The third episode of the memoirs of late Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam - published by Asharq Al-Awsat – talks about the relationship between Damascus and late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri since its beginning in 1982 and up to the latter’s assassination in February 2005.
Khaddam says that in April 1982, Hariri was introduced to Damascus upon Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s request.
“In April 1982, I received Mr. Rafik Hariri at the request of Mr. Walid Jumblatt. It was the first time that I met with him. All I knew is that he was a Saudi businessman of Lebanese origin.
“The session focused on knowing his orientation, his aspirations, and his relation with the Lebanese internal arena. Hariri was cautious, speaking vaguely and I felt that he was seeking to understand our approach to the Lebanese issue. At the end of the session, he asked to visit me again, and I welcomed him.
“The second meeting was held two weeks later. We engaged into a lengthy discussion about the Lebanese file that lasted for five hours. We had lunch at my house, where Hariri spoke frankly about his upbringing and the circumstances he went through, his affiliation with the Arab Nationalist Movement, and his participation in the smuggling of George Habash (Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) out of the Syrian prison.
“He also talked about his work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, starting from his first job to the major projects he undertook. On Lebanon, he said: “Lebanon is my homeland, where I grew up and where my family lives. It is part of my life, so allow me to come to Syria more often in order to reach a solution to the Lebanese crisis.”
“A detailed discussion took place about the Lebanese crisis, its causes and circumstances. In my opinion, the crisis was due to two reasons: The first, Lebanon’s sectarian system, which prevented the unity of the Lebanese components, while the second reason relates to the conditions of the Palestinian resistance, which found itself in conflict with political formations of a Christian character.
“We agreed on the analysis and reviewed the means to reach a solution. Hariri promised to present a written draft for us to discuss.”
Khaddam recounts that Hariri submitted his proposal to Damascus during their following encounter. He notes that he had some objections, as the project maintained the sectarian character of the state’s constitutional institutions and the distribution of seats.
Hariri asserted that these issues would be gradually resolved, so the Syrian vice president replied: “The Lebanese constitution, which was drafted in the 1920s includes a text that stipulates the abolishment of political sectarianism following a certain period; this period has lasted from 1920 until now. Consequently, if there is no specific and decisive time for the transitional phase, sectarianism will remain and the conflict that the Lebanese people have witnessed for many years will persist.”
Khaddam says that an agreement was reached to set a specific period for the transitional phase. When Hariri presented his project to the other Lebanese leaders, he was met with consent by some and objection by others, including those who wanted to adhere to the sectarian formula.
Hariri used to visit Damascus every week, to discuss the Lebanese national issue or to convey messages from the late King Fahd bin Abdulaziz to President Hafez al-Assad.
Following the Lebanese elections of 1992, Khaddam says that Damascus discussed all the names of well-known political figures, who could assume the premiership of the new government.
He recounts how Assad “tested” Hariri before agreeing to assign him to the post.
“Suddenly, the president [Hazez al-Assad] asked him: “If you were the head of the Lebanese government and we disagreed with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, how would you act?” Rafik replied: “Mr. President, I am Lebanese and love my country, and I am also Saudi.... Consequently, I cannot give up on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because I am not ungrateful. I am an Arab nationalist. I consider Syria the incubator of the Arabs, and I can only be with Syria. Consequently: If there is a disagreement, I will work on solving it and if I fail, I will retire.” President Hafez replied: “If you had said anything other than this, I would not have believed you, and you would have lost my confidence. I will ask Abu Jamal (Khaddam) to inform the Lebanese President that we support Rafik Hariri’s nomination.”
“This is how Rafik Hariri became prime minister of Lebanon. He committed to every word he said to me and to President Hafez, and offered great services to Syria through his foreign relations,” Khaddam says.
He notes, however, that when Bashar al-Assad assumed power following the death of his father, he initiated a campaign against Hariri and was incited by a group of Lebanese, who were previously associated with his brother Bassel and had personal ambitions. This prompted Bashar’s friends in Lebanon to further attack Hariri.
According to Khaddam, these campaigns have increased the Syrian president’s isolation at the Arab and international levels. The man found himself in front of one option: falling into Iran’s arms.
During that period, presidential elections were supposed to be held in Lebanon, but Bashar insisted on the extension of President Emile Lahoud’s tenure. The Muslim circle, some national forces and political currents, stood against the extension.
Signs of a fresh Syrian campaign emerged against Hariri. This was clearly evident in a meeting of the National Progressive Front (a coalition of parties led by the Baath), during which Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa talked about the political situation and was asked about relations with Hariri. He replied: “He is conspiring against Syria, and he is involved with the United States and France against our country.”
As Syria insisted on extending Lahoud’s term, Hariri announced he would resign from the government. Consequently, the Syrian presidential palace summoned the Lebanese premier to a meeting with Bashar.
Looking for advice, Hariri contacted Khaddam, asking: “What should I do? I do not want to stay in power.” The Syrian official replied: “Keep insisting on your resignation, and if he presses you, present him with the proposal of Lebanese national reconciliation between all parties.”
During the meeting, Rafik hardened his stance. Al-Assad asked him: “What are your conditions for going back on your resignation?”
He replied: “A national reconciliation meeting, a government of national unity in which everyone participates without exception, freedom to decide, and President Lahoud’s non-interference in governance affairs.”
Days and weeks passed, and the government was not formed. In early October, Minister Marwan Hamadeh escaped an assassination attempt, which increased tension in Lebanon.
Khaddam recounts that in mid-January 2005, the regional leadership of the Baath party held a meeting to discuss some partisan issues. Assad said: “I will talk about Lebanon. There is an American-French conspiracy against us, in which Hariri is involved. This poses a danger to Syria.”
The Syrian vice-president says that the next day, he received Mohsen Dalloul, who had a strong relationship with Hariri.
“I briefed him on Bashar’s talk and asked him to inform Rafik that he should leave Lebanon immediately, because the hatred for him is great.
“On February 14, we had a meeting at the Regional Command. After the meeting, I entered the room of Dr. Ahmed Dergham, a member of the leadership and the TV was on. I was shocked at the news of a large bomb explosion in front of Hariri’s convoy, on its way from Parliament. A member of the leadership was next to me and said: “He executed what he talked about in that meeting.
“I returned home sad, because I lost a friend who was serving Syria and Lebanon…I remembered President Hafez’s position on Hariri, and how he protected him from the campaigns of the Syrian security services…
“On the day Hariri was assassinated, I went to Lebanon and found large crowds in front of his house. When I got out of the car, I heard someone say: “What is he doing here?” Then another answered him: “This is Abou Baha’s friend, not from those who hate him.”