By Arab News
By Randa Takieddine
The warning from Abdul-Halim Khaddam to Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was unequivocal: “Beware of these crazy people … they can harm you.”
As the man who served for 30 years in the upper echelons of the Syrian state under President Hafez Assad and then his son Bashar, Khaddam knew what he was talking about; in February 2005, Hariri was assassinated in Beirut by terrorists linked to the Syrian regime.
Khaddam, the former Syrian vice president who died from a heart attack early on Tuesday at the age of 88, recounted the story to Saad Hariri when the murdered man’s son visited him in his Paris residence a few months after the assassination.
In May 2015 Khaddam openly accused Hezbollah and Syrian regime members of the assassination. Officials from the tribunal investigating Hariri’s murder also visited Paris to question Khaddam.
For three decades in Syria, no one was closer to the Assad family than Khaddam, the Sunni Syrian Baathist from a middle-class family in the Mediterranean resort town of Baniyas.
Once seen as a possible successor to Hafez, instead he helped Bashar tighten his grip on power after he took office in June 2000.
In the days following the elder Assad’s death, Khaddam pushed through decrees elevating Bashar’s military rank to general and making him commander of the armed forces — key moves in the uncertain process of succession.
A lawyer by training, Khaddam was foreign minister for 14 years before becoming vice-president in 1984. He also took part in shaping Syrian policy in Lebanon. A former French ambassador to Syria, Jean Claude Cousseran, told Arab News Khaddam was the hard-line politician closest to Assad’s father, and a hard-liner also on the Lebanese question. Many Lebanese detested Khaddam because he represented the Syrian occupation and all its tragic consequences.
Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, another former French ambassador who headed the Middle East desk at the French Foreign Ministry, told Arab News he remembered Khaddam accompanying Bashar Assad on a state visit to Paris in 2000, when president Jacques Chirac had invited him after the death of his father.
De la Messuziere, an Arabist , recalled waiting in a side room of the Elysee Palace with an angry and impatient Khaddam while the two presidents had their one-to-one meeting. “Why is it taking so long, what are they doing?” he asked, in a loud voice.
In 2005, Khaddam was a vocal critic of both the Hariri assassination and Syria’s foreign policy in general, and he resigned from the Baath party.
Khaddam moved to Paris in December 2005, claiming that he needed medical treatment, and established a residence on the exclusive Avenue Foch, where his home was guarded round the clock by French police.
In 2011 he became one of the most prominent opponents of Bashar Assad and his war against his own people. From his Paris base, Khaddam tried to carve out a role in the opposition to Assad but struggled to win the trust of other dissidents because of his decades of work in the Baath party.
As the uprising continued, Khaddam said Syrians would have to take up arms in self-defense unless the world intervened to protect them, and he accused Assad and his family of instigating sectarian strife.
Khaddam’s presence in Paris was not popular with French public opinion, and criticized by many French officials who opposed his policy in Lebanon. Nevertheless, his vocal opposition to Bashar Assad had to some extent rehabilitated him.
Khaddam will be buried in France, where his funeral will be organized by the Paris municipality. His son Jihad is stranded in Turkey by the coronavirus pandemic, and his other son Jamal is recovering from open heart surgery in Paris.