SPIEGEL Interview with Ex-Syrian Vice President “The Order Came From Assad”

publisher: SPIEGEL

AUTHOR: The Interview was conducted by editors Volkhard Windfuhr and Bernhard Zand Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan 

Publishing date: 2006-01-16


Former Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, who resigned and defected to France in June 2005, discusses the role of the current president in the Hariri murder case, the establishment of a government in exile and the possible end of the Damascus regime.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was murdered  almost a year ago. You have now broken ranks with the regime in Damascus and are holding Syrian President Bashar Assad responsible for the assassination. Aren’t you afraid of becoming the target of an attack yourself?

Khaddam: Although I have no concrete information about such plans, Assad is sufficiently malicious to be thinking about ways he could possibly harm me. But I’m not worried about that. I will do everything in my power to save my country from this regime.

SPIEGEL: No offense, but why should anyone believe you, of all people? For more than 30 years, you too were a key member of the regime.

Khaddam: Not everyone in the West, but everyone in Syria knows that I have increasingly distanced myself from this regime ever since the death of President Hafez Assad in 2000. Today my position on all political issues differs radically from that of the leadership in Damascus.

SPIEGEL: German UN investigator Detlev Mehlis  suspects that members of Syrian intelligence agencies  are behind the murder of Hariri. Is he right?

Khaddam: The fact that Damascus has launched a propaganda campaign against him proves just how right he is. Mehlis has presented an impressive array of evidence.

SPIEGEL: You have accused President Assad  of being involved in the attack on Hariri. But so far you haven’t charged him with having ordered the attack himself. Who do you think gave those orders?

Khaddam: Logistically speaking, the attack on Hariri was an extremely complex operation, one that could only have been set into motion by the highest-ranking members of the power structure in Lebanon and Syria. Syria’s former intelligence chief in Beirut, Rustum Ghazali, could not have done this on his own. And even if Ghazali is a key figure in this crime — which is what the results of the investigation report suggest — the orders could only have come directly from President Bashar Assad. Assad said: “If any Syrian is involved in this crime, then I too am involved.” There is a great deal of truth to that sentence.

SPIEGEL: Mehlis’ successor, Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, has summoned President Assad as a witness.

Khaddam: Assad’s reaction to the summons speaks for itself. Why does he resist answering the UN commission’s questions? He has invoked the sovereignty of a head of state. That’s nonsense. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud also testified before the commission. Why should a president who is a murderer be able to claim immunity?

SPIEGEL: What makes you so sure that your accusation is correct?

Khaddam: I am convinced that the order came from Assad. He is a highly impulsive man who often loses his temper.

SPIEGEL: Why would the president have given that order? The crisis into which this attack plunged Syria and Lebanon has only caused trouble for Assad.

Khaddam: The Hariri case was by no means the first in which Bashar Assad completely misread the situation. For example, he also played a fatal role in the establishment of UN Resolution 1559, which has been so devastating for Syria …

SPIEGEL: … because it called for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

Khaddam: I am very familiar with this incident. We had an excellent compromise proposal for the United Nations: You drop Resolution 1559 and we will drop Lebanon’s pro-Syrian President Lahoud — it was something the entire world was already demanding at the time.

SPIEGEL: And why didn’t it happen?

Khaddam: Because Assad gambled away the opportunity. Spanish Foreign Minister Angel Moratinos, acting as a mediator, had spent four hours negotiating with (then) German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, (French President) Jacques Chirac and (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair to convince the Europeans to support the plan — and he did in fact manage to get everyone to agree. But Assad withdrew the offer at the decisive moment, and an hour later the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1559, plunging Syria into the deepest political crisis in its history.

SPIEGEL: Given this crisis, why would Assad order the murder of Hariri? It would have been political suicide?

Khaddam: But that’s exactly the way it was. It’s always the fools who end up causing their own downfall. The differences between Bashar and his father couldn’t be greater. Hafez Assad counted on human reason, while his son counts on money, on his material benefit. He is an idiot.

SPIEGEL: Who makes the decisions in Damascus today? Is the president truly in charge — or is he himself a puppet, as many have claimed?

Khaddam: The family is completely in control, in the style of a mob family. Forget the parliament, forget the Baath Party and forget the government. The Assad clan bears full responsibility for everything.

SPIEGEL: Your accusations sound as if you were describing the conditions in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Khaddam: It’s certainly a valid comparison. Assad himself behaves like Saddam, his family behaves like Saddam’s family and Syria’s security agencies act in precisely the same way as Saddam’s thugs. But there is one difference: The collapse of the Syrian regime will be brought about peacefully, without an American invasion and without civil war. This is because the Syrians see their nation as a single entity. We Syrians are shocked by the situation in Iraq. We do not wish to divide our country into various ethnic groups, denominations and regions.

SPIEGEL: Unlike Saddam, the regime in Damascus enjoys the support of the people.

Khaddam: This regime has exhausted its authority. The president has been in power for five years now, but poverty has grown, the economy has declined and our isolation in the world has become almost unbearable. The regime will quietly give up its ghost.

SPIEGEL: It’s been said that you are in the process of forming a government in exile.

Khaddam: That’s correct.

SPIEGEL: With whom do you intend to cooperate? With the Muslim Brotherhood, against whom former President Hafez Assad staged a bloody crackdown in the 1980s — and whose leaders live in exile today, just as you do?

Khaddam: The influence of Islamists in Syria is overestimated. The Muslim Brotherhood is only a part of the rich Islamic mosaic that undoubtedly shapes the basic character of our country. But why shouldn’t one work with them? I would not exclude any political group that abides by democratic rules.

SPIEGEL: Does this also apply to the Baath Party, which recently described you as a traitor and excluded you after almost 60 years of membership?

Khaddam: Yes. One shouldn’t make the same mistake with the Syrian Baath Party that the Americans made with the Iraqi Baath Party. The majority of Syria’s Baathists have long since become opponents of the regime. They see the mistakes of their government every day.

SPIEGEL: And in which direction do you intend to take the country with these unequal partners? As Hafez Assad’s most loyal follower, you’re not exactly a model of democracy.

Khaddam: Just a week after Bashar Assad took office in the summer of 2000, I presented him with a memorandum calling for internal liberalization. But the president wanted to reform the economy first and only then introduce political reforms. So I developed a reform program for the economy.

SPIEGEL: And what happened?

Khaddam: Nothing. In the same year, I wrote a report on Syria’s foreign policy situation. He didn’t even read it. And that’s the way it went throughout the years. No proposals were implemented. I gradually lost hope, and in the end I resigned.

SPIEGEL: How much longer will Assad last?

Khaddam: His descent has already begun. I don’t believe that his regime will survive this year. Pressure from within and international pressure resulting from the Hariri investigation are growing by the week.