In the eleventh and final episode of the memoirs published by Asharq Al-Awsat, former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam talks about the struggle for power in Syria between then-Defense Minister Hafez Al-Assad and Assistant Secretary-General of the Baath Salah Jadid from 1966 till 1970.
He also presents his view of the changes in Assad’s attitudes, saying: “Al-Assad believed that his words are correct, and what he says must be implemented. He was sensitive to his family members... and he always believed that he was on the right path, and if he brought up an issue, he would not back down from it…”
Khaddam recounts: “As the regional leadership of the ruling Baath party settled its struggle with the national authority on February 23, 1966, it tightened control over the country, adopted an extremist Stalinist approach, and abandoned the party’s basic principles that called for freedom and democracy.
“This approach caused hostility of the majority of Syrians towards the party and the decline of the national economy, so the regime resorted to repression and detention to control the country. At that time, small groups of leading Baathists were formed from the various provinces, and I was among them, while contacts were taking place directly between them so that the matter would not leak out to the leadership.
“In 1968, a national conference for the party was held in Yaafour, near Damascus. During a meeting of the military committee, Defense Minister Hafez Al-Assad proposed a project to establish a military front consisting of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. The leadership rejected the proposal, stating that it was not right to deal with Jordan because it is a US agent. It also refused to cooperate with Iraq due to the existing tensions between the two countries. Before the end of the conference, Assad announced positions that contradicted the stances expressed by the regime, including that the conflict with Israel “is not Syrian, but between all Arabs and Israel; therefore differences with Arab countries must be overcome.” Assad and the military representatives withdrew from the meetings and the conference was halted.”
Khaddam continues: “Ibrahim Makhous intervened, and tried to persuade President Noureddine Al-Atassi, Salah Jadid, and the minister of Defense to change their positions, provided that Assad would take over the premiership and abandon the ministry. But Assad rejected this proposal, and campaigns escalated between the two sides. At that stage, we communicated with Assad and agreed to convey to the people our confidence in power-sharing and changing the approach of oppression.
“In late 1968, an exceptional national conference was held in the military theater in Damascus…I gave a lengthy address, strongly criticizing the national leadership, and demanding a return to the party’s basic principles and the guarantee of freedom with the people’s participation…"
“Following my speech, I was targeted by a campaign by the supporters of the national leadership, and the conference did not result in a solution to the crisis. Contacts took place between Atassi and Assad, which resulted in an agreement to form a new government in which members of the national leadership would participate to help cool the tension and search for solutions. Consequently, Atassi formed the government that brought together members from the two sides, and in which I assumed the ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade.”
According to Khaddam, the new government was unable to solve internal crises and the situation in the country deteriorated. The national leadership decided to use its last card, calling for a conference in mid-November to distance Assad from both the party and the authority.
“Assad called me and asked me for a meeting to discuss the situation. I went to his office, and he said: “I don’t want to stage a military coup. I want to reform the party and the country.” We agreed that I would go to Atassi to assure him that Assad had no intention of military action.
“I went to Atassi’s residence, where I also saw Dr. Mustafa Haddad. I explained to him the Defense minister’s view, and I said: “You are the Secretary-General of the party, and what is required of you is to work to end the crisis.”
He furiously replied: “The crisis does not end unless Assad and his officers leave the country.” I said: “The search for a solution is better than pushing things towards a military action.” Dr. Haddad supported me, but Atassi insisted (…) The atmosphere was very tense."
“I went back to the army command and informed Assad of the meeting. He showed great resentment, and asked me: “What shall we do?” So I suggested that he send the secretaries of the party’s military branches to Atassi to explain the situation… After they arrived and met with Assad, they went to the secretary-general’s house and began to talk about the crisis. But he interrupted them, saying: “As the Secretary-General of the party, I expel you.” On that day, members of the national leadership were arrested, including Jadid and Atassi. A page was turned and a new chapter began.”
Khaddam says that during that evening, he gathered with Assad and a group of leading Baathists. The participants agreed to name Ahmad Al-Khatib as head of state and Assad as prime minister.
On the way the new regime dealt with the country’s affairs, Khaddam says: “The new constitution gave the president absolute powers that were not exercised by any democratic or dictatorial president… Article 91 stipulates that the President of the Republic shall not be responsible for the actions he carries out in the exercise of his duties, except in the case of high treason, and the request for his indictment shall be based on the proposal of at least one-third of the members of the People's Assembly…
“The problem with the state and the party was that Assad believed that his words were always correct and that what he says must be implemented. His speech was full of ideals and values at a time when the reality was otherwise. He was much influenced by his family. He transformed the democratic republic stipulated in the constitution into a dictatorship, thus dropping the role of the people and the party.”
Khaddam presents some of the aspects of his relationship with Assad and says: “My relation with Assad was good at times and tense at others. At some stages, we reached a permanent rupture… That took place after the nomination of Rafik Hariri as the head of the Lebanese government in 1992, which came upon a decision by Assad…
“After he was assigned to form the Lebanese government, Hariri came to Damascus to discuss our candidates...I presented the issue to Assad, so he asked me to form a committee with Hikmat Al-Shehabi, Chief of Staff, and Brigadier General Ghazi Kanaan, head of the Military Security Branch in Lebanon, so that we would meet with Hariri to agree on the names. And indeed, we organized the meeting in my house and put together a list of a large number of names…
“Whenever we agreed on a name, I would go to the phone and report it to President Hafez, and he would ask me about the person’s specifications… Mr. Rafik Hariri took the approved names to Beirut and showed them to Mr. Nabih Berri, who gave his consent and informed the President of the Republic…"
“The next day, President Hafez called me and spoke in an angry tone, saying: “You are not working for the interest of the state, but for your interest.” I was much annoyed and responded: “I am not working for myself… I was keen to protect your reputation and that of the state.”
“The conversation ended, and we didn't speak to one another for over a month. After that period, he called me, saying: “You don’t miss anyone?” I answered: “You are the president and you set the appointments.” He replied: “I am waiting for you at 8.00 p.m.”