An interview with Abdul Halim Khaddam, former Vice President of the Syrian Arab Republic.

publisher: وكالات

Publishing date: 2016-08-07


There is no doubt that getting an interview with a figure like Abdul Halim Khaddam represents an opportunity that doesn’t come every day for a journalist – any journalist. Due to the significant political role he played historically, from the time of the Ba’ath Party’s rise to power in 1963 to his defection from the regime in 2005 and its aftermath, he serves as an exceptional source of a wealth of information and details he witnessed or was a part of.

However, for me, I intended to approach Abdul Halim Khaddam, the political figure with extensive experience in international relations and diplomacy, in search of utilizing this experience to understand the complex situation surrounding the Syrian issue today.

Therefore, I was hesitant to ask questions related to history, and my hesitation increased because I aimed to derive the highest possible yield of opinions rather than information that Mr. Khaddam had discussed in many interviews following his departure from the country. But the surprise came when I found him eager to discuss this history without any reservations, and his relationship with Hafez al-Assad and the opposition during his time in power, as well as the details he possessed about numerous events, most notably the Hama massacre, while his relationship with the opposition after the partial revolution was the only topic he seemed hesitant to talk about.

Abdul Halim Khaddam:

Yes, I was a partner of Hafez al-Assad, but I was the first to defect from the regime, and for these reasons, I distanced myself from political work.

| Recent leaks have emerged, although not new, discussing a US-Russian military coordination in Syria. What is your interpretation of this information and the overall situation in Syria today?

Let me say at the outset: the worst thing happening today is the division among Syrians. When any people face a crisis or aggression, they unite. However, what happened with us is the opposite. The popular revolution imposes unity and solidarity, but what has emerged is more social divisions, and the disagreements between political forces and intellectual trends are prevailing.

As for your question, Syria holds a strategic position for both Russia and the US, but the United States made Russia slide into this position because it’s difficult to establish a new alliance or agreement between the two countries.

| Why is that?

Since the end of World War II and the formation of the two well-known blocs – Russia on one side and the Western European-US alliance on the other side – and the subsequent Cold War between the two blocs, there wasn’t a direct war between them but in the territories of others, where the Russians supported one side and the Americans supported the other.

| Do you think what’s happening today in Syria is an extension of that Cold War?

We cannot say that Russia and the US have allied or become friends. The long and indirect war between them has left a deep crack in their relationship that cannot be easily bridged, allowing for an agreement as some believe. Ultimately, each of them still has their own goals.

| And what are their goals in Syria?

America’s goal is to enhance its dominance in the Middle East, while Russia is trying to regain the Soviet phase in the region. That’s why it allied with Iran to achieve significant breakthroughs.

| But everyone agrees that America hasn’t done much in Syria.

That’s true, America hasn’t done much yet except for statements, but the Americans always play their game in the long run and with patience, using their long breath. Russia also has its own approach.

| And what about Europe?

The West, in general, follows the lead of the United States and aligns with it.

| In light of all this complexity, what is it that the opposition failed to grasp from this situation, and what do you believe they should have done?

Ask the opposition; I do not want to get into this matter.

| I’m asking you due to your political experience and not for the sake of argument.

I see the situation as complex, and the opposition has no role, in short.

| At the beginning of the revolution, you appeared in the media and had a presence, but later, your presence was rare. Why?

I was the first person to defect from the regime, even before I left the country in 2005. I announced my resignation and the reasons for it in a Qatari conference for the Ba’ath Party, then I left Syria.

Afterwards, I began contacting certain countries and individuals internally to take action, but at that time, there was no intention among Syrians to rise against the regime. Things continued as they were until the events in Daraa in 2011. I issued a statement urging the international community and Arab countries to form a military force to enter Syria and save the people. At that point, the opposition launched a widespread attack against me, and there was no one who didn’t say, “Khaddam wants foreigners to come to Syria.” I didn’t respond to that.

| What prompted you to make this request early on?

Because I know the regime’s strength. They have an army with a force of over 300,000, in addition to security and police forces. This is a force that the unarmed people cannot confront, not to mention that it’s directly supported by Iran. So, due to the reactions, I chose not to engage in any conflicts.

| Why? Did you anticipate that your presence would cause divisions among the opposition due to the past?

Because I know that the game isn’t a national game; it’s much bigger than the opposition.

| To what extent was the opposition’s stance towards you after the revolution caused by history, especially since many of them say, “Abdul Halim Khaddam is the one who opposed the Damascus Spring”?

The forces of the Damascus Spring didn’t engage in politics; they merely demanded for the sake of demanding, not to achieve results. They wanted Bashar al-Assad to overthrow his father!

They asked him for freedom, changing the constitution, and restoring democracy, all at once. I told them that what they’re asking for doesn’t happen that way; it’s achieved when you know how to reach it.

| Frankly, what was your goal in that?

There were forty or fifty people, and they had no audience. They couldn’t move anything, not even to protect themselves, let alone pressure for any change. Everyone knows that any security element could easily arrest and strike them without achieving anything.

| But did you genuinely want what they were asking for to be achieved?

Of course, since the time of Hafez al-Assad, I’ve been advocating for a change in the internal situation and disagreed with him on this point.

| Many will consider what you say to be a way for you to avoid taking responsibility for that period, given that you were a partner of Hafez al-Assad.

Yes, I was a partner of Hafez al-Assad, and it was my role for him to become president after we agreed on a work program that included free elections and fighting corruption. When we formed the government, I chose to be the Foreign Minister and established a foreign policy program at a time when Syria had severed relations with most Arab countries and the world. We restored relations based on the program I developed, and we brought in significant aid. With this assistance, the state initiated numerous projects that improved the country’s infrastructure and services. However, this movement was accompanied by corruption. The cost of a factory that was worth 20 billion was documented as 30 billion, with the difference going to the elite and Assad’s relatives.

I can say that during Hafez al-Assad’s era, there were aspects that could be defended. Hafez al-Assad was a dictator who relied on the structure of the Syrian army and security to protect the regime. However, during that time, we achieved important things for the country by leveraging the foreign policy I was leading.

| But the issue of Hama and the events known as the Brotherhood uprising in the late 1970s and early 1980s remain the most significant and harsh episodes of that period.

True. What happened was that the Muslim Brotherhood occupied the heart of Hama city, and the people of Hama were warned to leave the city. However, the Brotherhood prevented them from leaving. So, the core battle was with the Muslim Brotherhood.

| But the numbers are clear, speaking of thousands of civilian victims from the people of Hama and different other regions.

The Hama issue could have been avoided if groups of the Mukhabarat forces had been sent in to end the rebellion.

In any case, this occurred away from the file I was responsible for, and thus, I don’t possess all its details. After leaving Syria, I established a political alliance in 2007, where the Muslim Brotherhood was also a part of it, and this alliance continued for two years.

| When the revolution began, did you try to do anything distant or close to the opposition?

As I told you, from the beginning, I issued a statement calling on the Arabs and the international community to intervene and save the Syrian people. Because I didn’t want Bashar’s forces to have the upper hand over the people. This was what I feared and was sure would happen.

| The regime accused you of inciting the people of Banias, your hometown, to participate in the revolution, and the people of the city were described – among other things – when they came out in the protests, as “Khaddamists,” etc. Did you actually play a role in mobilizing the people of the city?

As long as my conviction was that the regime couldn’t be brought down through protests, I wouldn’t involve people and push them to protest against it, only to later leave them to face its brutality. However, when things erupted, and people chose this path, I intensified my attack on the regime.

Banias was the only area on the coast that had the potential, along with the Haffeh region, to participate in the revolution. The people of these regions have strong self-pride and a history they are proud of. So, they were ready to participate and were driven towards it, even if I or anyone else told them not to. They would still take part.

| Are you saying this because you were aware that the regime would respond with the most extreme violence possible?

Of course.

| Based on this, how did you view the transition from protests to arming and military action?

There is no genuine arming of the revolution. If there were genuine arming, believe me, “Bashar al-Assad would fall in three days.”

| What basis do you have for saying this?

Because I know the structure of the Syrian army, and I know the people in turn. I said that if Syrians wanted and were determined, Bashar al-Assad would fall.

| It’s said that the former Defense Minister, Ali Habib, went to Ankara not long ago and met with Turkish officials to arrange for the upcoming phase. It’s also said that Manaf Tlass is preparing for a future role. This and more is being circulated incessantly. Do you have any information on this matter, and what is your opinion?

I haven’t heard of this. Secondly, the Turks are currently preoccupied dealing with the repercussions of the coup attempt. I don’t think they are ready to engage in that. Ali Habib doesn’t have the power or the data to assist him in that.

He is one of over five thousand officers who defected from the regime. Any officer who abandons his unit becomes just like any citizen on the street. On this basis, what can Ali Habib or anyone else do? Nothing.

| It’s not about him as an individual. It can be said that he represents a conciliatory figure among the influential forces in the Syrian issue. He is a military figure and an Alawite who hasn’t been stained by blood. Therefore, he might serve as a guarantee for the regime and be accepted by the opposition, as some countries seeking this believe.

This is not a possibility at all. First of all, he can’t change anything in the Alawite community today. Bashar al-Assad succeeded in implicating the Alawite community in murder and bloodshed, and it will take a long time for the community to forget this animosity that Bashar al-Assad implanted. Neither Ali Habib nor anyone else can erase it.

We have half a million Syrians who have been killed. This isn’t a “football” game that you can forget its loss quickly.

| Political Work and National Work

I asked Mr. Abdul Halim Khaddam: If you were invited to work with the opposition today, would you agree?

He responded:

I have retired from political work, but I do whatever I can in terms of national work.

I asked him: What’s the difference?

He replied: National work compels me to do what I can to serve my country. Political work, on the other hand, means being part of a party or a political organization, and so on. I tried this, but things didn’t go as planned.

He continued: Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that if a people, any people, become divided, they won’t rise. There is indeed a difference between parties and using sect or ethnicity for political gains. A party includes members from all components and factions, and it has a work program, etc. Sectarianism or nationalism, however, is a destructive factor, not a constructive one. This is self-evident.

| America’s Statements… and Their Inspection!

Regarding the American stance, Khaddam emphasizes what everyone agrees on, which is that the United States has done nothing concrete to translate its demand for Bashar al-Assad’s departure, except for issuing statements about him needing to leave. “But this departure doesn’t come with mere statements; it requires force,” he confirms.

On this matter, he reveals: When the opposition requested weapons and aid from the Americans, Washington refused. And when one of the opposition delegations went to the United States to meet with officials there, the delegation’s leader was subjected to a disrespectful inspection. This was an indicator of America’s lack of seriousness in dealing with the Syrian opposition from early on.

| Kurds, History, and the Future

Given his prior involvement in the Kurdish issue during his time in a position of responsibility in Syria, I asked my guest about the implications of the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) current actions on the Syrian Kurds and Syria as a whole. He said:

We can’t generalize judgment on the Kurds. They are divided into two parts. There’s an extremist faction that was present in Syria even during Hafez al-Assad’s days, and the regime used to harbor it. The second faction, which encompasses most Kurds, is against the extremists.

He continued: Kurds are part of the Syrian people, part of its history and future. A significant part of history was shaped by Kurds, such as Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi and others who ruled Syria not as Kurds but as sons of the country and Muslims. In recent history, Kurdish leaders and figures have played renowned national roles. In every country, there are ethnic groups and components, and therefore, if all nations dealt with issues through an ethnic lens, all states would collapse.

| Who Trapped the Boy?

When the Political Security branch, headed by Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, arrested students in Daraa in 2011, and a delegation of parents from Hawran went to meet with Assad to demand the release of their children, Bashar promised to release them the next day. But when the fathers went to collect their children the following day, they were arrested as well.

The story is known to everyone, and who among the Syrians hasn’t heard or read about it? It marked the moment that ignited the revolution and pushed the Assad regime to the brink. So, how could this regime make such a colossal mistake?

The question is answered by Mr. Khaddam: Some individuals clearly pushed for the men to be arrested as well. It appears that these individuals convinced Bashar al-Assad that this was the opportune time for him to display his strength so that people would fear him, similar to what happened with his father in the 1980s. And the boy followed through with this, but he is one thing, and his father is another.

| Powell, Assad, and Human Rights!

Mr. Khaddam also talks about the period following the United States’ occupation of Iraq and the details of the famous visit made by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell to Damascus and his meeting with Bashar al-Assad. This incident is widely known, but Khaddam has more to add. He says:

Colin Powell asked Bashar al-Assad for three things that are well-known. These were closing the Syrian-Iraqi border, closing Palestinian movement offices, and handing over Iraqi dissidents. These requests were executed except for the handing over of Iraqis, as some were imprisoned while others left Syria.

I asked him: It’s said that Powell also asked Bashar to improve human rights and freedoms and more. He replied:

This never happened. Americans talk about freedoms and human rights in their country, but they don’t care about these matters abroad. They’re only interested in their own interests.

| The Final Days in Damascus

Mr. Khaddam discusses the final period leading up to his departure from Syria, saying: At the recent Qatar conference I attended for the party, I spoke about the internal situation, corruption, security, and the oppression of people, etc., as well as the external situation, Arab and international relations with Syria, which were at their worst state. After I left the conference, an employee from Bashar al-Assad’s office approached me and said, “The things you said deserve to be a work program for Syria in the coming period.” However, I knew in reality that nothing from what I said would be taken into account. Therefore, I arranged my affairs to leave the country. I had made up my mind even before Rafik Hariri’s assassination. When I left, the opposition launched a campaign against me, including individuals who were in Syria until the previous day and can’t even be labeled as part of the opposition.

| Hama 1964

As part of the conversation about the city of Hama, Khaddam revealed details about the first attack that the city faced during the rule of the Ba’ath Party in 1964, at which time he was the governor.

He says: The reason for what happened was that the Minister of Education during that period transferred two teachers from the city to Deir ez-Zor Province in the middle of the academic year. A delegation from the city came to the governor’s office and asked for action to cancel or delay the decision. I traveled to Damascus and tried with the Minister of Education, but he refused.

Afterwards, I went to Prime Minister Muhammad Imran and explained the situation to him. He told me that the decision was wrong and that he would discuss it with the Qatari leadership that had essentially made the decision. The next day, Imran informed me that the leadership refused to amend the decision. I told him, “Hama will ignite,” but no one listened to me. When I returned to Hama the next day, the delegation of elders met me, and I informed them of what happened.

Afterwards, the people of Hama started an uprising. They gathered in one of the mosques. The Secretary of the Regional Command, who was also the President of the Republic at that time, came to the city with members of the Qatari leadership (Nur al-Din al-Atassi and Salah Jadid). They all went to the protesters, and the Secretary of the Regional Command delivered a speech praising the people of Hama and asked them to end the strike. However, someone or a few people shouted loudly and threatened him. The Secretary of the Regional Command became furious and declared that he would force them to kneel, and that he was ready to destroy the mosque over their heads and build ten mosques in its place..!! And so, the situation escalated, but to a much lesser extent compared to the second one, which could have been avoided, as he stated.

| Khaddam and Baniyas

I asked my guest the question that I have been accustomed to asking all the opposition figures I have interviewed so far: How did you feel when you saw the demonstrations of the people of Baniyas, being a native of that region? He said:

This is my homeland, and I grew up among these people and lived among them, and I know them. Naturally, I felt a special emotion as I witnessed their uprising and heard news about it. This is a normal feeling, and it’s part of a general positive sentiment that I have towards all the other regions of the country.

He added: This feeling was accompanied by concern at the same time. Whoever doesn’t feel concern must be deaf, blind, and mute. Because of my complete understanding of this regime, I knew that it would confront the people with all its force and violence. This was something that worried me and urged me to call for international intervention to prevent it from committing crimes against the people.