Khaddam interview ‘Bashar regime must go to prevent break-up of Syria’

publisher: Gulf News

AUTHOR: Duraid Al Baik

Publishing date: 2006-02-11


Abdul Halim Khaddam framed and executed Syria’s foreign policy for almost three decades during the era of former president Hafez Al Assad (November 1970-June 2000). But the 45-minute telephone interview I had with him showed he was not at all happy with the regime’s domestic policies. This was especially true after 1978, when Hafez’s younger brother Rifaat Al Assad began to grow as a power centre. Khaddam said he had personally warned Hafez Al Assad about the deterioration on the domestic front and criticised the regime on different occasions at forums of the Baath party.

During the course of the interview, Khaddam, for the first time, criticised Hafez for turning Syria into a private enterprise and his consistent efforts to hand over the country to his sons. He said he believed in democracy and would spare no efforts to help the Syrians install a liberal and free system.

Following is the text of the interview:


Gulf News: On January 14, you announced you would form a government-in-exile that would take over power when the government of President Bashar Al Assad collapsed, but nothing has happened since then. I have contacted opposition forces in London and Washington who welcomed your move but said they have not heard from you. What happened to the government-in-exile idea and are you going to cooperate with the existing opposition forces or form a government of your own supporters?
Abdul Halim Khaddam: I am working with different opposition forces which exist inside Syria and in exile. We are discussing the formation of a government-in-exile. Its main task will be to fill the power vacuum in the country and be in action after the collapse of the regime in Damascus.

I am discussing my proposal directly with the leaders of opposition factions or through mediators. We are looking to foster and strengthen cooperation among different opposition factions, including Muslim Brotherhood, which are banned by law in Syria since 1980. We will announce a programme for a democratic change in Syria that will include all the topics and the issues to be handled by the opposition in the next stage.

We are working round-the-clock to set an executable plan to achieve our targets and to benefit from the blunders committed by the regime in recent years. The regime has handcuffed itself through a chain of fatal mistakes which will help the opposition overthrow the totalitarian regime and launch a democratic era.


I see one problem that hinders the achievement of your goal to lead the Syrian opposition to a triumph over the Bashar regime credibility. Since your December 30, 2005 Al Arabiya TV interview, in which you linked Bashar to the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, opposition leaders I spoke to told me they don’t believe in you as a democrat because of your long alliance with the regime. They believe you are attacking the regime now because you are out of it. The say, for many years you have not talked about democracy and national unity; in fact, you have been a sincere loyalist of Baath’s policies and supported the ruling party in Syria since 1970. How do you explain your sudden embracement of the need for democracy in Syria?
I was among the three officials who formed the Hafez Al Assad government’s domestic policy when he came to power in 1970. I worked at the time with Mohammad Haider and Lt Col Ezz Al Deen Idris to form the policy that focused on involving Syrians from different political streams in developing the country and liberating them from the fear of security.

The policy paid dividends till 1978 when Rifaat Al Assad, the younger brother of Hafez, began to grow as a power centre within the regime. At that time, I advised Hafez to control Rifaat who became a nuisance for citizens in Damascus due to his arrogant behaviour. Hafez replied that Rifaat was a nuisance for the reactionary forces that were against the regime. He said he wanted Rifaat to become a thorn in the eyes of the regime’s enemies. I had challenged Hafez then that he would one day see in whose eyes Rifaat became a thorn.

After the 1984 coup attempt by Rifaat, Hafez, who was in hospital recuperating from a heart attack, asked me to explain to him what had happened when he was in coma. He also told me that he remembered my warning when he learnt of Rifaat’s coup.

However, I insisted on the need to take democratic steps after 1985 and advised Hafez Al Assad to take action towards reconciliation with different political groups in the country. My proposed project for political reforms is well-documented in the minutes of meetings of the Central Bureau of the Baath party of which I was a member. I was a strong advocate of reforms after my visit to the Soviet Union in 1985 and the meeting with [the then President Mikhail] Gorbachev. I realised that Soviet support to Syria will vanish and our strongest ally in the world will be helpless.

I came back from Moscow and advised Hafez Al Assad to focus on internal reforms and defuse the tension between the regime and the citizens.

I told Hafez that a prisoner cannot, and will not, defend his prison. I said Syrian citizens should enjoy freedom in order to defend their country against external threats.

Syria was then passing through difficult times. The country’s relations with Iraq and Egypt were tense, the civil war in Lebanon was threatening internal peace in Syria, economic crisis and conflicts with Muslim Brotherhood were the other challenges to domestic peace and security. I proposed my plan to Hafez to foster a stronger alliance with Arab countries in the Gulf which, I said, will help Syria to overcome its difficulties.

However, two incidents accelerated the implementation of my suggestions the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which was followed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those events have resulted in Syrians enjoying some freedom and Damascus mending its relations with other Arab countries. Syria’s role in liberating Kuwait and its conciliatory stance towards scaling down tensions with Turkey in 1998 were the main fruits of the foreign policies which I had formed and implemented in the ’90s.

To sum up, I spared no efforts towards correcting the regime from within and I tried the same with Bashar [Al Assad] to move towards democracy in Syria, but I realised that the young man was acting like the owner of a farm, who had inherited Syria from his father. Bashar failed to read the international changes which put Syria at risk. In politics you are not allowed to gamble on the future of your nation and that is exactly what Bashar is doing now.

But you are saying this after you helped Bashar become the president. You sanctioned the amendment to an article in the constitution to decrease the president’s minimum age in order to suit Bashar’s age after the death of his father. You were the acting president of Syria for 39 days and you signed the amendment. How do you explain this?
Hafez Al Assad’s biggest mistake was his intention to hand over his position to one of his sons. He made all the arrangement before his death to allow Bashar to become the president after him. In fact, Bashar was in control of the party and the army since 1998 two years before his father’s death. The amendment in the constitution was sent to me after being approved by the Parliament. As an acting president, I had no power to reject the amendment, so I approved it. And allow me to ask a question: just imagine what would have happened to me if I had refused to sign it?

Riad Seif, one of the prisoners of what is known as the Spring of Damascus, said recently that you became angry when he proposed the establishment of a democratic group in Damascus in 2001. He said you had threatened him that his application to form a political group would be considered as the communiqué No. 1 of a coup against the regime.

Riad is an old friend and I tried to protect him from the wrath of the regime when I asked him to withdraw his application. I told him he will not be able to bear the consequences and his action will prompt his imprisonment. The later developments proved that I was right, and Riad along with other opposition leaders spent many years behind bars.


What is your forecast for the future of Syria?
The current regime will fall because of the blunders it has committed both in domestic and international politics. I give it a few months. It will definitely happen in 2006. I will try to unify Syrian opposition ranks and utilise the international pressure against the regime to oust it. Currently, there is no way to correct the regime from inside the nation. Bashar is acting like someone who has a farm and wants to manage it on his own. He would not listen to any idea other than those praising him.

Corruption has assumed alarming proportions. While Bashar ordered a salary increase of five per cent for government employees, which is way below the increase in prices, his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who graduated recently from the university, is enjoying an income of more than $400 million per annum from the mobile phone licence granted to him. Bashar has also given him duty-free shops all over Syria to manage as a private company. All over the world, duty-free shops trade with airport passengers. In Syria, duty-free shops sell foreign brands to ordinary people in the country. Isn’t it a joke?


But Bashar was quoted as saying that Rami Makhlouf is a self-made young man who struggled to build a business empire. He has a right to build his business empire like Abdul Halim Khaddam’s sons who have built a big business empire.

Abdul Halim Khaddam’s sons did not steal from the government and from the people of Syria. I challenge Bashar, through your newspaper, to conduct public investigations into the wealth of my family and tell the world who had truly stolen public money.

I agree on a committee of lawyers, headed by Bashar’s friend, Sameh Ashoor, chairman of Arab Lawyer Organisation, who pledged last month in Damascus to protect Bashar with blood and soul. I want Sameh Ashoor to investigate corruption in Syria since 1970 and tell the world if my family made its money through corrupt means. Bashar’s uncle, Mohammad Makhlouf, now owns $8 billion and his other uncle Jamil Al Assad left $4 billion after his death. Both had salaries less than $100 when Hafez Al Assad came to power. So who is corrupt?

Do you see yourself as a transitional president?
I have been in power for 40 years. I have had enough of the glamour of power and I am not looking to come back again.

Power is attractive to many. Let me ask a hypothetical question do you think Hafez Al Assad would have retired if he were alive? I think many people see your move as an intention to regain the power you once enjoyed.

I am different. My cultural background is different and my attitude towards power differs from that of Hafez Al Assad. I am now looking at how to save Syria and overcome the crisis Bashar’s regime has put the country into and that is enough for me to achieve at this stage.

Are you going to convey your message to Arab leaders?
Yes, definitely. I will contact them in due time. I will tell them no Arab wants Syria to break up. If they are sincere towards their people and towards their Syrian brothers, they should support breaking Bashar’s regime to prevent the break-up of Syria.

Career graph
Abdul Halim Khaddam

  • Born in 1932 in the city of Baniyas (250km northwest of Damascus), Syria
  • Syrian Foreign Minister in the Hafez Al Assad regime from 1971 to 1984
  • Vice-president from 1984 till the death of Hafez in June 10, 2000.
  • Acting President of Syria from June 10 to July 17, 2000 between the death of Hafez and the election of Bashar Al Assad.
  • Remained vice-president during Bashar’s era with little authority till his resignation from the party as well as the government on June 6, 2005 during the Baath party’s 10th General Assembly. He later left for Paris.
  • On December 30, 2005, he revealed from Paris that Bashar Al Assad had threatened Rafik Hariri that he would “break Lebanon over his head” if he opposed Syria’s will in Lebanon.