Khaddam : Bashar Assad, Khamenei, Khatami Agreed to Prolong War in Iraq

publisher: Asharq Al-Awsat

AUTHOR: ابراهيم حميدي

Publishing date: 2021-04-26


Former Syrian Vice President recounted in his memoirs published by “Al-Sharq Al-Awsat” that “the regime shifted from toppling Saddam to defending him.”

The journey of Abdel Halim Khaddam and his documents represents a significant part of Syria’s recent decades. Khaddam, known as “Abu Jamal,” held various positions and witnessed and participated in major events that affected Syria and its role in the region, since the Baath Party took power in 1963, until he left the country and declared his defection in 2005.

Over the decades, “Abu Jamal” moved through several positions. He was the governor of Hama during the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1960s and the governor of 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 critical stages in Damascus and its expansion in Lebanon, to the extent that he was referred to as the “ruler of Lebanon.”

“The Lebanese file” remained under Khaddam’s charge until 1998 when President Assad handed it over to his son, Dr. Bashar, who returned from London after the death of his older brother Bassel in 1994. This move was uncomfortable for Khaddam and his allies in Lebanon.

As his political role in Damascus declined, Khaddam attended the Baath Party conference in June 2005 and resigned from all political and party positions. He retained his position as a member of the central leadership of the party. He later left for Lebanon on his way to exile in Paris, where he stayed until his death last year.

Following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Damascus faced regional and international isolation. In late 2005, Khaddam announced his defection, accusing the Syrian regime of “killing a friend, the Lebanese Prime Minister.” In exile, he formed a coalition called the “Salvation Front” with the Muslim Brotherhood led by Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni to oppose the regime. He was accused of high treason in Damascus, and his properties were confiscated.

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

“Al-Sharq Al-Awsat” went through Khaddam’s papers and documents and will begin publishing chapters from his memoirs today, covering key stages of Syria’s history. These chapters do not merely document historical stages but are a narrative from Khaddam’s perspective.

After the death of President Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad assuming power, the focus shifted to relations with Iraq. Syria engaged in Arab and international activities to defend the Iraqi regime against aggressive acts by the United States. During that time, Bashar al-Assad received various Iraqi leaders, including those most hostile to the Syrian and Iranian regimes, such as Ali Hassan al-Majid and Taha Yassin Ramadan.

Thus, the Syrian regime shifted from the phase of working to topple the Iraqi regime to the phase of defending it in Arab and international arenas. This happened at a time when Iran, through its allies in the Iraqi opposition, aimed to eliminate Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Iraqi and Syrian delegations continuously exchanged visits and worked on bilateral agreements between the two countries. One significant moment was the visit of Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa Miro to Baghdad shortly before the war on Iraq. During the visit, he met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and presented him with a Damascus sword, expressing solidarity and stating that an attack on Iraq was an attack on Syria.

At that time, a conference of the Iraqi opposition was held in London with Iranian and American sponsorship. The Iranian side was represented by a senior intelligence official and a delegation, while the American side included three members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Both delegations worked to ensure the success of the conference, which produced decisions that the Americans used as justification for their war.

As the US campaign intensified and forces were mobilized in the region, and as the US struggled to persuade the Security Council to pass a resolution supporting the war on Iraq, it became clear that war was imminent within days. This raised concerns in Syria about the war spilling over to its territories. The Syrian stance was firmly in favor of Iraq, and there was a sense of national unity in Syria supporting Iraq.

In light of these circumstances, President Bashar al-Assad traveled to Tehran accompanied by Khaddam to discuss the situation with Iranian leadership and work on unifying their stance in the face of the escalating tension.

“We traveled to Tehran on March 16, 2003. Upon our arrival, we held talks with President Mohammad Khatami, and then with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei,” Khaddam said.

Here are excerpts from the minutes of these meetings:

After exchanging pleasantries, the Syrian President began speaking, asking, “What can we do shortly before the war? And what will we do in case of a prolonged war, which might last for years? I don’t mean that the United States will settle and achieve security, but if it does, it will shift its focus to Iran and Syria.”

Khatami replied, “These are valid questions and timely. In Iran, we are always thinking about these points. Our envoys, especially Mr. Kamal Kharrazi, have been working on these matters in their contacts with friends, especially with Mr. Khaddam.”

Khatami continued, “Allow me to explain. I had two meetings: the first with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and the second was a call with French President Jacques Chirac. Mr. Chirac initiated the call, and it lasted for half an hour. Both of them expressed concern that an attack on Iraq is imminent. But their concern was greater, that the war will break out soon.”

Khatami added, “This was on Tuesday or Wednesday, where they said: we must strive to ensure that the attack doesn’t extend beyond Iraq. Both men were worried that attacking Iraq was the first step. I want to conclude and add that this concern is seen positively by the international public opinion. They expressed deep and fundamental opposition to the unipolar direction taken by America, which they practice. That’s why I requested, during my unofficial summit meeting, that our representative communicate with Chirac and others, as this support is now a global demand.”


Khatami continued: “Both leaders, Chirac and Ivanov, came to the conclusion that war is inevitable. Chirac stated that we are ready to use the veto (veto power in the Security Council), but America is prepared for war. His position is that this opposing stance to America makes the war, if it happens, an illegitimate aggression. He said: We have the right to act afterwards. Chirac recalled my opinion that I expressed, saying that air strikes could cause significant losses to Iraq and its people, but they won’t lead to Saddam’s fall. Therefore, they will be compelled to engage in a nuclear war. I speculate and estimate that the Iraqi army and guards will defend the cities.”

Khatami said: “The decisive victory that America achieves is to shorten the duration of the war and achieve victory quickly. But if the war lasts longer, America will lose. It’s enough that the bodies of American soldiers return to America for public opinion to turn against President George Bush and his policies. Therefore, I don’t believe that America will be able to end this war. However, there’s a mysterious point: I don’t know how prepared the Iraqis are for resistance and resilience. I don’t want us to allow the war to happen, but if it occurs, America must not easily emerge victorious. The third point is, if the war happens, what should we do?”

He added: “Another topic I discussed with Chirac is that the battle leads to intensifying and increasing the wave of violence in the world. America, in Afghanistan, didn’t achieve its goal of eliminating the former leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, but rather turned him into a hero. And now, they’re producing another hero named Saddam, and extremism will increase. Chirac agrees with me, but he said that Americans are not familiar with this region.”

He said: “Before we enter the third phase, the post-war phase, I repeat a question: How do you see the situation in case of war, regarding the resilience of the Iraqi people, especially in urban warfare, as if the duration extends, the damages will be greater?”

Assad commented, saying: “If someone other than Americans were fighting, Saddam’s fall would have been quicker, but Americans are controlled by foolishness. They said they would end the war in days or weeks. They’ve confined themselves to this timeframe unnecessarily.”

He added: “If we asked Iraqis: Who do you hate more, America or Saddam? There will be those who say Saddam, but the feeling is that the Iraqi people will fight alongside Saddam. Therefore, I believe there is a group of Iraqis who are concerned about one side, while others are on the other side.”

Assad continued: “Another thing: Americans will kill a large number of Iraqis, and then the people will forget about Saddam Hussein. As for the Republican Guard and the surrounding party members of the regime, and here I am talking about the close Republican Guard, there are many political and military leaders who can be divided into two types: those who benefit from the regime, and those who committed crimes and executions. America’s foolishness will start… they haven’t left a way out for any of these, they issued a list banning 1700 opposition figures from entering Iraq, and talked about a military governor for Iraq. In reality, there will be a battle, but after a few days, everyone will be against America.”

Khatami said: “All opposition today stands against America. We need to try to push the Shia and Sunni to overcome their differences.”

Assad returned to speak, saying: “We are the country that stands most with Saddam, and he is the least coordinated country with us. It’s a strange system living in a different world. I spoke before and said that I am supposed to broaden internal participation. Now in Syria, we have municipal elections. We were talking on the plane about how to expand this participation. Saddam Hussein is doing the opposite. He divided Iraq into four regions yesterday, and handed one of the regions to Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, and this will turn the image against Saddam. We as Syrians and Iranians, how do we deal with opposition? It’s necessary to include opposition abroad, but it can’t have a role. We need broader relationships inside Iraq. As for us in Syria, the relationship is weak due to a lack of trust between our systems.”

He added: “This issue needs detailed study by name, because any council or person coming to rule Iraq will be these people. America didn’t accept the suggestion of an Arab country to replace Saddam with another person, Aziz al-Douri. This is my perception of this point.”

Khatami commented, saying: “We also don’t know what’s happening inside Iraq. I also believe in this contradictory feeling towards Saddam and America, and I think that if the war lasts and the people see losses and the army and the Republican Guard can resist, then time will be on the side of the American side.

In the context of working for Iraq’s future, any tendency threatening the situation must be avoided, and significant dangers, such as sectarianism and conflicts between factions, must be averted because this makes America’s work easier, as if the Shia is demanding a share, and the same for the Kurds and others, and this will be poison for Iraq’s future. I see that it’s necessary to think about a democratic Iraqi future, where Iraq isn’t in the hands of Americans, even if it’s not an enemy to America.”

Khatami continued: “The opposition’s stance now is characterized by recklessness, while the American behavior is characterized by arrogance. The biggest bet on the opposition now is that America treated them badly, and everyone expressed displeasure with their actions, including Ahmed al-Jalabi, who is very close to America. This helped everyone return to their senses and reduced sectarian actions.”

He added: “Turkey has a significant role in this stage. Despite Turkey’s commitments to America, I notice that the ruling group tends to work with us and with the Islamic world. We need to be cautious about the creation of a Kurdish state, and it’s necessary to emphasize the idea that Iranian Kurds are Iranians, Iraqi Kurds are Iraqis, and Turkish Kurds are Turks. In this regard, it’s necessary to reassure the Turks and dispel their concerns. In any case, coordination between us, you, and the Iraqi opposition is required in these matters.”


Assad commented: “Regarding the opposition, there are two situations: the first has matured and will not deal with America, and the second rushed towards America when signaled. Those who reach power will not work with Syria and Iran, but will align with the American side. Therefore, it is necessary to expand relations and create other elements for coordination. The most significant element is the Kurds. They have fears and are considering establishing a homeland. This point is crucial. I have discussed this matter with (former Turkish President) Abdullah Gül, and a Syrian security delegation recently went to Turkey. The main axis of cooperation between Syria and Turkey now is the Kurdish state issue, which concerns Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. We must coordinate on this matter.”

Khatami continued: “Turkey is very important now for both pre-war and post-war stages. Turkey takes orders from America, and this was evident at the Islamic Summit Conference. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to the Istanbul Hexalateral meeting. I believe we can be a regional force in the area that includes Syria, Iran, and Turkey, both during and after the war, since Turkey is affected just like us. By the end of April, the situation regarding the war will become clearer, and the new government under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will take shape, which might worsen the situation in Iraq. I suggest convening a tripartite summit or ministerial-level meeting to discuss what can be achieved. I see that such meetings would have a significant impact, whether there is war or not, and regardless of whether America succeeds or not. We should consider this matter from now on. We previously proposed the 5+6 initiative. Any meeting that includes five members of the Security Council and six neighboring countries of Iraq. The UN Secretary-General welcomed this idea, but it hasn’t materialized. Can we propose this idea today, especially given the positions of France, Russia, and China?”

Kamal Kharrazi interjected: “President Khatami suggested the idea of national reconciliation.” Khatami responded: “The problem is that this idea didn’t please anyone.” Kharrazi questioned: “If this idea is suggested again, could it see the light?” Assad answered: “The proposal was negotiations among the parties. The timing is not right, as the proposal would lead to a question of who gets more? There would be conflicts among nationalities, and the world would see it as an internal matter, not aggression. We want to focus on the aggression. The other aspect that I find suitable is achieving progress. We have spoken with the Iraqis extensively. They don’t coordinate with us, not in the Quint committee or anything else. When we talk to them about the opposition, they say they are not afraid of anyone.”

Khatami commented: “The opposition doesn’t please anyone.” Assad replied: “We can give them false promises in the American way, and still, the issue can be discussed with the Iraqi Foreign Minister. The main problem in the war is Saddam himself.” Khatami said: “In the war, America acts strongly, and it might have plans and projects. Are you confident that the army can do something internally? If America wins quickly, it will be difficult.” Assad responded: “The solution lies in resistance.” Khatami continued: “What if the war happens?” Assad said: “We must prepare for resistance before the war.”

At this point, Khatami remarked: “There must be several goals: firstly, we don’t want the war to happen, and secondly, if it happens, we don’t want it to end quickly, and thirdly, the future of Iraq. We must work and coordinate to achieve these goals and discuss how to deal with the opposition. Another point is that we must know what is happening within Iraq and how to influence it, as well as for the future of Iraq. Our efforts should focus on avoiding sectarianism, and our condition for working with the opposition should be their commitment not to incite troubles. We don’t differentiate between Sunni and Shia. If something like this happens, and this worries me, the opposition will collapse, causing a loss.”

Assad commented: “A sectarian approach in Iraq has negative consequences. Before proposing anything, it should have a purpose. Focusing on the opposition worries the Americans, but this requires discussing relations with the tribes. Today, Americans are distributing money and phones to tribal leaders. I don’t know if they will align with America, but currently, they are happy with the money. What is your relationship with the tribes?”

Khatami replied: “We don’t have relationships with them, but I believe the opposition has contacts with the tribes and other affiliations.” Assad responded: “Dealing with them will be somewhat difficult.”


I intervened in the conversation, saying, “I have a suggestion: Syria and Iran share a similar perspective. We must establish a methodology for action. There are several parties in the opposition infiltrated by Americans. I propose forming a working group to study the Iraqi opposition. Many factions within the opposition have refused to work under the American umbrella, and some believe that war is an opportunity to strike against the regime.”

Khatami replied, “I don’t agree with you, but I do agree that there are some infiltrators influenced by America. However, at the same time, some have not opposed it.” I responded, “Some participants say they are working with American and British intelligence. Indeed, members of the CIA attended the conference as observers, and so did members of Iranian intelligence. Therefore, there must be an examination of the Iraqi opposition and correcting the situations we can influence.”

Khatami answered, “There’s no doubt that they preferred dealing with America, but America’s poor handling of them has made them view the opposition as having a unified stance against America. This is why the opposition in Arbil has receded. America only accepts opposition that fully supports them. The American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said to the opposition, ‘We don’t accept the opposition, and we will install a military ruler in Iraq. After the calm, we will establish a political ruler and create an Iraqi constitution. The most we can do with you is consult.'”

He added, “When America takes military action, the opposition won’t have any activity. America has planned to achieve its goals in Iraq, and all factions of the opposition were bothered by it. They decided to issue an opposing statement to America in Arbil. This is a good thing and has had an impact on changing the American tone. Therefore, I don’t agree with the presence of opposition factions working with America while others remain completely independent. However, at the same time, any faction within the opposition that sees its interest aligned with America will approach it, along with some factions that have depended on America from the start. The American side insists on those who follow them, but at the same time, I support your perspective that there are factions outside the opposition that are more resistant and serious, but we must be realistic.”

He continued, “This suggestion by President Bashar to sit down with Turkey is wise, and we must look at the opposition within a broader framework to prevent disagreements from escalating, and to prevent the opposition from falling into America’s embrace. We would be very happy to have some form of presence. I agree with the idea of a working group, as humans aren’t always choosing between the good and the bad, but we must distinguish between the bad and the worse.”

After concluding the meeting with President Khatami, we headed to meet with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who welcomed us and expressed hopes that the visit would be beneficial for both countries. After that, Assad spoke, saying, “The coordination between our two countries is at a high level, and our visit will certainly achieve success. This visit will add some nuances to the coordination between our countries. Our discussions today reflected the alignment of our viewpoints. We extensively discussed the Iraq issue, and there are many analyses. The view is pessimistic about this matter, and the bright spots are our alliance, positions, and history. The masks have fallen, and everything has become clear. America expressed its position, stating that it wants to occupy Iraq and install a military ruler. It said it will then fight against Syria, Iran, and any country it doesn’t approve of. We realize America’s military power and the potential of Syria and Iran… but we are the landowners.”

Assad added, “We initially said we don’t want war because it’s harmful to everyone, but it’s unreasonable for us to sit and wait for it to reach us later. There’s no neighboring country to Iraq that has decision-making power except Syria and Iran. However, I believe the most important thing that can happen if war breaks out is for it to extend until America becomes exhausted.”

Khamenei then spoke, saying, “Thank you very much for this insightful analysis of the region’s events. The truth is that we are two sister countries with many shared matters and common risks, which in itself is an encouragement for increased comprehensive cooperation between us. The region is facing a dangerous situation.”