Former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam discusses the Syrian crisis, Iran’s meddling and the U.S.-Russia face off.
BY: Leila Hatoum
“I cannot imagine how the war in Syria will end…I believe that the U.S. administration, perhaps, is no longer capable of fixing the situation [there],” says Abdul Halim Khaddam, Syria’s former vice president, from his Parisian home, thousands of kilometers away from his motherland.
The ongoing war, to the 84-year-old Syrian politician, has become more of “an international power struggle on Syrian soil,” and the international community along with Arab countries have missed several chances to help a revolution that is yet to accomplish its ultimate goal: to topple President Bashar Al Assad “in a few weeks or months,” as per the promises of the world’s superpowers back in 2011.
More than five years into the civil war, and with millions dead, displaced or living as refugees in diaspora, Syria remains burning. The conflict is fueled by the Russia-U.S. feud, and an international impasse over the use of force in the country, Khaddam tells Newsweek Middle East in an exclusive telephone interview from his place of exile in France.
Eleven years ago, the former vice president resigned from his post, in a move seen by many as a brave step in the face of then new and young Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad. He defected soon after, on December 30, 2005.
At the time, Khaddam had already served over two decades as the vice president for the House of Assad leaders: first Hafez, from 1984 till 2000, and later to Bashar until 2005. And for a brief moment, barely exceeding 37 days, Khaddam was Syria’s interim president between June and July 2000, right after Hafez’s death and just before Bashar took over.
As relations between Bashar and his vice president deteriorated, Khaddam, who was one of the last old guards, found no choice but to defect and leave his country behind, choosing to reside in France out of fear for his life and the life of his family.
After he defected, the regime tried him in absentia on charges of slandering the Syrian leadership. He was stripped of his civil rights, slapped with a lifetime imprisonment sentence in addition to the confiscation of his assets—including mobile and immobile monies—and was banned from residing in either his native town of Tartus or the capital Damascus, a verdict the legitimacy of which Khaddam refuses to acknowledge to date.
The last time I spoke with Khaddam, who prefers to be called Abu Jamal, was right after he defected, over a decade ago, and this time, he had more issues to address; from Iran’s intervention in Syria to the failed coup in Turkey, and from the U.S. presidential elections to the problem of Syria’s chemical arsenal and the “mystery” of the U.S. targeting Assad forces instead of terrorist groups such as Daesh.
An International Battle in Syria: Missed Chances
“The situation [in Syria] is highly complicated because of the stand taken by each of the great nations, in particular the U.S. and Russia,” says Khaddam, who sees that Moscow currently has the upper hand over Washington.
“Apparently, the Russians have a strategy in the Middle East to enter it even by force, ” he says, adding “otherwise, it is hard to understand how Moscow would disregard the Syrian people in favor of supporting Assad, a tyrant ruler.”
Of course, all of this filters down to Syria, where the standoff between Russia and the U.S. is happening.
According to Khaddam, Russia has also managed to pull the rug from underneath the U.S.’s feet, and the latter has no one but itself to blame. The U.S., he argues, made a mistake when it pushed its ally, Turkey, into Russia’s open arms, which gave Moscow an upper hand in the conflict.
“The Americans were involved in the Turkish [failed] coup,” says Khaddam, a matter which left a bitter taste in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mouth.
To put it in better words, the U.S. aided the Kurds, Turkey’s thorn in the side, and as a result, Ankara found itself facing its own ally, which was abetting its enemy. “The U.S. armed fighters from [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK and radicals in Syria. That is not easy for Erdogan to digest that his ally is stabbing him in his back,” says Khaddam.
On the other hand, the Russians received bonus points after tipping off Erdogan about the coup, two days prior to the event, aside from the sizable Russian investments in Turkey.
This was unimaginable at one point when the Russian-Turkish relations deteriorated fast, following Ankara’s downing of a Russian fighter jet last November in Syrian airspace, which pushed Moscow to freeze its investments and economic ties with Turkey.
This, according to the man who was once in charge of Syria’s foreign relations for a significant period of time, “reflected on the whole region,” and Khaddam says “he believes that the U.S. administration, perhaps, is no longer capable of fixing the situation in Syria.”
“The situation has grown complicated and the Syrian people are the ones who are paying the ultimate price,” he adds.
He further charged that Europe, the Americans [U.S.], and the Arab nations failed to seize the opportunity to cut the war short and spare the Syrian populace all the death and misery. “They did not take the necessary measures that they should have taken years ago [to topple the Assad regime],” explains Khaddam, “despite their knowledge that the regime in Syria is a murderous one.”
For him, the U.S. has also backstabbed the opposition, explaining that when the Syrian revolution started, people thought that the U.S. wanted to help.
The Chemical Factor
Shortly before the revolution started, Syria’s chemical arsenal was an evolving case, and U.S. President Barack Obama “took a decision to hit the Syrian regime and send the U.S. Navy fleet to the Syrian shoreline,” reveals Khaddam.
However, it seems that the Russians managed to convince Obama that they would solve the chemical arsenal’s problem.
“Even the Arab nations were reliant on the Americans and the Russians because they thought that the super powers have interests in the Arab world. But what was the result?” asks Khaddam in clear discontent of the course of events that have taken place.
The Syrian regime forces were responsible for two of the nine attacks using chlorine gas in 2014 in Talmanes, and in 2015 in Samrin, while Daesh’s attack used sulphur mustard, according to a recent report published on August 19 by the U.N. Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, which was established in August 2015.
The investigation was launched at the request of the United Nations Security Council as an attempt to identify those using chemical weapons in attacks in Syria.
Despite the report’s findings, the international community did not move to block the use of future chemical attacks.
Meanwhile, Khaddam vehemently denied any knowledge of Syria’s chemical arsenal, despite serving as a high-ranking official in the Syrian government for three decades.
“I had no knowledge of the chemical arsenal issue until few years back when this was brought up after the Israeli airstrike on the Syrian [chemical plant]. Such information was known to the intelligence apparatus and the military, while I was in charge of the foreign relations,” he explains.
The West came up with the motto “Down with Assad…but after the failure to take action against him, Bashar felt comfortable and started using vast arsenal to kill more people. The U.S. and Russia promised to take care of the chemical gas, but in fact they gave [Assad] a chance to [carry out] further killings with other weapons. The U.S. administration only cared for the chemical gas issue, but disregarded the thousands of innocent civilians being killed by other weapons,” Khaddam tells Newsweek Middle East.
Meanwhile, the Russians continue to arm and aid the Syrian regime, he says, while the U.S. apologizes in public for the “mistake” of hitting Syrian soldiers. “What does this indicate?” asks a frustrated Khaddam.
He further considered the U.S. airstrike that targeted Syrian Army’s positions a baffling and “mysterious matter.”
To him the opposition has its outposts and the Syrian army has its posts and they are both clear and visible.
Aside from Washington’s apology for the error, “we hear some U.S. officials stating they have no problem if Assad continues to rule for a second term!”
To Khaddam, such injustice, oppression and aggression carried out by the regime without being addressed can only lead to one result: “radicalism which consequently [leads to] terrorism.”
Rise of the Radicals
When no one looks after those who are oppressed, it creates a situation of bottled anger, which only leads to one result: explosion, says Khaddam.
It is under these circumstances that Daesh came to existence, first in Iraq, with “the remnants of the former Iraqi regime,” before expanding to Syria and elsewhere.
However, Khaddam believes that Daesh was nurtured by Iran, which he says is working along the lines of “creating a Sunni power to fight Sunnis in the region.”
There is also the issue of radical Muslims who believe they are carrying out “an Islamic Jihad, rather than fighting for a national cause, and whom you know are not easy people at all. In the past, they tried to revolt twice and we oppressed them,” Khaddam says.
The Islamist uprising in Syria, mainly led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the country included an armed insurgency in 1976 and in 1982, better known as the Hama Islamic Uprising, that ended up defeating the Muslim Brotherhood, who vowed in 2006 from exile to continue to search for a peaceful change of the Syrian regime.
But there are also those who have seen their houses get destroyed, their families killed, and their friends displaced, and have taken up arms to fight such injustice and aggression. “One cannot consider them equal to or part of Daesh, or even radicals.”
The Role of the U.S. Administration: Change is Needed
Khaddam, who started the Syrian National Liberation Front in exile, a coalition of opposition groups aimed at toppling Assad’s regime since 2006, says that he had hopes when Obama was first elected as president, because of what he had heard of him and his respect for principles.
“However, we did not see these principles applied in the case of Syria,” he says, clearly disappointed.
To him, Obama failed to take on the opportunity to renew U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world. All that the Syrians heard from Obama was that Assad must go, explains Khaddam, adding that Washington seems to disregard its allies in the Middle East in favor of new ties.
“It turned out, there was a U.S.-Russian agreement, and the U.S. reconciled with Iran despite knowing that [Tehran] rules Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and has mobilized the Houthis in Yemen to distract Arab Gulf nations, who are allies of the U.S., with war.”
But what irritates the seasoned politician, and arguably the most prominent leading opposition figure, is that the Syrian opposition was turned down by the U.S. in terms of military aid. And the current U.S. administration’s behavior is completely incomprehensible to the Syrian opposition, including Khaddam.
“Two to three years back, a Syrian opposition delegation went to the U.S. and asked for arms and nothing materialized. But we find the U.S. arming Kurdish fighters against their ally Turkey. We hope that the next U.S. administration realizes well the consequences of such policies towards the Arab and Islamic worlds.”
The new U.S. administration must work on rebuilding the broken trust between Arab countries and Washington, as Khaddam puts it. With only a month left for the U.S. presidential elections, Khaddam clearly has a favorite candidate in mind. To him, the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has political experience unlike her Republican opponent Donald Trump, and was a lawyer before becoming a politician. He further admires her for responding to Trump’s allegations against Muslims.
“Hillary said the Muslims are allies and friends. On the other hand, Trump has declared a direct war on Muslims in America. Hence, if one were to choose, the choice would be her [Clinton].”
Iran’s Intervention: Before and After Bashar Al Assad
Bashar “is not like his father,” claims Khaddam, when asked about the two Assad presidents. After all, he knew both of them well and served along their side for a long time.
Aside from openly supporting the Assad regime and sending revolutionary guards to fight in Syria along with its extensions such as Hezbollah from Lebanon, Khaddam alleges that the Iranian regime considers itself a custodian over Syria. However, things were different during Hafez Assad’s time.
“He never allowed the Iranians to intervene in Syrian affairs,” says Khaddam, citing one example of Iran’s attempts to expand in the region.
“During Hafez Assad’s time, an Iranian delegation arrived in Syria and attempted to convert some of the Muslim Alawite Syrians to Shia Islam. A group from the Alawites came from the coastline to us and informed Assad of the matter. They complained the Iranians ‘came to change our faith,’ and Assad ordered his minister of foreign Affairs to summon the Iranian ambassador to deliver an ultimatum: The delegation has 24 hours to exit Syria.”
And what was the result? I curiously asked.
“Of course, they left in a hurry,” Khaddam chuckles.
The Iranians wouldn’t dare tamper with Assad senior. “They had no power [during Hafez’s rule], unlike Bashar who gave them [Iranians] power and control.”
The Question Of Hezbollah and Iran’s Extensions
When addressing Iran’s operatives in the region, Khaddam believes that cutting the supply line between Iran and its external groups is necessary, especially in the case of Lebanon’s armed political party Hezbollah.
Khaddam is well familiar with the Lebanese party, which fought the Syrian army in Lebanon during the ‘80s, considering them an occupation force, until the Syrian military presence was later considered “friendly” in Lebanon by the Taef Accord in 1990, which put an end to Lebanon’s 15-year old civil war.
Khaddam was in charge of the Lebanese-Syrian relations until Bashar Al Assad took over in 1998 . The former vice president also had a hand in helping to conclude the Taef Accord between 1989 to 1990 and the Tripartite Agreement of 1985.
Throughout the 1990s, Hezbollah received arms from Iran via Syria, with the blessing of the Syrian regime, which enabled the party to amass a large arsenal, which includes ballistic missiles, and supersedes weapons in the hands of the Lebanese Army.
“Hezbollah’s presence is linked to the presence of the regime in Syria. And of course, Iran is the sectarian reference for this party, and supplies it with money. However, should the Iranian lifeline get cut off from Syria, then Hezbollah won’t be able to stand on its feet. Hezbollah without the Syrian regime is worth nothing,” argues Khaddam.
The same scenario is repeated in Iraq, says Khaddam, who alleges that up to 50 percent of the Shiite populace are against Iran. But to Khaddam, “Syria is the place which leads to Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.”
The Syrian Crisis: Farfetched Solutions
So far, all the aforementioned complexities have kept the Syrian crisis fueled up, and the continued meddling in Syrian affairs by regional and international players has yet to prove its effectiveness in not only ending the war, but also in bringing back millions of Syrian refugees who are now scattered across the globe, aside from the hundreds of thousands who are internally displaced, or under siege by either the regime or rebels or terrorist militia forces.
Khaddam, again, blames Moscow and Washington, saying they bear the full responsibility of the refugees. The refugee crisis wouldn’t have happened had the international powers done their job properly a long time ago, he says with a sigh.
What is happening to Syria is beyond devastating, he says. “The country has been subject to a brain drain. All the intellectuals and the educated [people] have left the country and have sought refuge in Europe and elsewhere,” he solemnly explains. It would be hard to bring them back, he adds.
To him, currently there is but one solution, and that is to have all players in Syria sit down on one table and come up with an end to the onslaught.
“Solving the matter by force would lead to another world war and no one wants that,” says Khaddam.
Instead, he suggests that an “international convention to save Syria is held with the presence of all international powers from the West to the East, including Iran with its ‘current moderate leadership,’ and agree on liberating Syria and forming an international armed force that would help disarm all factions.”
However, he insists on refusing any political solution which he warns might lead to keeping the regime or its people in place, as it may “drag with it further conflicts in the future that would extend to other parts of the region and the world.”
And though Khaddam denies that he is seeking a political position in post-Assad Syria, he stresses that his dream is to go back to his homeland.
“I want the coup to be executed fast. My role is patriotic and not political, and I dream of going back to Syria after the regime has been toppled,” he adds.