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Khaddam, the Gloomy Tunnel and Coronavirus

Khaddam, the Gloomy Tunnel and Coronavirus

Monday, 6 April, 2020 - 11:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Coronavirus took over everything. It spread like wildfire in the “global village”, and turned into a obsessive concern for governments and citizens. It became the only news. We begin our day by checking the amount of crimes it committed at night, and we follow up on its latest casualties before we go to sleep.

Throughout the day, we see pictures of the world wearing masks, experts giving advice on screens and voices warning that the worst is yet to come. We hear that the world will not be the same after coronavirus; that change will affect the ranking of countries; that the world economy will pay a heavy price for this unprecedented earthquake. Human relations will also pay the bill for isolation and fear of the other.

Despite all of the above, I want to escape from this topic, which has been the focus of our articles for many weeks.

I was looking for an excuse, and I found it when I was informed of the death of former Syrian Vice President and former Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam in his French exile.

The coronavirus curse did not spare Khaddam. Only one of his sons was able to accompany the coffin. Airports are closed and strict procedures are in place.

The epidemic has compounded the isolation of a man, who for many years, seemed to be imprisoned. The man, who left his country in protest against the assassination of his friend, Rafik Hariri, in 2005, could not find himself another position. He could not wear the uniform of the opposition and was haunted by his past as the member of the regime, its rhetoric and justification for its practices.

The departing Khaddam lost his credit in the place where he spent his life, and found no compensation in the world he fled to.

At his French residence, he always looked like a man from the past. He avoided any explicit criticism of the era of President Hafez Assad, for fear of exposing himself. He refrained from judging the father, trying to hold the son alone responsible for Syria’s calamities.

Those, who know some of the secrets of Syrian politics, are aware that Khaddam, who retained the title of vice president, withdrew from the decision-making years before he left the country. Those who witnessed this period believe that the era of President Bashar Assad started effectively started in 1998 with the election of Emile Lahoud as president of Lebanon.

This does repudiate Khaddam’s rich, long experience, as he was involved in promoting the policies of Hafez Assad in the Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi, and other arenas. The man, who came from a civilian background, mastered the art of living in a system controlled by army generals, under a leader who moved pawns, pumped power into the veins of his players to later strip them of it.

He was loyal to the leader. He did not hesitate to borrow his harsh words to impose his policies, and to offend his interlocutors who refused to embrace the Syrian reading of the situation in Lebanon or the region.

When I received the news of his death, I remembered a few issues that I heard from him in Damascus and Paris. One day I asked him about Lebanese politicians’ criticism of his rudeness to them when Syria was at its strongest. He replied: “I was not a representative of a charitable organization, I was speaking on behalf of a country concerned with defending its interests, security and stability. Moreover, negotiation has its own methods and arts, especially when it is necessary to convince the other side to curb its demands or reservations, and that its actual interest is ceding to the shortest way to a settlement.”

He continued: “Sometimes, you have to negotiate harshly because the balance of power is not in your interest. You have the right to resort to misinformation. We practiced this method with major countries, and it worked. I don’t deny that I have been sometimes tough with some Lebanese politicians, especially when they were trying to prioritize personal and small interests over the welfare of both countries. I heard many words on this issue. I do not want to provoke anyone. But let me remind you of this reality. We did not ask the Lebanese ministers, deputies, or security officials to make the Syrian officer in Anjar (Bekaa) their daily guide; nor did we ask them to write daily reports to him. There are always people who contribute, then wash their hands later, and start criticizing.”

On a different occasion, Khaddam said: “Khomeini wrote to us asking whether Syria was ready to receive him because his stay in Iraq had become impossible. Being in Syria guarantees his personal security and ensures that he continues his battle with the Iranian regime, while staying close to the Iraqi Shiites. Hafez Assad was aware of the consequences of hosting Khomeini. We advised [Khomeini’s] delegates to contact the Algerians. They agreed after hesitation. But then we were surprised by France welcoming him on its soil…”

He recounted another story, saying: “The Iranians asked Syria for surface-to-surface missiles to respond to Iraqi rockets in the War of the Cities. Hafez Assad did not want history to attest that Iraqi cities were bombed by the Iranians with Syrian missiles during his reign. So, we advised the Iranians to contact the Libyans. The Iranians overcame the disappearance of Imam Moussa al-Sadr during a visit to Libya, and they obtained from Gaddafi an arsenal of weapons.”

Here’s another account by Khaddam. “We did not expect the tripartite agreement that we sponsored in Lebanon to fall. Elie Hobeika was confident about his group, and he informed us that he was coordinating with General Michel Aoun, who participated in formulating the military part. They were both working against President Amin Gemayel. We did not expect that Samir Geagea would dare to lead a coup, in agreement with Gemayel, which frightened Aoun and forced him to retreat.”

Khaddam passed away, taking with him many secrets and facts. He preferred silence, arguing that his memoirs were ready and waiting for the appropriate time to be published. The Syrian developments in recent years have prolonged his stay in the gloomy tunnel and he departed all alone during the time of coronavirus.

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