At the end of 2005, the Syrian Government experienced a series of drastic changes, but none greater than the transition from the old Ba’athist guard that once thrived under the late Syrian President, Hafezh Al-Assad, to the newly appointed Ba’ath Party’s Regional Command that included the likes of Maher Al-Assad, Assef Shawkat, and Manaf Tlass.
Of course, loyal Ba’ath Party members from the old guard like ‘Abdullah Al-Ahmar, Rustom Ghazaleh, Wa’el Mu’allem, and Farouq Al-Sharaa’ retained their respectful roles in the future government; however, for the first time in three decades, men like Mustafa Tlass and ‘Abdel-Haleem Khaddam were not included in any governmental position – why?
It was not clear at the time because Dr. Bashar Al-Assad was still relatively new to his position, but the defection of the former Syrian Vice President, ‘Abdel-Haleem Khaddam, would not only deteriorate Saudi-Syrian relations, but also, pave the way for future Syrian Opposition figures to find political and financial support from the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Why Saudi Arabia?
‘Abdel-Haleem Khaddam has a long-standing history with the Saudi Royal Family: from the time he spent in Saudi Arabia during the 1989 Taif Agreement, to his friendship – both politically and monetarily – with the late Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri; Khaddam gained considerable influence over the Saudi royals, who viewed him as a trusted friend and ally.
When Rafic Hariri was assassinated in 2005, Khaddam blamed Rustom Ghazaleh and Hezbollah for the murder of his best friend; this was followed by his publicly stated antipathy for the Lebanese Resistance and their allies.
The man who was undoubtedly loyal to the late Syrian President, Hafezh Al-Assad, was now the biggest opponent to his son.
Yes, the uncertainty of who was behind the assassination of Rafic Hariri had greatly affected Khaddam’s demeanor, but his discontent with Dr. Bashar Al-Assad did not begin overnight; in fact, his earliest objections to President Assad’s policies began in 2001, when Syria shifted away from their Gulf alliances in order to strengthen ties with Iran and Hezbollah.
Infuriated by the prospect of a strong Syria-Iran alliance, the Saudis expressed their disappointment in President Assad’s political decisions to their good friend, ‘Abdel-Haleem Khaddam, who was not shy about his dissatisfaction over this new policy to distance Syrian affairs from the helm of the Gulf states.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, ‘Abdel-Haleem Khaddam facilitated the cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Syria to allow for Sunni insurgents to be trained and armed by the Syrian Intelligence apparatus; this eventually created a rift between the two countries after Syria withdrew their support.
It became clear to Saudi Arabia that President Bashar Al-Assad was not a politician they could partner with in the Arab World; his unwillingness to support the Saudi’s foreign endeavors furthered the latter’s discontent with his government and policies.
Similar to exiled politicians like Salahaddeen Bitar, Michel Aflaq, Amin Al-Hafezh, and Rifa’at Al-Assad, ‘Abdel-Haleem Khaddam fled Syria to Paris in late 2005, where he was later tried and found guilty by the Syrian Courts in absentee for the crime of “Treason Against the State.”
Not surprising, Khaddam immediately formed an opposition group to the Syrian Government – funded by none other Saudi Arabia – in early 2006, which was profiled and promoted by the Saudi-owned “Al-‘Arabiya” Broadcast News Channel.
Khaddam’s political prospects were appearing bleak in 2007, as the Syrian Government began the process of liberalizing their economy, making Syria’s commercial real estate open for business in early 2008; this was followed by the creation of the Damascus Stock Exchange at the end of the year.
2011 – Present-Day
When protests began in Dara’a in March of 2011, one of the first “political activists” to speak out against the Syrian Government was none other than ‘Abdel-Haleem Khaddam, who later encouraged more members of the Syrian Government to defect.
Sources close to Al-Masdar News reported that members of ‘Abdel-Haleem Khaddam’s camp had contacted and invited them to hold talks with him in Saudi Arabia.
Khaddam is now 83 years old and while his political aspirations may have taken a backseat to his health issues, his long standing ties with the Saudi Royal Family has paved the way for Saudi Arabia to stake their place in the Syrian political spectrum through their influence over the enemies of the Syrian Government.