BEIRUT, Lebanon – Former Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, a one-time stalwart of the ruling Baath Party, said on Friday that former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri was threatened by Syria months before he was assassinated.
Khaddam made the claim as he declared a formal break with President Bashar Assad in a television interview from Paris, criticizing the regime and citing corruption and its failure to reform.
“Hariri was subjected to many threats from Syria. …Serious things were said. Once he was summoned to Damascus … and spoken to in extremely harsh words by President Bashar Assad,” Khaddam said in the interview with Al-Arabiya, the pan-Arab satellite broadcaster, his first since he left Syria several months ago.
A U.N. probe into Hariri’s killing has implicated Syria, but Damascus has denied the allegations.
Khaddam became a Syrian vice president in 1984 and resigned in June. He was the nominal leader in Syria for a short period after Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, died in June 2000.
Khaddam’s criticism reflected serious cracks within the Damascus regime and brought to the open a simmering power struggle within the leadership that has played itself out in recent years in the power shifts and alliances in Syria and in neighboring Lebanon, where Syria held sway until its troop withdrawal in April in the uproar after Hariri’s assassination.
In the interview, Khaddam was bitterly critical of the current Assad government, saying the ruling Baath Party and other popular organizations had been reduced to vindicating “decisions made by the president.”
He claimed to have left his homeland on good terms with Assad. “There are differences in opinions, but there was mutual respect,” he said, adding that his family was with him in Paris where he was writing a memoir. He denied that he had been threatened and said he would return to Syria.
Nevertheless, he charged, the Syrian leadership had made many mistakes.
He quoted the Syrian president as telling Hariri, months before he was killed: “You want to bring a (new) president in Lebanon. … I will not allow that. I will crush whoever attempts to overturn our decision.”
Syria had dictated an extension of the presidential term of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, which Hariri opposed. The move provoked a political crisis in Syria’s tiny Mediterranean neighbor.
After the warning from Assad, Hariri left with “high blood pressure and his nose bleeding,” Khaddam said.
Khaddam, however, said he was not accusing Syria of complicity in Hariri’s Feb. 14 assassination in a massive truck bombing that killed 20 others on a Beirut street.
He said uncovering the guilty parties was a matter for the U.N. commission investigating the murder.
Several anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians told the U.N. commission they had been told Assad threatened to “break Lebanon” over Hariri’s head if he did not support Damascus’ decision to extend the Lahoud presidency.
In Syria, government officials could not be immediately reached for comment. But pro-government observers were quick to criticize Khaddam’s disclosures.
“It is strange that he’s criticizing government behavior when he was part of it,” said George Jabbour, a legislator for the Baath party. “Why now? … And how an official who dedicated his life to his country makes these statements?” asked political analyst Ahmed Haj Ali.
Under intense international pressure and after massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Damascus, Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon this summer after entering the country in 1976 as a stabilizing force early in the country’s civil war.