: Who said that Iran is primarily seeking reconciliation with the Gulf states? Iran seeks to temporarily calm things down until the Syrian crisis ends.

Then Iran will shift its focus to other countries to create conflicts, notably in Bahrain.

Iran will also support the Houthi rebels in Yemen to create tensions on the borders of Saudi Arabia.

The Arab region will witness an unprecedented sectarian conflict in the coming years.

Question: If you were still in your former position in Syria, what would you propose to end the crisis?

Khaddam: Honestly, after Hafez al-Assad’s death, I had no desire to engage in direct political activities. However, I felt embarrassed not knowing how to peacefully exit the political and party scene.

If one suddenly leaves, they face either death or imprisonment.

Regarding your question, I cannot answer it because it’s speculative.

Question: There’s a lot of talk about a potential Alawite state being established in the coastal region of Syria. If this were to happen, what do you expect would happen to the Sunnis in the area?

Khaddam: This won’t happen. More than 40 percent of the population in the coastal region is Sunni.

If the coast were seized, Syria would become a landlocked state without access to the sea. Therefore, the creation of an “Alawite mini-state” is highly unlikely. The current conflict in Syria may reach a stage where one part is stronger than the other, but it won’t be independent from it.

Believe me, if Arab countries provided advanced weapons to the Syrian people, instead of Ahmed Jarba, the former head of the Syrian National Coalition, Bashar al-Assad and his regime would fall within a month.

Question: Why do you criticize Ahmed Jarba strongly?

Khaddam: Jarba doesn’t have any direct connection with the Syrian people. In other words, he has no presence inside Syria. Therefore, he won’t be able to make a difference on the ground.

Question: Are you ready to attempt to reunify the Syrian people or name capable figures to pull Syria out of its current crisis?

Khaddam: I have already tried and continue to try. I am in contact with many influential Syrians who have responded. Returning to your question about Jarba: among dozens of influential leaders of opposition factions whom I contacted, all responded except for Jarba. When asked about the reason, it was mentioned that he said, “The time has passed.”

I don’t know why the time has passed. Does he guarantee that he will go to Damascus tomorrow? Whoever wants to be a leader must be open and acceptable to all.

Question: What remains of the Ba’ath Party in Syria, and who represents it?

Khaddam: There’s nothing left.

Question: Did you separate from Bashar or was he the one who excluded you?

Khaddam: I decided to leave. I remember attending a meeting of the Ba’ath Party leadership for “an hour and a half,” where I talked about what should be done in the future.

By the way, I didn’t work much with Bashar al-Assad. The only foreign trip I took with Bashar al-Assad was to Tehran before the American army entered Iraq.

We went to Tehran, and Bashar suddenly suggested to the Iranians that they train Shia fighting factions to fight against the Americans if they entered Iraq.

Question: Why would Assad make such a suggestion while the Syrian borders were practically open for terrorists to enter Iraq?

Khaddam: The borders weren’t open in this way, but there was indeed an attitude of tolerance from the Syrian government towards those who wanted to go to Iraq.

Question: Will the Syrian crisis continue for another ten years, as suggested by some reports from international intelligence agencies?

Khaddam: If they want it to, the crisis will continue for more than twenty years. If they want to end Assad’s rule, Bashar al-Assad will be over within a month. There’s no need to worry too much about armed groups because they will disappear after Bashar al-Assad falls