Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president who turned against President Bashar Al Assad’s rule but was largely shunned by the opposition, died on Tuesday in France.
His son Jihad confirmed Khaddam's death to The National from Istanbul. Khaddam was 88 years old. Salah Ayach, a close friend to Khaddam in exile, said he died at 5am of a heart attack.
The former vice-president fled Syria after the killing of his Lebanese ally Rafik Hariri in February 2005. A UN investigation implicated senior Syrian security officials in the killing, and an international tribunal in the Netherlands indicted several Hezbollah operatives who are being tried in absentia.
Khaddam defied Bashar Al Assad by going to Beirut to pay condolences to Hariri's family. He was the only Syrian official at the mourning and by the end of 2005 he relocated to Paris.
UN investigators interviewed Khaddam as part of their probe into the assassination as someone with near unmatched insight of the functioning of the Syrian regime.
A Baath Party stalwart, Khaddam was a provincial governor in charge of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Hafez Al Assad was defence minister at the time.
The loss of the Golan to Israel did not prevent Hafez Al Assad from becoming president in 1970. Khaddam, a close ally of the new president, became foreign minister and the Syrian regime's softer face of its divide and conquer approach to Lebanon.
He set up in France an opposition coalition to the regime that was buoyed by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, expecting the repercussions to weaken Bashar Al Assad.
A few months into the Syrian revolt, which broke out in March 2011, Khaddam said: “If the international community does not react to stop these crimes and protect civilians, the Syrians will be forced to take up arms to defend themselves.”
Khaddam was born in the port city of Banias, which was a hub of the pro-democracy demonstrations before regime forces stormed the Sunnis neighbourhoods of the city in May 2011.
As a Sunni figure with long political experience and strong regional connections, he was suited to play a major role in the Syrian opposition.
Khaddam had amassed experience in the brutal school of Syrian politics in the 1950s and 1960s, when a Nasserite takeover, followed by Baathism, destroyed an era of democracy. Treachery and murder marked the reign of Syria's new rulers. He was an articulate, soft spoken man with a firm command of Arabic and a chiseled face that contributed to his confident image.
But most in the opposition and street activists distrusted Khaddam because he was for decades part of the same corrupt and sectarian system they were rebelling against.
Prominent Syrian dissident Riad Al Turk gave a warning at the time that failing to employ someone with the stature of Khaddam in the struggle to end Assad family rule was a grave political error, and only an impartial court system should judge whether he had committed any breaches.
As vice-president under the Alawite-dominated rule of the country, Khaddam’s position was ceremonial, as evidenced by his public absence during the transition to Bashar Al Assad’s rule after Hafez Al Assad died in July 2000.
He made it clear in subsequent interviews after his defection that had he sought to become president after Hafez Al Assad’s death, as Syria’s paper constitution stipulated, he would have been killed on the spot.
By Massoud A Derhally and Khaled Yacoub Oweis