Assad Accused / Don't Mess With the Family

The accusation uttered by former Syrian vice-president Abdul-Halim Khaddam against Syrian President Bashar Assad corroborated the suspicion, held by many in the Syrian regime for the past two months, that Khaddam had betrayed Assad.

They say he was the one who told German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis about the regime's part in murdering former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.

Suffice it to read the regime-controlled Internet blogs yesterday to understand the extent of hatred and terror that Khaddam's statement raised among the regime's senior officials. They do not fear that the regime might topple or crumble. They are involved in a mafia family struggle.

Khaddam, one of the only Sunnis to reach a senior position, has been seeking revenge for five years for being pushed out of government. Until recently he still bore the title deputy president, but since Bashar Assad's taking office in July 2000 this has become an empty title, ceremonial at the most. Khaddam, the man who, according to Lebanese opposition reports, owns two yachts docking in the Banias port opposite his luxury mansion, was a close friend of Rafik Hariri's. Through Hariri he was also close to the leaders of the Saudi regime. These connections, which gave him the ability to run Lebanon from Damascus, became a time bomb as early as 1998, when Bashar was not president yet but preparing for the post.

Bashar feared that Khaddam - who saw himself heir to Bashar's father, Hafez Assad - would prevent him from reaching the throne with Hariri's money and his Saudi connections. It appears that Bashar was not alone in fostering this fear; some of Hafez's confidants took the opportunity to purge the regime from a man considered dangerous both politically and economically.

Consequently, Bashar took Lebanese affairs away from Khaddam and appointed him in charge of coordinating relations with Iraq. He also removed Hikmat Shihabi from his post as chief of staff. Farouk Shara, the obedient foreign minister, became part of the inner circle of advisers.

Hariri continued to be loyal to Khaddam and met him frequently, helping him establish relations with the French government and especially Jacques Chirac. A friendly coalition was formed between Hariri, Khaddam and former interior minister in charge of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon Ghazi Kenaan on the one side, and Rustum Ghazale, who replaced Kenaan in Lebanon, Shara and the Assad family on the other side.

Hariri's murder made it clear to Khaddam, as it did to Kenaan, that he could be the next target, due to his close ties with Hariri. His fears were substantiated in November, when his vast property was confiscated by the Syrian government, following the suspicion that he gave Mehlis information that was not previously coordinated with Ghazale.

Confiscating Khaddam's property was intended both to punish him and deter other senior officials from betraying the family - whose members consist of President Assad's brother, Mahir Assad, commander of the Republican Guard, and his brother-in-law, Assif Shawkat, the head of Syrian military intelligence.

Khaddam's accusation has closed the Syrian regime's ranks against what it sees as a combined political assault on the part of Lebanon, France and the United States.

The Syrian counter attack has already begun with revealing details of Khaddam's private fortune. It will probably continue in the next few days, as more information is leaked about Khaddam's ties with the Lebanese government and especially his share in Lebanon's cellular phone company, which brought him a lot of money.

For Assad this is not a case of losing a solid foundation of his government but getting rid of a rotten apple; one that may hold a lot of information, but could also one day topple his regime.