WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Will the defection of former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam -- the highest-ranking member of the inner circle of power in Damascus to turn on the regime -- bring about the demise of President Bashar Assad?
That remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the question being asked now is why? Why would a man who for the past 40 years served his country loyally, occupying two of the most important jobs - foreign affairs and the vice-presidency -- suddenly turn on his country?
Syrian sources are saying that when President Hafez Assad died, Khaddam told senior party members he wanted to be president. In an exclusive interview to YnetNews, an Israeli on-line news source, a senior Syrian official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Khaddam saw himself as the leading candidate.
"Senior Syrian officials remember this meeting well. They recall the reaction of Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, as he pounded the table with his handgun, he turned to Khaddam, saying: "The masses outside are calling out the doctor's name (Bashar) and you're talking about taking up the post yourself? This is unthinkable," reports YnetNews.com.
It will never be know if Khaddam would have made a good president for Syria. Undoubtedly, he has the experience after spending years as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently as vice president. But according to a well-informed Syrian source who spoke to United Press International on condition he not be identified, Khaddam was one of the most dogged opponents of reform during the "Damascus Spring" when a movement for greater freedom and democracy in Syria began to flourish two years ago. Khaddam urged it be quickly quelled.
Khaddam had one major handicap: he is not an Alawite, but a Sunni. The Alawites, who have ruled Syria since 1970, are leery of giving up full control to an outsider. As they have at various times been ruthless in order to maintain their grasp on power (remember Hama), so too, would they expect as much ruthlessness from others if they were to lose that power.
Of course it is impossible to independently confirm if this information is true or not. And in the days to come much more will be said about Khaddam by Syrian officials who will want to further discredit the former vice president. Much is already being said about rewarding deals he and his sons have benefited from, such as from the profitable cell phone industry.
As the Lebanese civil war came to an end, Lebanon's telephone network was in shambles. "What others might have seen as a serious problem, the country's Syrian and Lebanese powerbrokers saw as an opportunity to create an artificially lucrative GSM market," reported Gary Gambill, in the January 2003 edition of The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.
What is at stake here is not only party politics and rivalries, but the result of power politics mixed in with big business and dirty politics.
When Bashar took over from his father in 2000, according to the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, "he launched an anti-corruption campaign designed to eclipse the power of certain political and security figures appointed by his father, including Khaddam and former Syrian Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi."
Men like Khaddam and Shihabi, who belonged to the "Old Guard," had amassed enormous wealth, and not all of it through legal means. The MEIB article claims members of the Old Guard made part of their fortune "through drug smuggling, money laundering and other illicit activities in Syria and Lebanon."
Still according to the same report, Bashar tried to put an end to this free-flow of illicit gains and "divert it to his own allies." Post-war Lebanon presented a bonanza of business deals just waiting to be grabbed. Among the most tempting was the cellular phone industry.
"In 1994, two 10-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) contracts were awarded to two cellular phone companies, LibanCell and Cellis," states the MEIB.
"On paper, 86 percent of LibanCell came to be owned by Ali and Nizar Dalloul, sons of former Defense Minister Mohsen Dalloul, a close ally of Lebanon's billionaire prime minister, Rafik Hariri. According to reliable sources, the Dalloul brothers actually fronted for Syrian Vice-president Abdel-Halim Khaddam and former Syrian Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi. Cellis came to be 30 percent owned by a close friend of the Assad family -- Public Works and Transport Minister Najib Miqati, along with his brother, Taha, and nephew, Azmi."
With landlines still unreliable, "the LibanCell-Cellis 'duopoly' made a killing over the next eight years." MEIB compares cell phone usage in Lebanon, with a population of just 3.5 million, where 800,000 have cell phones, or 22 percent of the population, whereas in Egypt only 2 percent use cellular phones.
Regardless if Khaddam did what he did for political or business reasons, he has crossed the point of no return. And if there is any truth in the accusations that Syrian intelligence was responsible for the deaths of Hariri and several other Lebanese politicians and journalist, then Khaddam has good reason to fear.
Syrian lawmakers are calling for his arrest by Interpol, asking that he be brought to Damascus to be tried for treason. Syria's parliament convened in an emergency session last week to denounce Khaddam, already finding him guilty. Syria's parliament acts mostly as a rubber stamp for the government, supporting the president's initiatives and policies, yet never questioning them.
In a meeting with Hariri while he was still prime minister, the Lebanese politician apologized that he had to cut short our discussion because he was expected in Damascus to meet with members of the Syrian parliament. He paused for an instant, raised his eye to the ceiling and said, "Yes, they do have a parliament in Syria." Then quickly added, "but you cannot quote me on this."
Asked why someone like Khaddam, who has loyally served the Syrian government for the past 40 years would suddenly change, Imad Mustapha, Syria's ambassador to Washington told UPI: "He wants to become a born again reformer. Suddenly he has seen the light on the road to Damascus."
Rather, in Khaddam's case, it must be that he saw the light on the road from Damascus on his way into exile, from where he will henceforth have to keep looking over his shoulder.
"I hope he has a really, really good hiding place," a former CIA officer told United Press International.
(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)