Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat- Former Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam escalated his criticism of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, in response to the campaign against him by pillars of the regime, following his explosive interview with Al Arabiya.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq al Awsat from Paris, where he has lived since resigning his post in June 2005, Khaddam indicated he wants to oust the regime through a popular uprising but that change had to come from within. He said the wanted opposition groups to “create the right atmosphere to topple the regime”.
Q: How do you evaluate the official Syrian reaction to your latest statements and the accusations of high treason and corruption leveled against you, in addition to the decision to put you on trial?
A: The truth is, the Syrian administration did me a great favor. It revealed the dishonesty of constitutional institutions and the total absence of party officials and the discovery that it is only a smokescreen for what Bashar Assad says. The scene from the People’s Assembly was sad for the Syrian people who wondered: does this assembly represent us? [MPs] repeated insults like parrots. The insults were directed at an individual who had a major role in promoting the Syrian case for thirty years. Even in 1998, Syria was at its zenith and all Syrian were discussing and praising its [the country’s] foreign policy and but were criticizing internal policies. I ask: Who was planning and overseeing foreign policy throughout this period? Syrians are aware of the services I offered the country. Is the criticism of Bashar Assad who drove the country to the present situation sacrilege? He allowed his family and friends to embezzle the country. Is criticizing them heresy?
The country is suffering from hunger and Bashar Assad gave one his relatives the cellular phone concession and another friend another concession. The treasury lost 700 million dollars as a result. I am also speaking of corruption in Lebanon. It reached the point of prostitution: example? [The scandal surrounding the collapse of] Bank Al Madina. [ Former Chairman of the Syrian intelligence] Rustom Ghazaleh, I can attest, stole 35 million dollars from this bank.
Q: But he denied stealing any money?
A: I know the truth from a very trusted source. And then why insist on [Lebanese President] Lahoud? Because they convinced Bashar Assad the arrival of another president would open all the files. I tried four times to convince Bashar Assad to remove Rustom Ghazaleh but I did not succeed.
Q: To return to my initial question, the regime is accusing you of high treason and procedures are in place to try you.
A: The traitor is the one who harms his people and his country. Look at what Bashar Assad has done to the Syrian people. He increased corruption and stole public money without any restrictions. Consider what has happened to the economy. More than half of Syrians people live in poverty. Tens of thousands of university graduates are unemployed. As for policy, consider at the catastrophe he has led us to. He took the decision to extend Lahoud’s term. I warned him that Syria could not handle the repercussions of this decision.
Let me tell you, prior to the adoption of Resolution 1559, there was a chance to avoid [this situation] but it was lost. Bashar Assad asked [Foreign Minister Farouq] al Sharaa to contact the Spanish Foreign Minister [ Miguel Angel] Moratinos to help Syria and ensure the resolution is not adopted, in exchange for renouncing to extend Lahoud’s term. This has happened. For his part, Moratinos consulted Chirac, Blair, Schroeder and Bush and an agreement was reached: the resolution will not be adopted on condition the Lebanese speaker of parliament cancel the invitation for parliament to convene. Moratinos informed al Sharaa of this opinion who, in turn, insisted Moratinos contact [Lebanese speaker of parliament Nabih] Berri in person. When he did so, the latter replied: Lebanon is an independent country and Syrian cannot influence us. The parliamentary meeting was not canceled. Two hours later, the Security Council convened and adopted the resolution.
Why did Assad change his position? Consider the consequences of the extension: resolution 1559 was issued, [former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri was killed, Syrian troops left Lebanon humiliated and Syria itself finds itself isolated in Arab and international circles. Isn’t this damaging Syrian interests? Isn’t this treason? If there was someone who needs to be put on trial, it should be the head of the regime.
Q: What are you current priorities? Do you want to reform the regime, reform it, or topple it?
A: This regime cannot be reformed so there is nothing left but to oust it.
Q: But how will you oust it?
A: The Syrian people will topple the regime. There is a rapidly growing current in the country. Opposition is growing fast. I do not want to oust the regime by military coup. A coup is the most dangerous type of reform. I am working to create the right atmosphere for the Syrian people to topple the regime.
Q: Are you seeking to establish an opposition front?
A: Prior to my television interview [with Al Arabiya], the problem was the absence of a figure with political weight capable of facing the regime. The Syrian opposition knows my stance and I was in contact with it even when I was still living in Syria. The interview increased the opposition’s confidence in itself and it will unite. This is what I am pursuing.
Q: In your quest to create the right atmosphere for change, have you held contacts with Arab and foreign sides?
A: I did not contact anybody because the change has to come from within.
Q: What about secondary factors?
A: These are secondary factors. If the main vector for change in external, then the interests of the country will be harmed. If foreign powers intervened, they will impose their conditions on the country and I reject this.
Q: Is the UN request to interview President Bashar Assad one of the factors that will weaken the regime? What will its consequence be for him personally?
A: Yes, it is a weakening factor. The problem of Bashar and those around him is that they will read the situation erroneously. They explained resolution 1664 as a victory to Syria and alleged they were capable of reaching an understanding with the Americans on Iraq by sending 50 thousand Arab soldiers. Bashar Assad will be obliged to meet with the [UN] Commission or else there will be a problem with the Security Council. America wants a weak Syria an Israel opposes change in Damascus.
Q: Have you contacted Arab or foreign figures? It is rumored [Egyptian] President Hosni Mubarak spoke to you?
A: No, President Mubarak did not contact me. At present, I am focused on Syrian groups.
Q: What is President Mubarak’s contribution?
A: In my estimation, President Mubrak is not involved in preventing Bashar Assad from meeting the investigation committee but only in order to retain appearances related to [Bashar’s] position as President. The problem is that responsibility in the assassination of Hariri cannot stop at a certain level because a decision of such as murdering Prime Minister Hariri cannot take place without the president’s knowledge. The decision emanates from the top of the pyramid. Why would Rustom Ghalazeh murder Rafik Hariri? Is he his rival as prime minister?
Q: Do you have something to add on Hariri’s murder?
A: The investigation committee is the one capable of saying who killed Hariri.
Q: In the past, you said you held dangerous information you would discuss later. What is the nature of this information?
A: Some of it relates to the Hariri murder and other pertains to the situation in Syria.
Q: When will you meat the international investigation committee?
A: I will meet the UN probe in the coming days. I have provided it with some information and related a few facts. I cannot accuse anyone. This is the role of the committee. I recounted facts the committee has to evaluate. Hariri’s assassination is a political crime. It is necessary to examine the motives.
The murder required 1000 kg of explosives and no less than 20 individuals to observe and supervise, as well as technologically- advanced equipment to obstruct Hariri’s bomb detection equipment. Is there a person or an organization capable of providing all this? This operation could not have been executed except by a state. Which state is it? This is for the investigation to discover. It has to take into consideration the motives and material evidence.
Q: Do you consider that the Syrian government has turned against you or that you have rebelled against it?
A: We need to distinguish between the country and the regime. I left the regime during the reign of President Assad. I was in agreement with him on all foreign policy issues but disagreed on internal policies. President Hafez Assad was an important man in the history of Syria but he was weak with regards to his family. He left the opportunity for the Assad family in the coastal areas and elsewhere to act inappropriately. The inheritance of power goes against all Syrian political customs.
Q: But you personally assisted him in this regard?
A: I helped him because at the time we had no other choice. I helped him after he passed away. In his lifetime, we did not discuss the matter together. He organized the transition to ensure his son would inherit power and become president.
We argued in party conferences and during meetings of the [Baath party] regional command and held different opinions. But President Assad was unique in his national and patriotic thinking in relation to foreign policies.
At present, the foreign policy is to destroy the country. Who brought about resolution 1559? It was cooked in Washington, Paris, London and Berlin but produced in Damascus.
Bashar Assad, had he not withdrawn from his initiative, the resolution would not have been issued, Syria would not be suffering, Rafik Hariri would not have been murdered nor would the Syrian army have withdrawn in this humiliated manner.
Q: Do you fear for you own life?
A: I am a target. My life is at risk. But I am not afraid. I believe in the judgment of God. I was meant to have died in 1976, when I was the victim of an assassination attempt. The second occurred in 1977 and the third that same year in Lebanon. The fourth was in Syria, in 1984, and the fifth in a European country. I was not meant to die. When my time comes, I might die seated at home in my chair. I have heard information suggesting I might be assassinated.
Q: Do you see yourself as President of Syria?
A: This matter does not concern me. I have a political program to save the country and not to become president.
Q: In Lebanon , the expression “national reconciliation” is very popular. In Syria’s case, if this were to take place would it include the Muslim Brotherhood?
A: At present, there is feeling of dejection throughout Syria and fractures in national unity are appearing because of the isolation policies pursued by the regime. Syria is in danger. When the country is in danger, one should pursue national unity and reinforce the national front [by welcoming] all groups. All the groups willing to confront this danger need to agree with one another, whether the danger is internal or external.
Q: Do you mean all political groups?
A: Yes, all. It is important to benefit from all the strengths of the country, notwithstanding intellectual or political disputes.
Do we disagree about protecting the country from outside interference? Do we disagree about the necessity to establish a democratic regime or on the right of the Syrian people to decide its own fate? Do we disagree that the people should choose their leaders? We agree about all these national matters in Syria .
I say welcome to all those who want to press forward with change. In Syria, there is a large Islamic current which includes several groups. At present, this current is isolated. Syria is a Muslim country. There are Muslims and Christians in Syria , including religious but not fundamentalist elements. Is it acceptable to distance a certain group because of its religious belonging? This isolation policy is unsettling national unity. We need to put forward a different policy, one that unites all current for a single purpose: to save the country and reform it.
Q: What about the Baath party?
A: The party, with the current mindset that governs it, cannot keep up with the times or step towards achieving its long-term objectives. A radical change in its thinking and methods is needed. But the Baath party includes tens of thousands of valuable individuals and a group of relic leaders. The large numbers of good elements at the heart of the party should take part in the reawakening of Syria .
Q: The Syrian regime depends on the loyalty of the security services and the Baath party. Is it possible for splits to occur in these services?
A: The security services control power. They have interests and their leaders have their own interests. Therefore, the role of the security services decreases when people are empowered to believe in their ability to confront the mistakes committed so far. I do not believe divisions will occur because these services are necessary and only capable to impose its supremacy on people.
Q: What about the military institution?
A: It is very large but it is no longer involved in internal politics. I do not encourage by any means change by military coup. We have suffered enough from military coups in the past and do not want to repeat the experience.