Across the Bay

Friday, December 30, 2005

Bombshell: Khaddam Talks

Syria's former VP Abdel Halim Khaddam is singing. In a long interview on Al-Arabiya, only a week after Saad Hariri's devastating interview on the same station, Khaddam all but accused Bashar of being behind Hariri's murder. He confirmed all the threats made to Hariri, including one made by Bashar -- in the presence of junior officers -- and before the last meeting about the Lahoud extension (I think this is the one referred to by Hariri's former aide Nouhad Mashnouq in his interview with al-Hayat earlier in the year). This is one day after Syria's FM Sharaa denied such threats ever took place, and claimed that Hariri "made them up" in order to justify his agreement to extend Lahoud's mandate. Sharaa's remarks were loudly denounced in Beirut.

You can read Kais' English summary here, and read Al-Arabiya's Arabic summary here.

Khaddam focused more on Ghazaleh, but in a deceptive manner, as he clearly pointed the finger at, and implicated Bashar along the way. Notice also the comments about the Al-Madina Bank, this also after the Judge investigating the Al-Madina case was assaulted, beaten, and left for dead.

Here's a translation of a brief excerpt on Ghazaleh:

Rustum Ghazaleh acted as if he was the absolute ruler of Lebanon. I once learned that he insulted Prime Minister Hariri, Speaker Nabih Berri, and Walid Jumblat. I said to President Bashar: Why do you keep him [Ghazaleh] in Lebanon? He is harming you and the country. He is acting in an unreasonable manner with the Lebanese leaders and insulting the prime minister and others. He [Asad] said to me that he also insulted Najib Miqati and Sleiman Franjiyeh. I said: He insulted your friends. How do you accept that? Asad said that Ghazi [Kanaan] was to blame, because he nominated him. I said: Ghazi made a mistake. You can replace him. He said that he would talk to him and warn him. He did speak to him and he [Ghazaleh] apologized. After some time, the bad deeds increased. I said to him: Rustum Ghazaleh has taken $35 million from the Al-Madinah Bank. You certainly have the file. He said: He [Ghazaleh] is a thief. Go and see what he did in his village. He built a palace and a market. I said: You are the Commander of the Army and President of the Republic and you know that an officer has made these mistakes, so why do you keep him in his post? He once again said that Ghazi Kanaan was the one who nominated him.

After the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri; specifically on 28 February 2005, I met with Asad. I said to him: Bring this criminal and cut his throat. He is the one who created this situation in Lebanon.

[Al-Arabiyah correspondent in Paris]: Did you say this about Rustum Ghazaleh to President Asad?

[Khaddam]: Of course, I said this about Rustum Ghazaleh. He [Asad] said that Ghazaleh will be replaced soon, but he was not. The president gave a speech at the People's Assembly in which he said that mistakes were made in Lebanon. I said to him that I was seeking to protect him. I told him to form an investigation commission, to bring the officers who made mistakes in Lebanon, and to refer them to court martial. I asked him to try these people who should take responsibility for the mistakes that were committed in Lebanon. I said: Why should the state take responsibility? Why should you take responsibility? He said that it was not possible to punish any person before the [Baath Party] Congress. I also said to him: Bring the Foreign Minister [Sharaa], who got you involved in Resolution 1559, and put him in his house. He said: We cannot bring any one to account before the Congress. The congress was held. The surprise was that Rustum Ghazaleh was a member of the congress. He appointed him as the head of the security branch in Damascus Rural Areas Governorate, which is close to Lebanon. One started to ask: Why is Rustum Ghazaleh being protected while everybody knows his sins. Why is he protected if everyone knows the sins he has committed? The Syrians and Lebanese are asking this question.

I think that this actually undercuts the possibility of Ghazaleh being used as a scapegoat now. Anyway, he said outright that no security apparatus could make such a move without Bashar's knowledge. Period. This is a real powerful blow in more ways than one.

I had mentioned in my previous post on Amr Moussa's initiative how the Saudi position seems to be different from Egypt's. I think Saad's interview, and now this, makes it clear that the Saudis have started their campaign against Bashar.

This is also a fight over Lebanon, as it's clear that Bashar is trying to use Hizbullah to dissolve the cabinet and the Parliamentary majority, and get back in as the main reference in Lebanese affairs. Perhaps that would explain the timing of Khaddam's interview. The decision in Lebanon on containing Hizbullah is likely related as well.

Of course, you may know that back in late September-early October, there were rumors flying around about Khaddam and Shihabi (both Sunnis, close to Hariri, and on bad terms with Bashar) meeting in France with Saudi and French officials, to discuss the post-Asad era in Syria. This now once again turns the spotlight on Kanaan's "suicide" in October.

Khaddam noted Bashar's and Sharaa's (and Khaddam repeatedly slammed Sharaa, and mentioned that he [Khaddam] was against the Lahoud extension, and advised Bashar against it) misreading of US policy on Lebanon (and Iraq). Although, one can't be too hard on Bashar or Sharaa for that, especially when you have luminaries like Flynt Leverett (who also attended the Baath Congress, by invitation) and Josh Landis regurgitating the same nonsense. Hell, Leverett was seen recently at an event at the Stimson Center still trying to peddle that line telling his audience why should the US "care about flag-waving Lebanese"? But that's why Leverett is at Brookings, and will not be at the NSC anytime soon. Khaddam mentions Indyk's visit too. Remember what Indyk said about Bashar.

Indyk and especially Leverett seem to have played a very pernicious role by convincing Bashar that the US does not care about Lebanon (this misconception was mentioned by Khaddam when he talked about Indyk). Bashar's policy, as shown by his last speech and the rumors that Syria is generating, is still based on the idea that the US will acknowledge Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Indyk and Flynt care only about cutting a deal on the Golan -- everything else is derivative, and Flynt would gladly give Bashar Lebanon in return. Now Indyk has seemingly abandoned this line with Bashar. Flynt has not (that's all he did in the 90s, and that's his entire career). As such, he shows just how silly and useless his view is, and how badly he understands the ME. Unfortunately, this is an entire school, entrenched in some policy circles and academia. Bashar has used (and would love to continue to use) the Golan card to dangle it in front of people like Leverett to get away with anything. That's why he dangled it back in March when he tried to get the Egyptians to tell the US that he's ready for a deal with Israel. I.e., leave me Lebanon. The Saudis, French, and the US told him to dream on: get out of Lebanon. No deals. That's the summary of his rough meeting with then-Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh on March 3. Abdullah then stopped at Damascus airport (and spoke to Bashar at the airport) after he came back from the US and probably told him that he can forget the "Peace Process" business (even when Bashar offered to endorse Abdullah's initiative from the Beirut summit, which he had sabotaged). Abdullah didn't get out of the airport. Just delivered the message and left for Jordan. But people like Leverett, who understand nothing, would jump on this kind of nonsense, and Bashar knows it, so he plays them for fools. And they never fail to bite.

Furthermore, Khaddam talked about how Bashar snubbed France repeatedly and pissed off President Chirac. So he not only misread American policy, he completely mishandled the French as well. I find this amusing of course given how much Bashar's cheerleaders are still talking about the "rift" between the US and France when it comes to Syria, and are still betting on that!

As for Bashar's "reformist impulses" being hampered by the "Old Guard" (that pathetic myth I've spent a year debunking), Khaddam said that it was a creation of the security services (read Asef Shawkat?). Khaddam also said that Bashar was completely, in fact, exclusively in power. In other words, as we've been saying all along, and contrary to all the cheerleaders and Bashar propaganda, the circle of decision making is very narrow with Bashar very much at the helms, and it excluded people like Khaddam (hence the utter fallacy of the "Old Guard" theory).

And it's interesting Khaddam mentioned Asad's "friends" Miqati (who was trying to maneuver to replace Seniora during the cabinet crisis) and Franjieh. The latter, along with Syria's tool Charles Ayyoub of ad-Diyar newspaper, launched a tirade against Khaddam a few weeks ago. You could tell the camps were fighting each other in the Lebanese press. It could have been a message, a threat to Khaddam.

There were also Sunni overtones in the interview, especially when talking about Bashar's displeasure with Hariri "gathering his sect around him, which is harmful for Syria."

Khaddam also affirmed that his trips to Lebanon after the attempt on Hamadeh, and then to Hariri's funeral, were made on his own, not at Bashar's behest. He also had a lot to say about the pro-Bashar clique in Lebanon and how they were pushing for the assassination of Hariri (which is what we heard about the circle around Lahoud and as-Sayyed and former MP and Syria's pitbull Nasser Qandil). It's interesting to hear this because this is Bashar's legacy in Lebanon! You see ever since 1998 (when Khaddam lost the Lebanon file, as he mentioned), Bashar was responsible for propping up a "B-team" in Lebanon to pressure the traditional political elite, and keep it in check. He relied on that B-team when he took over power in Syria and maintained his animosity towards the "A-team," so to speak. It was his way to carve out a team of his own, loyal to him, and not linked to any other figure in Syria (i.e., it was as much directed towards his rivals in Syria as towards the Lebanese political elite). Their mediocrity reflected his own. That harvest, and his overall contempt for Lebanon, is what he himself sowed.

Anyway, I'll post the full transcript of the interview when it comes out. But what a way to end the year. Just when Bashar thought he had regained the upper hand after the Tueni murder (again, another reason, perhaps, for the timing of the Khaddam bombshell), and tried to flood the scene with rumors about a "deal" both with the Americans and the Arabs (with the Amr Moussa initiative). We even saw threats by fake pro-Syrian Islamist groups threatening the new head of the UNIIIC! But it was clear the Saudis were up to something when Saad went on Al-Arabiya and reassured the anxious Lebanese that there will be no deal, and remarked that even if the Syrian regime thinks it can breathe, it will soon sink as it was "swimming alone in a raging sea."

The waves just got higher, maties. I'll have more on this in the new year, which is to say in a few days.

Addendum: Lazarus has an English summary as well. See also another summary at the Lebanese Political Journal.

Update: Ammar Abdulhamid has a lengthy commentary on Khaddam's interview. His comment intersects with mine on various points.

Update 2: The Lebanese Bloggers and The Beirut Spring both comment on Khaddam's interview.

Update 3: For those of you who missed Khaddam on Al-Arabiya, here is the transcript of the interview (Arabic).