TCS Daily


The Enemy of Your Enemy Is Sometimes Your Enemy

By Michael Totten - January 18, 2006 12:00 AM

BEIRUT -- Syria's exiled former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam ratchets up his own personal war against Bashar Assad's ruling Ba'ath Party regime every couple of days. First he implicated Assad in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Then he flirted with the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria's Sunni Islamist opposition. He openly called for a popular uprising to topple Assad. And now Khaddam has plans to form his own government in exile.

This is terrific in a watch-the-bad-guys-turn-on-each-other sort of way. United Nations Special Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis has done fine work all but proving what most people instinctively already knew: that Assad or someone close to him ordered the hit on Hariri and is most likely behind the terrifying wave of car bombs that have exploded in Lebanon since. That knowledge alone, though, isn't enough to make it all stop. More than a month after the Mehlis report hit the streets another anti-Syrian politician and journalist -- this time MP and An-Nahar newspaper chief Gebran Tueni -- was assassinated by a car bomb on his way to work in the morning. Many Lebanese are turning now to Khaddam hoping he, if not Mehlis, can actually bring Assad down.

Assad isn't taking this lightly. Syria's parliament denounced Khaddam as a traitor immediately after his first appearance as a whistleblower on Dubai's Al-Arabiya station in Paris. The Saudi government agreed, under Syrian pressure, to stop giving Khaddam air time on their media channels. Assad and the Saudi regime may both be despicable, but Westerners and Lebanese might want to adopt the same approach to this man. Your enemy's enemy isn't always your friend. Regime-change that ends with Khaddam in the saddle is the last thing anyone other than Khaddam himself ought to wish for.

The man is no democrat. In the 1950s, when the Baath Party was still an isolated group on the fringe, he was among the first to join. He spent his entire career, up until June of last year when he left Syria for Paris, as an "old guard" hardliner who rose to power under Bashar's late and more ruthless father Hafez Assad. The reason he resigned seven months ago is not because the younger Assad is too brutal, incompetent, of for any other reason hopeful observers might wish to project onto him. Khaddam resigned because Bashar Assad slowly diminished his power and influence since assuming the presidency after his father's death in 2000.

The best way to predict Khaddam's future behavior is to look at his past behavior.

According to Marius Deeb, author of Syria's Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process, Syria's first-ever intervention in Lebanon's internal affairs came when Khaddam was foreign minister in 1975 just as the civil war started. He "played a role," as Deeb put it, in replacing Lebanon's military cabinet under President Suleiman Franjieh with a new one headed by the pro-Syrian Sunni Prime Minister Rashid Karami.

Khaddam's role only increased from there. A mere seven months later he said in an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper that "Lebanon was part of Syria and we shall take it back" if there was any chance it would be partitioned into sectarian cantons as an outcome of the war. "This does not only mean the four provinces and the coastal areas," Khaddam said, "but also Mount Lebanon." In other words, Syria would swallow all of Lebanon whole. And that's exactly what happened thanks in large part to Khaddam.

In 1989, near the end of the civil war, Lebanon's newly elected President René Moawad had a disturbing five-hour meeting with Khaddam. Moawad asked Khaddam to withdraw Syrian troops from the north as a way to show Syria did not intend to stay in Lebanon permanently. The withdrawal didn't happen, of course, but something else troubled Moawad about the encounter.

"There is something [Khaddam] asked from me which makes me uncomfortable," he said to several members of parliament. Whatever that something was, it looks like Moawad didn't comply. Four days later he was assassinated by a 500-pound car bomb planted alongside his motorcade, exactly the same way former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would be assassinated by Syrian agents sixteen years later.

Khaddam has a lot of nerve to go on television and accuse Bashar Assad of holding ominous meetings with Lebanese politicians just prior to their assassination.

He didn't just meddle in Lebanon here and there every couple of years. He was known as "Lebanon's high commissioner" because he, more than anyone else under Hafez Assad, designed and built Syria's system of political domination in Lebanon.

At least one prominent Lebanese politician knows better than to play along: General Michel Aoun, who was kicked out of Lebanon at the end of the civil war on Syrian orders. He was only able to return after Assad's troops left the country, at about the same time Khaddam swapped places with him in exile in France.

"Khaddam was for a long time responsible for the Lebanese file," Aoun said, "and during the time that he was responsible there were many very unfortunate events which were similar to Hariri's assassination... There were the (assassinations) of two presidents of the republic, Bashir Gemayel and Rene Moawad, and there was the (Sunni) mufti Sheikh Hassan Khaled, MP Nazem Al-Qadri...and Kamal Jumblatt."

Khaddam's record in Syria is no better. In Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom Alan George explicitly blames "regime hard-liners centered on Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam" for the suppression of the Damascus Spring civil society movement that showed so much promise a after Hafez Assad finally died and handed power to his then more-promising son Bashar.

Riad Seif, member of parliament who went to prison in 2001 for participating in the movement, met with Khaddam in an attempt to get a license to hold meetings as required by law.

"I presented him with our statement of objectives," he said. "His reaction was very very negative. He said: 'It's a coup. You want to destroy the system and take over, and this is Communiqué Number One.'"

Khaddam has since released his own Communiqué numbers one through four.

If he ever does decide to repudiate his past -- a most unlikely event -- few should believe him. Fifty years as a career hardliner Baathist, jailer, murderer, and imperial overlord is a lot. But he hasn't even tried to defect in a convincing sort of way or say he's become a new man in his dotage. He thinks it's all about Bashar Assad. But it's not. Changing Syria's moustache-in-chief isn't the point, especially if the "new" one is the protégé of the late Hafez Assad, the worst Syrian Baathist of all.

Christopher Dickey recently interviewed him for Newsweek. When asked if he thinks he will ever go back to Syria, Khaddam said "Yes, I will be back. And it's not in the distant future that I'll be back." For once the interests of Bashar Assad, the West, and the people of Lebanon are in alignment whether they know it or not. Abdul Halim Khaddam must never go back to Syria.

He is and always has been a tyrant who would be as bad or worse than the current ruler of Syria. At best he's a useful tool with a short shelf life. Assad is now on the defensive more than ever before. And that's great. But Khaddam can only be useful if he is pitched over the side right away. He's no Ahmed Chalabi, as dubious as even that distinction might be. Those who are shopping for a high profile Syrian dissident or Assad replacement need to keep looking. This isn't the guy.

Michael J. Totten is based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is a TCS columnist whose work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, and Beirut's Daily Star. Please visit his daily Web log and Middle East Journal at http://michaeltotten.com.

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2 Comments

Take this to it's logical conclusion
What if the USA stopped supporting right wing dictators who are just as bad as the left wing dictators they are against?
What if we took the moral high ground and stopped supporting brutal, butchering rulers who let us trade with them?
The enemy(economic enemy) of our enemy(political enemy) is sometimes the enemy(moral enemy) of us.

assumptions
Your claim that the right wing dictators that the US has supported are just as bad as the left wing dictators we opposed is not supported by anything resembling fact or history.

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