DUBAI, (Reuters) – A former Syrian vice president launched an unprecedented attack on President Bashar al-Assad, saying he had threatened Rafik al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated in February.
“Assad told me he had delivered some very, very harsh words to Hariri … something like ‘I will crush anyone who tries to disobey us’,” Abdel-halim Khaddam said from his home in Paris.
A veteran aide to Bashar’s father, the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Khaddam resigned in June. He was speaking in an interview with Al Arabiya television aired on Friday.
Khaddam would not speculate on who had ordered Hariri’s murder, saying “we must wait” for the final results of an investigation being carried out by the United Nations.
That investigation has implicated senior Syrian officials and Khaddam’s comments are likely to intensify pressure on Damascus.
Khaddam noted: “In principle, no government body in Syria, be it a security apparatus or otherwise, can single-handedly take this decision (killing Hariri),” he said. “Bashar has said that if anybody in Syria was involved, that means I am involved.”
He noted Hariri “received many threats, there were a lot of threats made in Damascus and in Lebanon”.
Khaddam criticised the government for committing what he said were political blunders in Lebanon and said Syria was “going through a minefield in pitch dark” because of Assad’s policies.
But he said: “It never occurred to me that Syria would kill Rafik al-Hariri, that never crossed my mind, but the atmosphere created certain beliefs among the people. But we must wait for the results of the (U.N.) investigation.”
Khaddam knocked down a video claim by a Palestinian suicide bomber who said he and a militant group had killed Hariri, saying it was “stupid to blame an individual as this issue needs a lot of sophisticated technology, tonnes of explosives and planners who have a leader.”
“This is a big operation with an apparatus behind it, not individuals. What apparatus, that is what the (U.N.) probe will reveal,” he added.
Khaddam also blamed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and other Lebanese officials for “inciting” Assad against Hariri, who was once a staunch ally of Damascus but who backed a 2004 U.N. resolution that called for foreign troops to quit Lebanon.
Damascus has come under fierce international pressure since Hariri’s killing in Beirut on Feb. 14. It was forced to pull its troops out of Lebanon after a 29-year military presence.
Syria has denied involvement in the truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others.
Khaddam, one of Syria’s longest-serving officials, was seen in the 1980s as a possible successor to the late Assad. But then he backed Bashar, who took office in 2000. When he resigned, he said he wanted to make way for new blood.
Khaddam also said Assad’s government was impoverishing its people because of its resistance to political and economic reform.
“The reform process did not happen so I resigned … once I did, I saw that that power was being held by one man and that the government institutions had become a cover for the president’s orders,” he said.
He said that because of the lack of reforms, corruption was now rife in the government and poverty was on the rise.
“Million of Syrians can’t find food and many more are searching for food in the garbage, while wealth is being accumulated in the hands of a few,” he said.
“We can’t face external pressures when the Syrian people have no freedom of expression and are not part of the political process,” he added.
He said Assad had made many mistakes in his handling of Lebanon, including protecting the former Syrian intelligence chief in Beirut, Rustum Ghazali, even though he was implicated by the U.N. probe into Hariri’s killing.
“Why is Rustom Ghazali being protected and we all know his vices. This is a question that the Syrias are asking,” Khaddam said. “I told Bashar several times that he should remove him …he acted like he was the absolute ruler of Lebanon.”
Khaddam had been pointman on Lebanon for the late Assad, who ordered Syria’s military intervention in the civil war there in 1976. Syrian forces stayed until April this year.