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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 June 2006, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Abdul Halim Khaddam.
Mr Khaddam and other exiled Syrians have been meeting in London.

Stephen Sackur talks to Syria's former vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam.

Scores of Syrian exiles have gathered in London to discuss their plans for non violent regime change in Damascus.

The most prominent member of the group, Abdul Halim Khaddam, was Syria's vice president until his resignation last year.

After his resignation he fled to Paris where he has been helping to create the National Salvation Front - an opposition group in exile.

Stephen Sackur asks him why, after three decades in government, he has changed sides.

TRANSCRIPT OF STEPHEN SACKUR'S INTERVIEW WITH ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM.

STEPHEN SACKUR - Abdul Halim Khaddam. Welcome to HARDtalk.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Thank you.

STEPHEN SACKUR - You were one of the most senior members of president Basher al Assad's government until the summer of last year and now here you are, launching a political movement to topple him. Why?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - In fact the reason for my action was my conviction that Dr Bashar al Assad does not want to bring any economic or political reforms to Syria. The situation in Syria is very bad. The Syrian people have been under the rule of one single regime for 40 years. Liberties are curtailed in a state of emergency.

In addition, the economic situation is bad. Poverty is spreading in the country. Unemployment is widespread. The standard of living is low. A combination of economic and political deprivation where no-one can live or have a place and preserved rights outside...

STEPHEN SACKUR - Let me stop you there, if I may, Mr Khaddam. You served Bashar al Assad for five years. How come you've suddenly decided after serving him loyally and serving his father for seven years, that the situation is unacceptable?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - In practice, I worked with him for just a year and a half, In practice, I worked with him for just a year and a half, after he became President. I submitted to him various studies for the purpose of economic and political reforms.

He took the studies and put them in the drawer. In 2002, the end of 2002, I became convinced that the door to reform was shut and decided to resign. I distanced myself from duty in a practical manner and waited for the convention of the Party conference...

STEPHEN SACKUR- Let me be clear about what you are saying because you've called for a popular uprising. You've said you want to see something in Syria like we saw in Romania with the uprising against Ceausescu. Suggests to me that you don't just want to see Bashar al Assad removed - you want him dead.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - I am not leading a coup. I am participating with members of the resistance to lead the people to change the regime. Not through military means or violence, but through the people in the streets and the citizens who are suffering the wrong doings of the regime. Other countries have witnessed changes. It was the people who brought in the changes.

True, I do not want to see Bashar al Assad in power, but I do want to see him in the dock prosecuted for the huge mistakes he committed against the country such as the widespread corruption and political decisions.

STEPHEN SACKUR - Do you think you will have any credibility, when you say that, with the Syrian people? I'm just looking back to something you said to a Syrian magazine as recently as August 2004.

You said, these are your words, "those who suggest changing and replacing the regime do not know the danger that would bring for the future, for the security, the stability of the state or, they do know it and aspire to it for reasons not connected to the good of the state - but to serve the interests of foreign elements and Israel". Those are your words from a year and a half ago.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - You should have read the full interview. I said in that interview, when talking about the changes - because the question was about a coup, a revolution. I said what is needed is a regime change, a transition to democracy and political freedom.

That was needed then, and during that period we were all working in the party for the country's transition into the next phase. Our efforts failed and then my decision to distance myself from the regime was inevitable.

STEPHEN SACKUR - But it raises a question. When you talked about how those who sought change in Syria could be working for foreign interests - even Israel. Who are you working for? Who is financing you?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - I said that those who wants change, meaning change through violence will harm the country's interests and will serve others, and this is expected.

STEPHEN SACKUR - I understand what you are saying but my question to you is, who is financing you now? We are meeting in the Dorchester Hotel in London. It's an extraordinarily expensive hotel. You've brought fifty or so members of the Syrian opposition here for a meeting. All this is costing a lot of money. Who is financing this National Salvation Front of yours?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Firstly, the 50 people are not staying at this hotel. They are staying at other hotels and at their own expense. The second point, no one is financing us. It is self- sufficient finance. Self-financing. Members of the Front are running the financing, which is a modest operation at the moment. Naturally when we move to the next stage we will need the financing..

STEPHEN SACKUR - Are you getting money from the Americans?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - We do not want to get money from any quarter, whether Arabic or foreign. This change must be achieved through Syrian forces, Syrian money, Syrian will and Syrian instructions.

STEPHEN SACKUR - You left Syria, went into exile just months after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Was that coincidence or was it precisely because of that murder that you left Syria?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - My departure from the country had nothing to do with the assassination of President Hariri. My departure from the country had to do with what I had been planning with various collaborators from the Baath Party, to organise serious opposition to bring about the change in Syria.

STEPHEN SACKUR - But you told Al Arabiyah television after the murder of Hariri that Assad - President Basher al Assad -had said to you that he (Bashar) had delivered very very harsh words to Hariri. Something like, and I'm quoting, "I will crush anyone who tries to disobey us". You believe, don't you, that Basher al-Assad authorised the murder of Rafik Hariri.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Yes, Bashar al Assad told me that and something similar at one of the Party meetings, and when Hariri left his office, Bashar al Assad's office, his blood pressure shot up and he had a nosebleed.

STEPHEN SACKUR - You mean Bashar al Assad hit him?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - No, I mean the pressure and the harsh words caused his psychological disturbance resulting in high blood pressure.

STEPHEN SACKUR - A simple question. Did Bashar al Assad authorise the murder of Rafik Hariri?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Bashar al Assad is the one who took the decision to have president Rafik Hariri killed. No security official in Syria is capable of taking such a decision. This crime required big resources, technical, financial and the explosive material. No officer is capable of moving 1000 kg of explosives from an army depot without the consent of the army commander.

No officer is capable of organising the assassination operation involving 20 to 30 people, preparing the cars, the crime stage and the assassination based on his own in Syria. If they want to arrest someone for political reasons, the decision must come from the President of the Republic.

STEPHEN SACKUR - Let's talk some more about accountability. Your accountability. Do you think you will be held to account for your own personal record in Syria?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - the Syrian people are the ones who will judge my credibility. Yes, I have full credibility. The Syrian, Arab and international circles are aware how I conducted Syrian foreign policies throughout my time as Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1972 and the end of 1998, and of the achievements during that period.

STEPHEN SACKUR - Sorry to interrupt. Let's not just talk about the Foreign Office. Let's talk about the fact that you were one of the most senior assistants, lieutenants of Hafez al Assad throughout his period in power. In 1982, to use one example, the Syrian military sent its forces into the town of Hama.

Amnesty International, other independent human rights groups have documented the killing of at least 10,000 - possibly up to 20,000 - civilians in that town of Hama in 1982. You knew what happened and you sat in that government and did absolutely nothing to protest.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - No civilian body in Syria has the knowledge or awareness of military decisions. Military and security decisions are made by the president, with the collaboration of security services officers and the armed forces.

There were a number of problems in Syria, including what took place in Hama. Even after the operation ended, no one knew what happened in Hama. We only knew later on.

STEPHEN SACKUR - I'm trying to get my head around how you can justify to me how you served as a deputy to Hafez al Assad and then to his son, Basher al Assad for more than 30 years apparently knowing nothing about what was going on inside your own country and apparently content to leave it that way.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - I was responsible for foreign policy. I knew everything about the foreign policy dossier and I assume full responsibility for any mistakes related to Syria's foreign policy. As for internal policy, it was exclusive to the president of the republic and those close to the prime minister in charge of administrative and economic affairs.

Security issues were left to the president. There was no access to information. The country is not an open country and neither is the regime.

STEPHEN SACKUR - You knew you were a closed country. You knew that it was in many ways a police state. Surely you knew that hundreds of fellow Syrians were being held as political prisoners, were being routinely tortured and you knew that there were laws in the Syria which you served so loyally, which suggested for example that membership of the Muslim Brotherhood was punishable by death. You knew all this.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - This is true, and this is what happened. However, as to whether I could prevent it happening, no I could not.

STEPHEN SACKUR - I ask you now, why didn't you resign?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - You ask me, why I did not resign. I will answer you, Resignation to such a regime means one of two things, imprisonment or death. No third option. Here we are not talking about official resignation conducted in Britain or France. Resignation in Syria means either death or prison.

STEPHEN SACKUR - Do you not feel at the very least, a little bit uncomfortable sitting now in your opposition movement alongside the exiled leader of the Muslim Brotherhood having for so long represented a regime which oppressed and punished the Muslim Brotherhood?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Firstly, my conscience is clear with regards to my past work. I served my country very well indeed. All Syrians were proud of Syria's foreign policy. My conscience is clear because I am no longer part of that regime. I felt utter bitterness for over 20 years because of what was happening in Syria.

STEPHEN SACKUR - Well, you say you feel comfortable but let me just quote to you the words of Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni who is sitting alongside you in the National Salvation Front. He says, "He shares responsibility for all the crimes committed by the Ba'athist regime. He was at the pinnacle of power and a court will have to judge his responsibility". That's your own colleague talking about you. You and Mr Bayanouni are coming from very different places.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Al-Bayanouni, the Muslim Brotherhood and I have agreed a number of objectives. First, regime change. Second, to work to establish a civilian and democratic state based on the ballot box.

STEPHEN SACKUR - Do you think you have much support in Syria?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Absolutely, absolutely, and you will be able to see the evidence for yourself in a few months time. I am confident and relaxed about this. If I were after power, I would have stayed in Damascus. I would have been able to achieve power through a coup by coordinating with a number of figures from the Baath party.

However, I refused to do so at the time and I am still against the principles of achieving power through military coups. Syria has suffered a great deal from military coups. Therefore, my friends and I took the decision to initiate peaceful change in Syria.

STEPHEN SACKUR - You see, I've spoken to a lot of commentators on Syrian and Lebanese affairs and when I talk to them about your level of support they scoff. They don't regard you as credible. They say the Syrian people see you as corrupt. You and your family have made an awful lot of money - particularly out of your power, your influence in Lebanon and the Syrian people do not believe you are honest.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Such talk is incorrect and inaccurate. Neither my family nor I have accumulated any wealth.

STEPHEN SACKUR - Is it not true that your family gained a very expensive apartment in Paris, as a result of a gift from Mr Hariri?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Not at all, not at all, Hariri was my friend and Hariri used to serve Syria; Hariri was a foreign minister for Syria. We used to entrust Hariri with missions to a number of states. Hariri played a huge role in Syria's foreign relations. Hariri served Lebanon and Syria. Such talk is incorrect. Such talk falls within a campaign to tarnish my reputation.

STEPHEN SACKUR - You want to be the leader of this opposition movement. So the people of Syria have the right to know where you got your wealth from if not from Mr Hariri.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - I have no fortune. I have four sons. The youngest started working 20 years ago. I started in 1958. I worked as a lawyer for a long time. I come from a family that owns land and assets. My sons are in employment. Some are in the Gulf States, others in Syria.

The youngest has worked for 20 years and the eldest for half a century. Obviously they are able to enjoy a comfortable and honourable life. Their economic involvement is not what others imagine it to be. One is in a partnership running a canned meat factory. The other owns a shop..

STEPHEN SACKUR - How long do you think that Assad era in Syria will last now?

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Assad's regime is coming to an end. Syria can no longer support such a regime. All over the world, autocratic regimes have collapsed and been replaced. Their people are now breathing freedom. Dictatorships achieve two things, first the spread of corruption, especially by the decision-makers, and second, under-development and break-up.

This is what has happened to Syria. I would like to ask those who accuse me of corruption the following question; do I own Al-Khilyawi companies, which Bashar Assad and his nephew own? Do I make the decisions for signing contracts? Why did he spoil the relations with France? He took steps to spoil relations with France because of a gas contract issue.

STEPHEN SACKUR - It's a little disappointing for you isn't it that you have made a public call, I've seen it quoted. You have called on the international community "to help the Syrian people get rid of this corrupt and violent regime". You don't appear to have won any support from anybody. In Washington, in Europe or anywhere else.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - First of all, I am not disappointed. We are contacting the international community with its various institutions to explain to them Syria's situation and suffering of the people. We are asking them to put pressure and to help the people. Naturally, such matters require contacts and explanation, and this is what we intend to do.

STEPHEN SACKUR - Abdul Halim Khaddam. Thank you very much for being on HARDtalk.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - Thank you.

HARDtalk can be seen on BBC World at 0330 GMT 0830 GMT 1530 GMT 1830 GMT 2330 GMT

It can also be seen on BBC News 24 at 0430 and 2330


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