Khaddam Files: Khamenei-Assad plot to turn post-Saddam Iraq into America’s ‘new Vietnam’

publisher: المجلة AL Majalla

Publishing date: 2024-03-23


The Syrian president shares his concerns with Iran’s Supreme Leader that the US could go after Iran and Syria if it succeeds in Iraq.

On the eve of America’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Syrian and Iranian leaders met to consider their options. In part 6 of a seven-part series, Al Majalla reveals their shared concerns and hopes.

Al Majalla
On the eve of America’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Syrian and Iranian leaders met to consider their options. In part 6 of a seven-part series, Al Majalla reveals their shared concerns and hopes.

When Syria’s former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam left for Paris in 2005, he took reams of papers, reports, notes, and files with him.

A trusted insider to the al-Assads for decades, the documents give rare insight into the heart of government from Khaddam’s first-hand accounts. He died in March 2020.

Among the more intriguing geopolitical periods of his time in power was the year leading up to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Those attending these crunch meetings between Iran and Syria included Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, and Brig. Gen. Mohammed Nassif.

From Tehran, there were Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s powerful Quds Force.

They met at the 11th hour, with the US invasion of Iraq just days away. They knew that Saddam would not go quietly and wanted the US to get bogged down in Iraq, hoping for a “new Vietnam”.

They also sought to avoid the eventual establishment of a new and sovereign Kurdish state in the north of Iraq, so they agreed to work with Turkey, knowing that Ankara would be wholly opposed to this.

Through Khaddam’s paperwork, Al Majalla can now reveal for the first time the conversations that took place between the region’s leaders ahead of the war.

Interestingly, it shows how Tehran and Damascus tried to align security, political, and military strategies to counter American intervention in Iraq.

War feels unavoidable

As the American campaign against Iraq intensified in early 2003, with its military forces amassing in the region, it found itself unable to get a green light for action from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

The lack of a UN resolution defining and limiting US ambitions led to concern in Damascus about the potential for the Americans’ war to spread, especially considering Syria’s previous support for Saddam.

In this context, a senior delegation of al-Assad, Khaddam, al-Sharaa, and General Nassif visited Iran on 16 March 2003 to align strategies with the Iranians. Minutes of the meeting were included in the Khaddam Files.

“What steps can we take in the short time before the war starts?” al-Assad asked Khatami. “How should we brace for a prolonged conflict, potentially lasting years?



Iranian President Mohammad Khatami shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad upon his arrival in Tehran on 16 March 2003.


“I’m not suggesting the United States will opt for a peaceful settlement, but if it achieves stability and security, it might next focus on Iran and Syria.”

Khatami agreed these were “relevant and timely questions” and added, “We, in Iran, always contemplate such scenarios.”

Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Kharrazi had had similar discussions with Tehran’s allies for months, including with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and French President Jacques Chirac.

“Interestingly, both expressed worries about the likely attack on Iraq,” said Khatami. “Yet, their concerns extended further. Both felt that war was unavoidable.”

Limiting war to Iraq

Chirac told Khatami that “we must strive to limit the aggression to Iraq alone”, expressing his “grave concern that an attack on Iraq is merely the initial step”.

Chirac said that despite France’s preparation to use its veto power in the UNSC, America was still determined to proceed.

“The French position is that opposing America makes any resultant war, should it occur, an unjust act of aggression, granting us the right to react appropriately in its aftermath.”

Khatami told the Frenchman that while air strikes could inflict significant damage on Iraq and its population, “they’re unlikely to unseat Saddam”.

The Iranian president pondered whether this could “necessitate a nuclear conflict,” adding: “I assume the Iraqi military and the Guard would defend from within urban centres.

He said: “A swift victory could denote a decisive win for America, should the war be brief. Conversely, a protracted conflict might spell defeat for America, potentially swaying public opinion against President George Bush and his policies.”

“Thus, the outcome of this war seems uncertain. The degree of Iraqi resistance and endurance remains a question.”

“We shouldn’t wish for war, but if it happens, America must not win easily. Regarding our actions if war breaks out, what should we consider?”

Al-Assad said: “Had the adversary been anyone but the Americans, Saddam’s downfall might have been swifter. Yet, the Americans’ folly leads them to predict a short war, unnecessarily limiting themselves.”

Two bad options

In terms of who the Iraqi people hated more, “some might cite Saddam, but many would likely unite behind him against America,” said al-Assad. “It suggests a division among Iraqis, some supporting one side, others another.”

Heavy Iraqi casualties would eventually lead to public sentiment turning against America despite Saddam’s unpopularity, said al-Assad.

“Despite being his staunchest supporters, we find him least cooperative with us,” said the Syrian. “It’s as if he operates in a different reality.”

The Iraqi leader’s recent decision to divide Iraq into four regions, assigning control of one to Ali Hassan al-Majid (aka ‘Chemical Ali’, known for his role in gassing the Kurds) “might shift perceptions of Saddam”, said al-Assad.

“As for our approach, Syrians and Iranians, towards the opposition, it’s vital to engage the external opposition without granting them too much power.

“We need to build wider connections within Iraq. Our relations (with Saddam) are hampered by distrust, but we do have links to the opposition.”

In response, Khatami acknowledged the mixed feelings towards both Saddam and America, and agreed that the dynamics “could shift unfavourably for the Americans” the longer the military phase dragged on.

Possible Kurdish state

“The possibility of a Kurdish state emerging is a concern we must not overlook,” said Iran’s president, with one eye on Iran’s own Kurdish minority, which comprise roughly 7% of Iran’s total population.

“It is essential to reinforce the idea that Kurds, regardless of where they reside—be it in Iran, Iraq, or Turkey—are integral parts of their respective nations.

“Ensuring the Turks are comforted and their worries are addressed is crucial. Coordination between us, yourselves, and the Iraqi opposition concerning these issues is indispensable.”

Al-Assad told his hosts that there were two groups within the Iraqi opposition: “one that has matured and will not collaborate with America, another that eagerly allied with America upon invitation”.

Al-Assad continued: “Should this latter group gain power, they would not work with Syria and Iran. They would opt instead to side with the Americans. Therefore, expanding our network and forging more avenues for coordination is crucial.”

He agreed that the Kurdish question “is of utmost importance” because “they harbour aspirations for their own state, which is a critical concern… I’ve discussed this matter with Abdullah Gul (the Turkish President).

“The issue of a Kurdish state is a focal point of cooperation between Syria and Turkey, rallying all segments in Turkey, including its military, around a common cause shared by Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.



Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (right) receives Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam before their meeting in Tehran on September 29, 2003. 

Resistance and sectarianism

Khatami said America was flexing its military muscles and wondered what other plans it had in mind for the region. “Should America secure a rapid victory, we’ll face significant challenges,” he warned.

Al-Assad said the strategy “must be centred on resistance… We must lay the groundwork for resistance well before any conflict begins.”

Khatami spelt out Iran’s goals: first, to prevent war. Second, if unable to prevent war, “ensure it doesn’t conclude swiftly.” Third, to deliberate on Iraq’s future.

“To achieve these goals, it’s crucial for us to work in unison and coordinate meticulously, including formulating plans for engaging with the opposition,” he said.

“It’s essential to grasp Iraq’s internal dynamics and find ways to exert influence. Moreover, we must aim to avert sectarian divisions.”

“Our precondition for collaborating with the opposition is their assurance not to provoke sectarian strife.

“We make no distinction between Sunni and Shiite. My concern is that if we fail in this, the opposition will collapse, leading to dire consequences.”

Al-Assad agreed that “injecting sectarianism into Iraq’s fabric would undoubtedly lead to adverse effects”.

He said the Americans were “enticing tribal leaders with money and mobile phones”, adding that he did not know if this would be enough to win them over.

Khatami said Iran’s connections with Iraqi tribes “are not direct, however it is my understanding that the opposition maintains contacts and relationships with them, and the tribes themselves are networked with various other groups”.

At this point, Khaddam proposed a strategy. “Assuming Syria and Iran share common ground, a coordinated action plan is essential.”

“The opposition is diverse, with several factions penetrated by American influence. I suggest forming a task force dedicated to evaluating the Iraqi opposition.”

“Within the opposition, numerous factions have declined to align with the Americans. Some view war as an opportunity to assert themselves against the regime.”

Al-Assad’s analysis

Later that day, al-Assad, Khaddam, and Khatami met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who said he hoped the visit “would prove beneficial for both countries”.

Al-Assad noted “a strong agreement (between Iran and Syria) on various issues, particularly Iraq”.

He then added that US intentions were “now unmistakably clear: occupy Iraq, install military governance, and potentially target Syria, Iran, and other opposing states… We recognise America’s military prowess but stand firm in our sovereignty”.

Al-Assad told the Supreme Leader that “initially, we hoped to avert war”, but since it now seemed unavoidable, “sitting idly by is not an option”.

He said: “Among Iraq’s neighbours, only Syria and Iran have maintained independence in their decision-making. In my opinion, the most critical outcome in the event of war would be to drag it out until America is worn out.”

“The Iraqi people are averse to American rule, and regardless of Saddam’s role, armed resistance will follow.”

US victory in Iraq “could set a precedent for involvement in Palestine, quelling resistance movements there,” said the Syrian.

“This would let Israel control the destinies of countries in our region, including Iran and Syria. These principles guide our actions.”

Khamenei and Palestine

Khamenei expressed his gratitude for “this insightful analysis”, adding: “Our two nations are sister states, sharing numerous common interests and mutual risks. This alone is a powerful motivator to enhance our cooperation.”

“The region is indeed facing a precarious situation, Iraq being of paramount importance. The Palestinian matter, unfortunately, has become overshadowed.”

“The situation in Palestine is unparalleled in history. The severe onslaught against the Palestinian people, coupled with the martyrdom operations, evokes both astonishment and respect.”

“Palestinians turn to martyrdom operations in the face of relentless pressure, attacks, and media campaigns by the US, Israel, and others, including some Muslim countries.”

“While certain think tanks and neighbouring countries condemn these operations, Syria and Iran are the only two making independent decisions, as evidenced by your unwavering support for these actions.”

“This principled stance is both admirable and brave, significantly bolstering the ongoing resistance and resilience, with Palestinian and jihadist forces in Lebanon securing a strong foothold.”

“Has Israel ever faced a prolonged conflict with an Arab state without achieving victory? It has been engaged with the Palestinians (for years) without being able to defeat them.”

“Should the (Palestinian) people remain steadfast, it will inevitably lead to the collapse of the Zionist regime. This transition will surely be gradual, moving through predictable political phases.”

Khamenei’s long-game

Khamenei then said, “We must devise a strategy” to prolong the war if, as per al-Assad, this would lead to America’s defeat.”

The Iranian leader said the war in Iraq had been postponed. “If this postponement continues, it may be averted altogether. People, not weapons, carry out war. If morale is undermined, the effectiveness of their weapons diminishes.”

“Thus, even though there are only a few days left until the American deadline, I remain convinced that these efforts will not be futile at the last minute.”

He continued: “Should war break out, our overarching policy must be to prevent our adversary from securing an easy victory. This involves strategic media initiatives, diplomatic manoeuvres, and liaising with the Iraqi opposition.”

“I hold no illusions about Saddam’s military and his loyalists; their history has shown a lack of resilience. The Iraqi population and tribal groups, on the other hand, feel disenfranchised.”

“If we pin our hopes on them, then we must engage in a concerted effort to mobilise them, recognising their potential for impact and influence.”

“As for the Americans, their intellectual drive toward this venture lacks persistence and coherence. Their dreams of emulating 18th-century conquests are out of touch with the present day.”

“The idea that they can invade Iraq, take over its lands, and control its oil is a fantasy at odds with modern realities.”

“This means that, although they might initially manage to establish control and appoint a military governor, maintaining such control is beyond their grasp.

A long time coming

Khamenei said US strategy “looks beyond Iraq, rooted in the events of 9/11 and the beginning of Bush’s tenure… These events may have set the stage for their plans, but it is evident that such a strategy has been in the making for a long time.”

“It has been meticulously planned to transform the political fabric of the region. However, despite America’s military might, I believe its execution is beyond its reach.”

“They cannot overcome the determination of the people in this region. Although they may cause destruction, conduct strikes, and achieve temporary victories, the ultimate toll of defeat will be theirs to bear.”

Khamenei said that steadfast resistance “will lead to the victory of the region’s peoples and mark the decline of the United States as a dominant force”.

Al-Assad said Syria took inspiration from resistance in Palestine and Lebanon, adding that Syria and Iran had “worked together to support Lebanese resistance, even when Syria was under siege”.

He said: “Now, the challenges in Palestine are even greater, but our goal is to boost their morale, which is exactly what we’re striving for.”

“Our resolve encourages others to remain determined. Should the resistance falter in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Iran, it will diminish in Iraq, too.”

“The average citizen bears resentment towards Saddam; thus, our current strategy focuses on prioritising those citizens who stand neither with America nor with any other group. America’s failure to meet its goals is tantamount to its defeat.”

Concocting a Vietnam

“If we can’t defeat them outright, we must ensure the situation remains in flux,” said al-Assad. “Martyrdom operations are crucial. What truly terrifies the Americans is the declaration that ‘your children will not return from Iraq.'”

“We must not grow complacent,” continued al-Assad. “Keeping our communication lines open is vital, especially now.”

“Should signs of war become evident following the recent summit between Bush, Blair, and (Spain’s) Aznar, an operations centre involving the Syrian Charge d’Affaires and the Foreign Ministry should be established.”

“We stand strong on our land. They are the intruders. Time favours us. Despite the adversities, I am inclined towards optimism, and I hope you share this outlook.”



A photo published by the official Syrian News Agency (SANA), showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shaking hands with Iranian “guide” Ali Khamenei, before their meeting in Tehran on February 25, 2019. 

Khamenei said al-Assad’s thoughts were “precisely the sentiments I hoped for,” adding: “The crux of the matter is resilience and resistance.”

“The Americans seek to dissuade others from resisting, but resistance remains the only path forward. I see this resistance as a long-term endeavour akin to Vietnam.

“During the Vietnam War, America’s internal situation was more stable. Today, America faces economic and social hurdles and a decline in its international credibility.”

“I share your optimism and agree on the importance of the cooperation… We need to devise ways to hinder America’s success, offering our full support to the Palestinian resistance.”

Post-meeting notes

In his notes afterwards, Khaddam said the Syrians’ visit “culminated in a consensus to continue sharing insights and efforts to align our stances”.

A security committee was formed to monitor developments in Iraq, chaired by Gen. Nasif from Syria and Gen. Soleimani from Iran. The visit marked “a significant step in strengthening Syria-Iran relations”.

He also recorded that, contrary to expectations, when American forces initiated the war on Iraq, the Iraqi population did not resist, leading to an unexpectedly swift victory for the Americans.

Following this, the American governor, Paul Bremer, established the Governing Council of Iraq, incorporating some of Iran’s allies.

His decision to dissolve the army and security forces and dismantle the Ba’ath Party was pivotal in sparking “the rise of resistance in Iraq,” according to Khaddam.

“The formation of the Governing Council and its often retaliatory decisions played a part in intensifying sectarian divisions in Iraq.

“The resistance was primarily focused in western Iraq, whereas the occupying forces experienced relative peace during this period in Baghdad and southern Iraq.”