AP Interview: Former top Syrian official says Assad surrounded by sycophants, urges ouster
PARIS – A former vice president of Syria called from exile for the overthrow of the regime he served for decades, saying Friday that “a shameless mafia” is running the country and that its president surrounds himself with sycophantic advisers and is unfit to rule.Abdul-Halim Khaddam, now accused by Syria of treason, stopped just short of accusing President Bashar Assad of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.Khaddam told The Associated Press in an interview that Hariri was “threatened in a crystal-clear way on numerous occasions” before his death in a truck bombing last year – including by Assad himself.Khaddam recounted how Assad once summoned Hariri to give him a dressing down. Hariri, a Lebanese nationalist who sought to wrest his country from Syrian control, had opposed giving pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud an extended term.”You are working against us and you are conspiring against us. You are seeking to install a president in Lebanon. I’m the decision-maker. Anyone who contravenes my decisions I will crush,” Khaddam quoted Assad as telling Hariri.Asked what Assad may have meant by crush, Khaddam said: “What does crush mean? Crushing with a thousand kilograms of explosives.”Khaddam was for many years Syria’s top official in Lebanon and was a member of the ruling Baath Party’s regional command, its most influential body, for almost 30 years.He represents an old guard long seen as wary of Assad, who became president after the death of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, in 2000. Bashar Assad took some steps toward political reform, such as freeing political prisoners, soon after taking power. But he later clamped down on pro-democracy activists, leading some analysts to conclude he was hampered by opposition from hard-line holdovers from his father’s regime.The office of Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad said he was not available for comment.The executive editor of Lebanon’s leading newspaper, An-Nahar, a harsh critic of Syria’s domination of Lebanon, said Khaddam was a key player in the regime he now criticizes.Khaddam “is to blame for most of Lebanon’s crises that led to its impoverishment, humiliation, and if the need arose, elimination of its leaders, displacement of its people by various means, in addition to making it lose its sovereignty, independence and free decision,” Edmond Saab said in his weekly column Friday.The Feb. 14 Beirut bombing that killed Hariri, which is being investigated by a U.N.-appointed commission, killed 20 other people and was the catalyst for mass protests against Syria and greater international pressure that ultimately forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon.Khaddam met later Friday in Paris with U.N. investigators probing the assassination, said an aide who would not give details. In the AP interview, Khaddam said that if Syria was involved, then Assad must have been, too, given the authoritarian nature of his regime.The U.N. probe into Hariri’s killing has already implicated Syria. Damascus has denied the allegations.Khaddam has been accused by Syria of high treason – which carries the death penalty – since first making his allegations of Syrian involvement in Hariri’s death in an interview with Al-Arabiya satellite TV station on Dec. 30.Khaddam resigned in June, left Syria several months ago, and is holed up in a luxury residence close to the Arc de Triomphe, guarded by armed French police officers stationed outside his door.Khaddam described the Syrian regime as corruption-riddled, with Assad’s cousins involved. “A shameless mafia is in control of the country in the true sense of the word,” he said.As for Assad, Khaddam described him as erratic and ignorant “of the world situation.””The problem is that those surrounding him incorrectly read the international and regional events and situations and they give their conclusions and he acts on the basis of these wrong conclusions. But he does not trust those who use their minds. He trusts those who are hypocrites, who depict him as a genius and a unique leader,” Khaddam said.He openly advocated Assad’s overthrow.”What I want is a regime change.”Bashar Assad “does not deserve to be president,” said Khaddam, who was Syria’s nominal leader for a short period after Hafez Assad died in June 2000.Khaddam did not spell out precisely how change might come about.He suggested that people power could be the deciding factor, but said Syrians should not take to the streets now.Khaddam said he will return to Syria “when the regime is actually collapsing” but added that his own future role was “irrelevant.”Syria’s small but persistent pro-democracy movement was unlikely to embrace Khaddam as a potential leader.