Abdul Halim Khaddam is not a man you’d look at twice if you’d crossed his path on the Avenue Foch, near the Arc de Triomphe, close to where he lives. With a costly gray suit in which he almost disappears, and a yellow tie so large as to hide half of his chest, and a face that still glows with the faded energy of the Don Juan he must have been in his youth, he’d be like just another vieux beau haunting the most Parisian neighborhood of Paris. “I am a Syrian citizen like any other,” he said recently. “My heart cries out for my martyred people.” His low, weak voice barely travels from the seemingly 17th-century chair where he sits, in a room too wide to be called a living room, and decorated like a suite in a five-star Austrian hotel. Now 83 years old, apparently quiet and frail, this “citizen like any other” once was one of the most powerful men in Syria. He lives today in a house, set in a private alley, watched over by two local police squadrons as well as a personal guard. In the 1970s, this property belonged to Aristotle Onassis.
To meet Khaddam in his stage-set living room is to enter a Shakespearian dark comedy about power and betrayal. He joined the Ba’ath Party in 1949, aged 17, and helped Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, to eliminate his rivals, take control over the Party and the state, and reign over Syria for 29 years. Khaddam was the elder Assad’s Sunni guarantor in a mostly Alawite government. After Hafez died in 2000, Khaddam served briefly as Syria’s interim head of state until Bashar was ready to take over. Despite recurrent disagreements, he served as Bashar al-Assad’s vice president for five years, when the younger Assad finally rid himself of the Sunni old guard in 2005. That’s when Khaddam came to Paris.
The “Villa Saïd,” where Khaddam lives today, bears an Arabic name only coincidentally—a reminder of the long-gone French Empire, and of its corrupting aftermath. Onassis’ house became the property of Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese tycoon who became prime minister of Lebanon and gave that country a brief taste of prosperity and optimism in the 1990s. Along with Saddam Hussein and the Saudis, Hariri was one of French President Jacques Chirac’s closest friends and main political connections in the region. In a simple gesture of friendship, Hariri gave his Parisian mansion, worth many millions of dollars, to Khaddam. (Hariri is said to have partnered with Khaddam’s sons in business ventures in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.) In 2005, Hariri was assassinated in a spectacular suicide bombing that killed 22 people and was attributed to Hezbollah, although it was probably ordered by Bashar (Hariri having insured his country a growing degree of independence from Syrian influence). At the end of the same year, Khaddam left Syria.
“I was very active here in the fight against Bashar,” he told me of his early days as an exile. “I had founded the National Salvation Front, which supported a political transition in Damascus. Then someone from Syrian security got in touch and asked me to be still. I said, ‘You’re mukhabarat, you’re nothing, Send me somebody who’s someone. Send a political.’ Who did they send? An adviser from the French presidency. Oh, I understood. Each time I wanted to say something after that, I went to Brussels to say it. Or Berlin. I did not want to embarrass my hosts.”
Paris has long floated its pretensions to post-colonial power on a sea of cash provided by Middle Eastern and North African kleptocrats, who have also been known to pay for French political campaigns and for the lifestyles of her top politicians. Hariri’s murder weakened the Lebanese/Saudi connection that President Chirac, by then retired, had favored. When Nicolas Sarkozy came to power, he turned to Qatar and Turkey, who supported the Muslim Brotherhood (whom the Saudis bitterly opposed). Both countries hoped to influence the French to rehabilitate Bashar and save the regime in Damascus. Bashar was invited to Paris for the 2008 July 14 ceremonies.
“Instead of judging him for Hariri’s death,” said Khaddam, “they let him parade on the Champs-Elysées! For so many years now, the international community passively watched the Syrian people getting slaughtered,” he adds. “Remember 2012, when it became clear that Bashar was about to use chemical weapons against civilians? The American president warned him that this was a ‘red line’ and if Assad did use unconventional weapons against the insurgents, the U.S.A. would intervene. But then what happened? The Russians convinced the U.S. to step back, and they did. Nothing happened! How can Syrians respect the U.S.A. when this great power changes?”
But enough with the self-awarded humanist credentials of Abdul Halim Khaddam. This is, after all, the Middle East. Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 with a coup d’etat made easier by the political and military crisis opened by Syria’s defeat in the Six Day War. His first move was to prepare an Arab revenge. This is the same Khaddam who, as Syria’s foreign minister, was the regime’s point-man for the policy of rapprochement with the USSR—and who negotiated Moscow’s agreement to rearm the country so it could pursue a policy of aggression toward its neighbor. Khaddam not only helped plan what became known as the Yom Kippur War, he also helped broker Soviet financing of the PLO, thus helping to internationalize Middle Eastern terrorism and to transform a series of local, limited wars into one of the most unquenchable conflagrations of the Cold War and beyond. Khaddam was still in business in the late 1970s when Syria entered Lebanon, where the assassinations of Kamal Jumblatt and Bashir Gemayel were attributed to Syria. He still ensconced in power in 1979, when the first anti-Semitic attacks since World War II occurred in Paris—the bombing of the synagogue on rue Copernic and, three years later, the machine-gunning of the Jewish restaurant Goldenberg on rue des Rosiers by an Abu Nidal commando, which killed six and wounded 22. Both attacks are commonly attributed to Syria, as was the attack against the Drakkar post in Lebanon that killed 58 french soldiers.
As an ex-warlord of one of the worst terror states in the region, Khaddam knows many secrets—and is a unique source of information and insight, even if he is not, in any conventional sense, trustworthy. I want to ask him how crazy, paranoid, and nonsensical it would be to imagine a connection between Syrian intelligence and the ISIS terror commando that carried out the Nov. 13 massacre in Paris. After all, some coincidental elements point in that direction. First, the sudden growth of sophistication in operative trade-craft and technical means on the part of the ISIS team. Second, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius, who had held the firmest position against the nuclear deal with Iran among Western leaders, was said to be dead-set against any negotiation with Bashar, making France a logical target for a regime bent on breaking Western resistance to its continued rule. It is also worth noting that the main result of the Paris attack was to practically silence the French delegation at the U.N.-brokered Syrian peace negotiations the next day in Vienna. Openly relaxed, Bashar al-Assad himself suggested a link that same day in a statement that was notably devoid of even a single word of support for the victims of the attack. “Erroneous policies from Western countries in the region, especially from France, contributed to the expansion of terrorism,” Assad remarked. “Three years ago we warned of what would happen in Europe, we said, ‘do not take lightly what is going on in Syria.’ Unfortunately, European leaders did not listen.” So what does Khaddam think?
“I have no specific information about this”, he answered. “But it is true that Assad, back in 2011 in the beginning of the conflict, said that the world would soon suffer what Syria suffered. And in October 2011 the Mufti Hassoun, who is the religious authority closest to the power in Damascus, made an entire statement to announce that ‘all the sons and daughters of Syria will set out to become martyrdom-seekers in Europe and on Palestinian soil. I say to all of Europe and to the U.S.: We will prepare martyrdom-seekers who are already among you.’ ” The common reading of these and other such statements by the Syrian regime was that they were mere bluster. Khaddam clearly believes otherwise.
Khaddam understands the Assad regime and ISIS to be partners, of a sort. “It is a fact that Daesh does not fight the government in Damascus any more than the government in Damascus bombs Daesh,” he explained, before delving into the complexities of the secret arrangements between security services and terrorists that determine much of the fate of the Middle East. “Although it is Sunni, Daesh’s roots are in Iran—in a group of ex-officers of the Iraqi Presidential Guard that went to train in Iran and that Iran accepted because they thought they could use them later—and their calculation proved right,” Khaddam continued. “Daesh worked with Iran and with the Syrian regime to get the Americans away from Iraq. The idea was to then share the territory between Sunnis and Shi’ites, an arrangement which the Iranians refused once the U.S. were gone.” ISIS in Syria, he explained, is a different organization than ISIS in Iraq, and it includes more foreign fighters from Chechnya and Europe.
In fact, we know at least of one case of a French ISIS fighter with links to Syrian Intelligence in the person of Boubakeur al-Hakim, a Franco-Tunisian born in Paris in 1983, who worked with the Syrian mukhabarat between 2002 and 2005 before traveling to Tunisia, where he committed several political murders and planned the Bardo attack. So, I ask Khaddam, given what he knows of the Syrian intelligence services, whether those services are still operative abroad today or are simply consumed with the survival of the regime inside Syria.
“You have to understand that, at some point, practically half the Syrian population worked for Secret Police one way or another,” he explained. “Remember that we were formed by the Soviets. That’s why they were so powerful. The intelligence services soon became the main factor in maintaining the regime. The model was the KGB, or, more to the point, the Stasi. They were everywhere. Thousands of Syrians went in Russia to train and study, learned Russian, and married Russians. Every student we sent abroad in the West brought back information. And this was left unchanged after the end of the Cold War. Did they have a part in the 13 November attacks? Again I have no information on this. But that these networks are still in motion is beyond any doubt.”
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Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.