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Dossier: Abdul Halim Khaddam
by Daniel Nassif
As one of the only Sunni Muslims in a regime dominated almost entirely by Alawites (an esoteric offshoot Islamic sect considered heretical in much of the Arab world), Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam has exercised a great deal of influence over Syria's foreign relations within the region during the last two decades. Though once considered a possible successor to Syrian President Hafez Assad, his political influence has been on the decline for several years.
|The man once known as Lebanon's "high commissioner"
Khaddam was born in 1932 in Banyas, a northern Syrian city on the Mediterranean coast. While studying law in the early 1950's, Khaddam met Hafez Assad through Syria's National Union of Students and joined the Ba'ath Party. He began his career as a lawyer in Damascus until the Ba'ath Party assumed power in 1963, after which he quickly ascended the political ladder, serving as Governor of Qunaitra (the largest city in the Golan Heights) in 1967 and as Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade from 1969-1970. After Hafez Assad's assumption of power in November 1970, Khaddam assumed the posts of Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister as well as joining the Regional and National Commands of the ruling Ba'ath Party. In March 1984, Khaddam became one of Syria's three Vice-Presidents.
Khaddam was a key player in several foreign policy initiatives, most notably Syria's alliance with Teheran during the 1980's and its intervention in Lebanon since 1976.
His role in cultivating the Syrian regime's network of political control within Lebanon earned him the nickname "Lebanon's High Commissioner."
Khaddam's first major mission to Lebanon came in May 1975, after President Suleiman Franjieh appointed a military cabinet headed by Sunni Brig. Nur al-Din al-Rifa'i in a desperate bid to stop Lebanon's descent into civil war. A Syrian delegation led by Khaddam met with prominent Sunni leaders on May 24 and convinced them (after much arm twisting) to withdraw their support for the cabinet. On May 25, the cabinet resigned and Khaddam pressured Frangieh to appoint Rashid Karami, a strong Syrian ally, as Prime Minister three days later.1 Within the next few weeks, the conflict which had hitherto been confined to sporadic clashes in Beirut spread to engulf the entire country.
"Lebanon was part of Syria and we will restore it with any attempt at partition . . . Lebanon will either be united or will be returned to Syria."
Abdul Halim Khaddam, January 19762
When the Gemayel government reasserted its authority over the capital and surrounding areas in 1983, Khaddam was again instrumental in undermining Sunni support for government (the Sunni Prime Minister at that time, Shafiq Wazzan, had repeatedly called for the withdrawal of the Syrian troops and was "a driving force behind the [May 17th] agreement with Israel").3
In October, Khaddam attended the Conference of the Lebanese "National Reconciliation" in Geneva, Switzerland that explicitly excluded Wazzan. Khaddam acted at the Conference as if he were the spokesman of Lebanese Muslims and reserved for himself the right to veto any future arrangement that did not ensure Syrian control over Lebanon's affairs. Lebanese representatives from the two thirds of the country occupied by Syria were terrorized and careful not to dissent from Khaddam's line.
Khaddam was the main broker of the 1985 Tripartite Agreement between Elie Hobeika, the commander of the Lebanese Forces at the time, Nabih Berri of the Amal militia, and Walid Jumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party militia. This agreement ended up in failure when Hobeika was ousted from East Beirut. Later, Khaddam encouraged Hobeika to come back to Lebanon from France and reestablish his base in the city of Zahle in the Syrian-occupied Bekaa Valley. Through the use of carrots and sticks, Khaddam was also instrumental in pressuring Lebanese political elites to support the 1989 Taif Accord (a similar document to the earlier Tripartite Agreement). The Taif Accord was used as a pretext to oust the legitimate Lebanese government and finalize the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
With the Syrian occupation of Beirut in 1990, Khaddam worked assiduously to solidify Syrian control over successive Lebanese governments. In particular, his relationship with former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was very close. Several years ago Khaddam told Lebanese officials that Hariri was "here to stay until 2010," adding that "we in Syria have had no change (in regime) since 1970. Continuity leads to stability."4
Ironically, Khaddam's close association with Hariri marked the beginning of his political demise. Bashar Assad, the son and heir apparent of Syrian President Hafez Assad, took control over Syrian policy in Lebanon in 1998, fearing that Khaddam might use Hariri, his money and his Saudi connections to challenge his ascension to the presidency. Syrian policy in Lebanon under Bashar took advantage of widespread disaffection with Hariri and his failed economic policies to bring the Lahoud-Hoss government to power. Hariri has spent his days since then trying to rub shoulders with Bashar Assad and distancing himself as much as he can from Khaddam and former Syrian army Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi, another loser as a result of Bashar's ascendency. Hariri is no longer offering his private plane, his mansions in Europe or his boat to accommodate and entertain the Khaddam and the Shihabi families.
Perhaps the best indication of Khaddam's political eclipse was the reaction in Lebanon to the death of his grand-daughter last month. In Lebanon, when the relative of an important Syrian official passes away, it is front page news and Lebanese politicians line up to attend the funeral or issue scores of statements and poems for the occasion. The only coverage given to Khaddam on this occasion was a brief paragraph in Hariri's newspaper, al-Mustaqbal, and Hariri was virtually the only political figure to pay his condolences to the Syrian Vice-President.
Khaddam's role within the Syrian regime has become largely ceremonial: paying condolences and carrying messages to the leaders of Sunni regimes in the Arab world. He is unlikely to contest this demotion, knowing that any overt signs of dissatisfaction will encourage the ostensibly reform-minded Bashar to expose details of the well-known indulgences of Khaddam and his sons in corrupt activities inside and outside Syria (e.g. Khaddam and his sons, along with the Shihabi family, used their political influence to involve themselves heavily in the cellular telephone business in Lebanon, which has earned them tens of millions of dollars in the last few years). Although officially Khaddam is still a vice-president, his political wings have been clipped and he will most likely slip graciously into a comfortable retirement.
1 Adeed I. Dawisha, Syria and the Lebanese Crisis (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), pp. 87-88. Dawisha notes that "Syria's first intervention in Lebanese politics was highly successful. . . There can be no doubt that the Lebanese President, who perceived Karami's appointment as a personal and political setback, would not have agreed to the appointment without explicit Syrian pressure."
2 Al-Nahar, 8 January 1976.
3 Theodore Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation (London: IB Tauris, 1993), p.287.
4 "Lebanon without Hariri--who holds the lock and key?" Mideast Mirror, 1 December 1998.
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