Abdel Halim Khaddam has demanded international military action in Syria
Former Syrian vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam, seen here in April 2011, has demanded international military action in Syria modelled on NATO's support for this year's uprising in Libya. Two exiled former Syrian regime insiders have emerged to form opposition groups, as belief in Bashar al-Assad's rule weakens even among members of his Alawite minority and ruling Baath Party. © John Thys - AFP/File
Abdel Halim Khaddam has demanded international military action in Syria
Deborah Pasmantier, AFP
Last updated: November 16, 2011

Former Syrian regime insiders expect Assad's fall

Two exiled former Syrian regime insiders have emerged to form opposition groups, as belief in Bashar al-Assad's rule weakens even among members of his Alawite minority and ruling Baath Party.

Experts say the return to the scene of 79-year-old former vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam and of Assad's uncle 74-year-old Rifaat al-Assad shows that the Syrian elite increasingly expects the strongman to fall.

But they also warn that in joining the fray, these elderly and divisive figures could further fragment and undermine the Syrian opposition.

"They have deep knowledge of the system. They know something has changed and that it's over. They are trying to position themselves for a place in a future Syria," said Ziad Majed, of the American University in Paris.

Last week the rival veterans became the latest Syrian figures to launch political movements in Paris, Khaddam the "National Council to Support the Syrian Revolution", and Rifaat the "National Democratic Council".

Khaddam demanded international military action in Syria modelled on NATO's support for this year's uprising in Libya, while Rifaat wants Arab or world powers to negotiate Assad's safe replacement "by a member of his family."

Both men are tainted by the association with the regime of Assad's late father strongman Hafez al-Assad, and their movements are not seen as truly representative of the eight-month old revolt on the streets of Syria.

But their decision to speak out could mark a turning point, coming as the Arab League votes to suspend Syria, King Abdullah of neighbouring Jordan calls on Assad to stand down and opposition forces step up armed attacks.

"Rifaat al-Assad unsettles the Alawite community in power and Bashar al-Assad's family," said Joseph Bahout, a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

But exiled leaders -- who once held the highest posts in Hafez al-Assad's governments -- have considerable financial means and networks of contacts in their homeland and Rifaat al-Assad tried to lead a coup in 1983.

"Some Western intelligence agencies calculate that Rifaat could be a vector for an uprising in key military units," Bahout said.

Khaddam was a long term ally of Hafez al-Assad, serving as his foreign minister, deputy prime minister and vice president, and was a leading figure in the ruling Baath Party, one of the pillars of the regime, until 2005.

Rifaat al-Assad was Hafez' younger brother and commanded his feared internal security forces. He is accused of overseeing the 1982 massacre of between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians in the town of Hama.

As former regime apparatchiks, both men have little credibility with the larger opposition movements that are attempting to direct the revolution.

"These people are largely discredited in Syria. They are burdened with very weighty pasts. The opposition sees them as millstones around its neck," said Karim Emile Bitar of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

Bahout warned the new parties could create new rifts in the opposition, and the return of Khaddam and Rifaat could be exploited by Assad "who could say that the people who are against him have no credibility."

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