In early May, the Saudi daily Alsharq Alawsat began publishing the memoirs of former Syrian Vice-President, Abdul Halim Khaddam, who died last year at his home in Paris. The memoirs were penned during the final 15 years of Khaddam’s life-in-exile, from 2005 to 2020. The accounts offer rare insight on the monumental events he witnessed first as Foreign Minister, then as second-in-command under Syria’s long serving President, Hafez al-Assad.

Born to a modest middle-class family in the coastal city of Banias in 1932, Abdul Halim Khaddam joined the Baath Party while still in high school, which introduced him to another student named Hafez al-Assad. The Baath preached an Arab nationalist doctrine, with a trinity motto of “Unity, Freedom, and Socialism.” The two men became friends, changing Khaddam’s life forever.

Abdul Halim Khaddam joined the Baath Party while still in high school, which introduced him to another student named Hafez al-Assad.

He went on to study law at Damascus University while Assad joined the Syrian Army after studying at the Homs Military Academy. Apart from party meetings, their paths did not cross throughout the 1950s. In 1963, Assad helped stage a coup in Syria — the seventh in less than two decades — bringing the Baath Party to power. He became Commander of the Syrian Air Force and Khaddam was installed as governor of Hama, a conservative city perched on the Orontes River.

In April 1964, Hama rose in revolt against the Baathists, triggered by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was trying to set up an Islamic government in Syria. Working with the armed forces, Khaddam helped crush the uprising, describing the Brotherhood as “agents of Western imperialism.” Little did he know, 40 years later, he would ally himself with the Brotherhood to help bring down the very same regime he had helped create back in 1963. Almost 20 years after the revolt, Khaddam witnessed another bloody confrontation with the Brotherhood—also in Hama—in 1982. Once again, he rose to the pulpit and appeared on television, denouncing the Brotherhood as “traitors.”

Coming to Power

From Hama, Khaddam was moved to al-Quneitra, the principal town of the Golan Heights. During his tenure, the 1967 War broke out and al-Quneitra was occupied—then destroyed—by the Israeli army. When Hafez al-Assad staged a coup and came to power in November 1970, Khaddam was made Foreign Minister of Syria, at the young age of 38. He kept his post with no interruptions until Assad appointed him as Vice-President on March 11, 1984.

During his tenure at the Foreign Ministry, Khaddam witnessed three monumental events that were to have long-lasting implications on the entire Middle East. One was the Lebanese Civil War that broke out in April 1975. Second was Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, which led to the Camp David Accords of September 1978. And third was the Iranian Revolution of February 1979.

An archive photo of the late President Hafez al Assad and his deputy Abdel Halim Khaddam at a conference Asharq Al Awsat

An archive photo of the late President Hafez al-Assad and his deputy, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, at a conference (Asharq Al-Awsat).

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A Meeting with the Ayatollah

In his memoirs, Khaddam takes credit for being the first and last Syrian official to meet with Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution. Though British journalist Patrick Seale, author of the seminal book “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” claims that Khaddam was actually the second Syrian to visit Tehran, not the first. According to Seale, Khaddam made the trip in mid-August 1979, only after Information Minister Ahmad Iskandar Ahmad traveled to Iran in the weeks following the Iranian Revolution, where he too was received by Khomeini.

“We received news of the Islamic Revolution with great pleasure and deep optimism.”

“We received news of the Islamic Revolution with great pleasure and deep optimism,” reflects Khaddam. “We visited his modest home and found Khomeini seated on the floor. We sat next to him and spoke in Arabic, while he replied in Persian. Although short, it was an extremely important meeting. It showed just how determined he was, confident of himself and his revolution.”

Khaddam returned to Damascus to brief the Syrian President, suggesting a strategic partnership with Khomeini, who had just closed the Israeli Embassy in Tehran and given it to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The two countries had their ideological differences, he noted, with Syria being secular and Iran a theocracy, but they shared a common vision in anti-imperialism, meaning that they could certainly work together, he argued.

This was at a time when Syrian-Egyptian relations had been suspended due to Anwar al-Sadat’s peace deal with Israel, while Syrian-Iraqi relations were at an all-time low after Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in July 1979.

Syria thus took two decisions that were to have a long-lasting effect on the country’s future, right up to the present conflict. One was to go for an alliance with Iran. The second was to sign a friendship agreement with the Soviet Union in October 1980. Despite his criticism of both states for their role in the present conflict, Khaddam tries to take credit for the alliances that were made with them, 40 years ago. Most historians argue, however, that they were the brainchild of Hafez al-Assad, with Khaddam only being an executor.

Hezbollah and Lebanon

Khaddam goes on to explain how Iranian influence was non-existent in Lebanon prior to the Israeli invasion of 1982. The turning point, though, was when Iran decided to set up Hezbollah. Before 1982, there was only one Shiite militia in Lebanon, called the Amal Movement, led by Nabih Berri, then-militia commander, now speaker of the Lebanese Parliament. The Iranian money pumped into Hezbollah prompted several senior members of Amal to join the new group, leading to inter-Shiite fighting in the mid-1980s.

“Syria was sympathetic to Amal,” writes Khaddam. “Only President Hafez al-Assad was sympathetic to Hezbollah, saying that they were the only ones putting up a resistance against Israel. Most Syrian officers in Lebanon were supportive of Amal, however, considering Hezbollah an Islamic party. They were still under influence of the bloody confrontation between the Syrian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood (of 1982).”

In 1984, after Assad appointed Khaddam as Vice-President of the Syrian republic, he was charged with handling Lebanese affairs for the next two decades. Through a wide personal and business network, he established what many described as omnipotent influence in Lebanon, earning the nickname “Al-Wali,” or “Governor.” His interlocuters were very powerful personalities like General Ghazi Kanaan, commander of Syrian forces in Lebanon, and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

It was Hariri’s assassination in February 2005, followed by Kanaan’s suicide that October, which triggered Khaddam’s defection in December 2005.

It was Hariri’s assassination in February 2005, followed by Kanaan’s suicide that October, which triggered Khaddam’s defection in December 2005. President Hafez al-Assad had died five years earlier and his son and political heir, Bashar al-Assad, had replaced him as president, clipping Khaddam’s wings, both in Syria and Lebanon. In 2004, for example, he had tried—and failed—to prevent the extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term, which Hariri had been aggressively pushing for through his connections in Damascus.

Khaddam was relieved of his duties in the summer of 2005 and traveled to France, ostensibly for a short vacation. Six months later, he appeared on the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya channel, announcing his defection while claiming that Syria was behind the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri. A special court convened in Damascus and charged him with high treason, sentencing him to death in absentia.

One year later, he teamed up with his archrivals—the Muslim Brotherhood—creating a Belgium-based opposition group called The National Salvation Front. It lobbied for regime change in Syria but was completely overshadowed by the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, over which Khaddam—then advancing in age—had zero influence.

In October 2017, he gave an interview to Newsweek, saying that Iran was behind the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, and blaming the Obama administration for pushing Turkey into the arms of Russia. He died of a heart attack at his Parisian home on March 31, 2020, at the age of 88.

“The importance of Khaddam’s memoirs comes from the fact that since the Baath Party came to power in 1963, Syrian officials have seldomly left behind a written account of their careers,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, Diplomatic Editor of Alsharq Alawsat newspaper, which published the Khaddam papers.

“The most important thing about his memoirs is that they contain many official documents, along with minutes of meetings,” Hamidi continued. “This might be normal in other countries, like the US or UK, but in Syria, it’s a novelty. Political figures in retirement usually speak about their past in private gatherings or in television interviews, which is part of a culture of oral history that prevails in the Arab World. Taking that oral history and putting it down on paper is important, which might inspire others to do the same.”