Syrian Convulsions: Assad Called out
“You want to bring in a new president in Lebanon. I will not allow that. I will crush whoever attempts to overturn our decision.”
These are the words of Syrian President Bashar Assad to murdered former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as recalled by former Syrian Vice President Halim Khaddam in an interview with al-Arabyia television on Friday, December 30, from Khaddam’s home-in-exile, Paris.
Khaddam also claimed that Hariri left the meeting so distressed that his nose was bleeding. Indeed, by Hariri’s own account noted in the Mehlis Report, Hariri stated that it was “the worst day of my life.” Hariri said that Assad threatened him for challenging the extension of (pro-Syrian) Lebanese President Amil Lahoud’s term, swearing that he would “break Lebanon over your [Mr. Hariri’s] head and Walid Jumblat’s” if he did not agree to support the extension of President Lahoud’s term. Hariri also said of the meeting, “When I finished my meeting with him, I swear to you, my bodyguard looked at me and asked why I was pale-faced.”
This is the former Vice President and Foreign Minister of Syria making these charges, not anti-Syrian Lebanese, not Detlev Mehlis and not the United States. Halim Khaddam says he has much more to tell ‘when the time is right’, and surely more bombs to sling. But the question is why?
Why would a former VP, for so long loyal to the regimes of both Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, suddenly come out so ferociously against it? What we may be seeing are the opening salvos of a power struggle for the future leadership of Syria. In a pre-emptive swift response, Syrian MP’s have decided to try former vice president Khaddam for treason and corruption.
Khaddam was a Sunni in an Alawite-dominated regime. Judith Klinghoffer notes this distinction well, as Syria itself is roughly 80% Sunni. It should also be noted that while he may have stated in his interview that he resigned because he did not see reform taking place to his liking in Syria, Khaddam was never a champion of democratic reform. To the contrary, as he was one of the staunchest opponents to any challenge to the authority of the regime while in office.
While his claims of Assad threatening Hariri before his assassination are credible and corroborated by Hariri himself in the Mehlis Report, he is not the White Horse of Reform his interview suggests. He may be offering this information up in order to groom himself in the eyes of the Americans for ‘future considerations’ in what he sees as the destined downfall of Assad and a coming vacancy in Syria. Some say he coveted this position at the time of Hafez Assad’s death, only to see the son (Bashar) get the nod. For these reasons, there is some credence in a Syrian MP’s words when he said of Khaddam, “You can go to hell because no Syrian will forgive you, who hoped to return to your country one day on an American tank.”
The UN investigation team investigating the Hariri murder now wants to interview Bashar Assad, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and Khaddam ‘as soon as possible’. Asharq Alawsat has an interesting interview with Mehlis, where he states plainly that Syria is behind the murder of Rafik Hariri and the Syrian ‘complete cooperation’ to date. Almost certainly, Syria will find a way to wiggle Assad out of the UN questioning.
The convulsions ahead should not be surprising from a region where one country that is majority Shi’a and Kurds (Iraq) was brutally divided and dominated by the minority Sunni (secular Saddam Hussein regime), and its very neighbor (Syria), vast majority Sunni, has been dominated since 1970 by minority Alawites (secular Assad regimes).