Saudis Temper Their Backing for Abdul-Halim Khaddam
Saudi Arabian US ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal made a special trip from Washington to Paris over the weekend to deliver a sharp reproof to former Syrian vice president Abdul-Halim Khaddam, now Bashar Assad‘s sworn foe.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources, the ambassador was acting at the behest of Saudi King Abdullah, who is fuming over the conduct of Syrian opposition factions in exile.
At a conference in Brussels March 15 to 17, these factions set up a National Salvation Front dedicated to overthrowing the Assad regime in Damascus. The Front chose as its leaders Khaddam and Muslim Brotherhood Controller General Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources disclose that Prince Turki confronted the former Syrian vice president the next day, Saturday, March 18, with the charge that he had taken his personal campaign against the Syrian ruler too far. If he wanted to keep Saudi support, he was warned to exercise moderation.
Abdullah is also bothered by the split in the Syrian opposition into overseas and domestic blocs.
The Brussels group of exiled factions and figures is led by Khaddam, Bashar’s ambitious uncle, Rifat Assad – who did not attend conference in person but sent his representatives – and the Muslim Brotherhood’s al-Bayanouni.
The Damascus group consists of the leaders of the four main opposition parties operating in Syria – Hassan Abd al Zaim, of the Democratic Arab Socialist Union, Riyad Turk, of the Syrian Communist Party, Abdel Ghani Ayash, of the Arab Socialist Party and Elias Murkus, of the Syrian Revolutionary Workers’ Party.
A number of Kurdish parties have also joined.
The Damascus group has already announced it has nothing in common with Khaddam and al-Bayouni.
The king chose Prince Turki as a top-ranking ambassador and former general intelligence director to make Khaddam understand how much he disapproves of the polarization of the opposition and the rivalry between its two camps and the dim view he takes of the former Syrian official’s conduct in general.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources familiar with the content of the conversation, he sternly accused Khaddam: “You reached certain agreements and understandings with the king and Mubarak, and have broken your word.”
Abdullah resents the Brussels resolutions for establishing a government in exile with the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the former Syrian vice president was informed. This does not only affect the radical group’s status in Syria, but in other Middle East countries too. Still worse, Turki explained, King Abdullah has been deeply embarrassed by being maneuvered into contravening the deal on Syria he concluded with French President Jacques Chirac when he visited Riyadh earlier this month, and letting down President Hosni Mubarak, his partner in strategy for Syria and Lebanon.
The monarch was outraged, ambassador Turki reported, when he learned that one of the most prominent personalities at the Brussels meeting was Dr. Husam al Deiri, a long-serving secret agent of the deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his Baath party.
Riyadh nixes subversion to overthrow Bashar Assad
The meeting ended with the Saudi ambassador laying down two conditions for the Syrian opposition leader to observe if he wanted to keep Saudi support for his campaign:
1. No member of the Brussels group must set up a Syrian government in exile. This obligated Khaddam to break up his alliance with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
2. Khaddam and Rifat Assad must conduct their campaign transparently and legitimately and abjure subversive action to forcibly replace the current regime in Damascus. Regime change must be an evolving, non-violent process.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the Saudi monarch took fright when he found himself being pulled into a campaign that was getting out of hand. He shied when he saw an undesirable combination of secular Arab politicians and the Muslim Brethren coming together to overthrow an important Arab ruler.
For Abdullah this was too much to swallow and he decided to draw the line with a firm hand.
To reinforce Prince Turki’s message, the Saudis took advantage of a human rights conference in the Qatari capital of Doha on March 22, to sponsor a meeting of the Damascus group of opposition leaders. He approved the group’s statement declaring that any change of government in Damascus must take place solely by democratic means and without outside intervention.
By this initiative, the Saudi government demonstrated its support for the Provisional Committee of Damascus and put Khaddam’s Brussels bloc on trial for good behavior.
By this shift of support, Riyadh also signaled it was on the point of a divorce from Washington’s Syrian strategy, which solidly backs the partnership between Khaddam, Rifat Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood alliance and favors letting them have freedom of action.
But the Qatari ruling family, the Al-Thanis, never pass up a chance of putting down a Saudi initiative – partly to prove their less strict brand of Wahhabist Islam is an improved version of the parent faith they imported from Saudi Arabia.
Our Gulf sources report that the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, not only invited the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader al-Bayanouni to attend the human rights conference which took place in his capital, Doha, but arranged for al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic television station, to invite him for a two-hour interview.
The Qataris decided to retrieve the Brussels group from eclipse and instead force the Damascus bloc of opposition parties to cooperate with their overseas rivals.