Syria shaken by former VP's assault

Khaddam's corruption charges resonate, but many see him as part of the problem.

khaddam 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
khaddam 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Former Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam's barrage of criticism of Bashar Assad, stepped up at the weekend to include the allegation that the president is a "traitor," has left Syrian society and the government reeling. In explosive interviews with Al-Arabiya television, CNN and Arabic newspapers, Khaddam has indirectly implicated Assad in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri (a charge Assad was reduced to giving a newspaper interview to deny), pointed to the regime's responsibility for Syria's poverty, detailed its alleged financial corruption and openly acknowledged that he is working to bring it down. "The traitor is the one who causes damage to the country and to the people. Bashar Assad has taken serious decisions and brought serious damage to Syria," he told CNN this weekend. "One of those decisions was to have the Lebanese presidency extended for President Lahoud and that led to the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. "It also led to the humiliating pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon and brought about a split in relations between Syria and Lebanon, and also led to Syria's isolation in the Arab world and internationally. The one who caused all of this is Bashar Assad. So, he is the traitor." In response, the Syrian parliament has condemned Khaddam as a traitor to the republic, impounded his assets and demanded the opening of criminal proceedings. But if the Syrian government has been robust in its denunciation of Khaddam, ordinary Syrians tend to focus most on the vast corruption to which Khaddam has alluded. Their reactions illustrate that average Syrians - from professionals to taxi drivers - are aware of how corrupt the government is. For most, the Khaddam interviews simply verify what they already knew, and they don't excuse Khaddam for his role in it. "Is it really such a surprise that Khaddam talked about the government taking money?" asked Ahmad, a taxi driver in Damascus. "He took money! How could he afford such a palace in Paris if he wasn't part of the same corruption that he was speaking about?" "He has always been one of the worst people in the regime. For years, he has been a major part of the corruption that has made Syria so bad," said Sharif, a teacher of the Koran. "His statements don't really change anything - they just prove that he is as corrupt as the government he criticized." While many focus on Khaddam's corruption, others have reacted to the interviews as an insult to the honor of the Syrian people. Many of these reactions were printed in Tishreen, one of the three government-owned newspapers. Of the 30 people the newspaper interviewed, phrases such as "He sold his soul and that of his nation for a cheap price," "He is a traitor to his nation and his people," and "His words have tainted the honor of our homeland" recur in at least half of the responses. A cook at a Damascene fast-food restaurant said simply of Khaddam, "He is a vile dog. That's it." Reading between the lines, the general reaction indicates a nuanced look at the country and the regime. For years, Syria was known as "Suria al-Assad" - Assad's Syria - and scores of statues, murals and posters around the country of the late president Hafez, five years after his death, attest to that fact. Yet Syrians lament the insult to the honor of the nation and the homeland - which is not the same thing as the regime. References to the government in the Tishreen interviews were confined to Khaddam's corrupt behavior within it. While subtle, these responses indicate that there is still little love for the current regime in. National pride and common peoplehood, not Assad or his regime, are the ties that bind average Syrians. In a recent posting on, a weblog covering Syrian politics, religion and society, an anonymous Syrian posted his response to Khaddam's comments, focusing on the former vice president's pivotal role in the corruption that he denounced. This poster wrote, "The good thing that I see from the whole Khaddam fiasco is that more corruption charges would be openly thrown both ways now, and that the Syrian parliament would raise the demands of bringing people to justice openly... This might solve the biggest part of Syria's problems." This writer explained in detail the extent of Khaddam's corruption: as the vice president, Khaddam acted as Syria's business and investment gatekeeper. As a close associate of Hariri, Khaddam prevented Hariri's competitors from gaining a foothold in the Syrian market. Case in point - Hariri's Future Television network airs only those Syrian programs produced by Al-Sham International, which is owned by Khaddam. Only after Bashar Assad came to power in 2000 were certain blacklisted individuals allowed to compete for business contracts. Since the vice president was an integral member of the Syrian leadership for over 30 years, this poster claimed that the criticism he is issuing now is more of a pulpit for Khaddam's rage at being eased out of political and business power while his rival, Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, is the last member of the old guard to remain in the current president's inner circle. The Syrian reaction has focused less on the Mehlis report into the killing of Hariri or the fact that Khaddam's reform recommendations went unheeded by Bashar Assad. Syrians are in disbelief that a man who was in the government for so long would say such treasonous things, but they are not surprised by the content of the accusations. "The interview was an explosion," said Irfan, a teacher of Arabic at a local institute, referring to Khaddam's first comments, to Al-Arabiya TV a week ago. "While he contradicted himself a number of times, there is no arguing the basic things that he said. He knew the inner workings of the regime, and in the end he chose his homeland over the government. I believe now the only thing is to see if the regime will exact its revenge. Khaddam should now fear for his life."