Abdel Halim Khaddam’s biography reads like a significant period of Syria’s history. He started his career as a Baath party member, was appointed governor of Hama in turmoil and Quneitra when it was occupied. He was close to late President Hafez Assad in sickness and in health. He managed Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon for decades and ended his final years in exile. He was ill, just like the country he left behind. He passed away of a heart attack in Paris just as the coronavirus came knocking on the doors of his hometown and former place of power.
Khaddam was born in Baniyas in 1932. He studied law at Damascus University and later joined the Baath party that was headed at the time by Michel Aflaq and Salah Bitar. The Baath would assume power in Syria in March 1963. At university, he met a fellow Baathist friend, Hafez Assad, a Syrian air force pilot. They were bound by the same party and geography, despite their different sectarian background. Khaddam returned to Latakia where he worked as a lawyer and became engaged in politics.
When the Baath came to power, Khaddam, a Sunni, was appointed the governor of Hama. The city was known for its opposition to the regime and then president Amin al-Hafez. In his book “Steel and Silk: Men and Women who Shaped Syria”, Sami Moubayed wrote that in April 1964, the Muslim Brotherhood carried out a military coup that started from Hama. Khaddam tried to use diplomacy to resolve the crisis, but failed. Amin Hafez then turned to force to stifle it.
Khaddam was later appointed governor of Quneitra in the Golan Heights. He was forced to quit the area in June 5, 1967 when Israel occupied it. At the time, it was said Syria was being ruled by “three doctors”: President Dr. Nureddin al-Atassi, Prime Minister Dr. Youssef Zuayyin and Foreign Minister Dr. Ibrahim Makhous. After the occupation of the Golan Heights, Makhous was famously quoted as saying: “It’s not important to lose cities, because the enemy aims to destroy the revolt” – referring to the March uprising when the Baath swept to power. His statement is particularly significant today when five different armies are embroiled in a power struggle in Syria.
In 1968, Atassi briefly appointed Khaddam as governor Damascus and then minister of economy in 1969. A struggle for power ensued between Atassi and Makhous and between Hafez Assad, with the latter eventually prevailing in the “Corrective Revolution” of November 1970. He promptly jailed his “comrades”, save for Makhous, who fled to Algeria.
When Hafez Assad came to power, he appointed his friend Khaddam as foreign minister, deputy prime minister and lawmaker. Khaddam spearheaded political efforts against the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In 1983, Hafez Assad suffered a heart attack and Khaddam appointed a military-political committee that would run the country and rein in Rifaat Assad, the president’s brother. When Hafez recovered in 1984, he appointed Khaddam as his deputy for political affairs and Rifaat as his deputy for military affairs. Khaddam consequently became one of Hafez’s closest aides alongside late defense minister Mustafa Tlas, who died in exile in Paris in June 2017. Farouk al-Sharaa was appointed foreign minister at the time and Khaddam assumed the position of vice president of Syria. He rose to prominence with his handling of the “Lebanese file” as Syria had deployed its troops to its smaller neighbor. Khaddam managed Syria’s political relations with Palestinian and Iraqi factions and security and military affairs were left to other figures of the regime. He played a significant role in solidifying Damascus’ relations with Tehran after Iran’s 1979 revolution.
Moubayed says Khaddam played a major role in ending Syria’s international isolation between 1963 and 1970 and in boosting Syria’s ties with its Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. In May 1974, he moved against opponents of the Agreement on Disengagement with Israel that was drafted by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger after the 1973 Arab–Israeli War.
In 1978, Khaddam relayed to Arab leaders Hafez’s opposition of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Confronted with new pressure on Damascus, he turned to Iran, boosting ties with the regime after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Later that year, he visited Tehran, describing its revolution as “one of the most important developments in our modern history.” He played a central role in coordinating the “alliance” with Khomeini. However, he made sure to maintain a balanced relationship with Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia.
In 1975, Khaddam became Hafez’s “special envoy” to Lebanon where he mediated between warring parties during the civil war and helped expand the influence of Syrian intelligence in the country. In 1985, he helped mediate the “trilateral agreement” between Walid Jumblatt, Nabih Berri and Elie Hobeika to persuade them to work towards a ceasefire and peace in Lebanon.
In 1989, Saudi Arabia and Syria helped draft the Taef Accord that ended the 15-year civil war. Khaddam later negotiated prime minister Michel Aoun’s departure from power and drafted international agreements, including the April ceasefire agreement after Israel’s 1996 operation against southern Lebanon. He was known for adopting a hard line in negotiations with Israel during the 1990s.
Historians say that Khaddam, with Hafez’s support, backed Lebanese President Elias Hrawi and late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri during his electoral runs in 1992 and 2000. Khaddam was known in popular circles as “Lebanon’s ruler” from Damascus, referring to his influence over Lebanese politics. Hafez kept the “Lebanese file” under Khaddam’s control until 1998 when he handed it over to his son, Bashar, who had returned to Syria from London after his brother’s death in 1994. The shift did not sit well with Khaddam and his allies in Lebanon.
Hafez died in 2000 and differences emerged on who should manage Syria during its transition. Khaddam tried to play a prominent role, but he eventually succumbed to pressure and signed the decrees for the “smooth transition” of power between June 10 and 17. Bashar was appointed commander of the Syrian army and in July 2000 he became president. He kept Khaddam in his post as vice president.
Khaddam attempted to restore his role as the strongman in Lebanon by boosting relations with late Maronite Patriach Butors Sfeir in 2000. In 2001, he tried to mediate between then President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Syrian analysts have said that Khaddam played the role of “referee” between Lahoud and Hariri from 2000 and 2002 and kept communications open with Jumblatt, whose ties with Damascus had turned sour after Hafez’s death.
As his political influence waned, Khaddam released a book on his political views in 2003. In 2005, he announced his resignation as vice president and retained his position in the Baath party. He then chose exile in Paris. He departed from Lebanon where he was seen off by his Lebanese friends.
Syria landed itself in Arab and western isolation after Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination, widely blamed on Damascus. In September later that year, Khaddam defected from the Syrian regime, accusing it of murdering his friend, the Lebanese prime minister. In exile, he formed an opposition front against the regime and was later accused of high treason and his properties were seized by Damascus.
Khaddam did not play a prominent role after Syria’s 2011 revolt, but he did say that the people needed to take up arms to defend themselves if the world did not intervene to protect them. His health deteriorated in recent years. He spent his time writing his memoirs and died of a heart attack on Tuesday.