Syria's former vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam dealt a fresh blow to Syria yesterday after his dramatic revelations that President Bashar al-Assad threatened former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri just months before his murder.
One Lebanese politician described his comments as a "political earthquake," but a pro-Syrian newspaper branded Khaddam a "Judas."
Khaddam, long the architect of Syria's military and political domination of neighboring Lebanon, made his shock claims in wide-ranging interview with Dubai-based al-Arabiya television.
"I will destroy anyone who tries to hinder our decisions," Khaddam quoted Assad as telling Hariri during a meeting in Damascus.
Khaddam, speaking from Paris, said the meeting took place a few months before the Feb. 14 assassination of Hariri in a Beirut bomb blast for which a UN probe has implicated Syrian intelligence.
"We must await the results of the investigation, but no Syrian security service could take such a decision unilaterally," Khaddam said.
The murder of Hariri, a billionaire businessman and five-time prime minister, plunged Lebanon into political turmoil and heightened international pressure on Syria to end its 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbor.
"Khaddam unveils the secrets of Hariri's assassination," Lebanon's top-selling liberal newspaper An-Nahar wrote. "Will he be the key witness in the UN probe?"
"The battle of Damascus, the battle of the regime has begun," predicted a Lebanese MP from the anti-Syrian majority who asked not to be named.
A Syrian analyst who requested anonymity questioned "the timing of Khaddam's declaration, which comes as pressure on Syria has begun to diminish and as a new chief was named to head" the UN probe.
The pro-Damascus paper Ad-Diyar charged: "Syria's Judas has pocketed 30 million dollars, firing off accusations and becoming ... an informer for [outgoing UN probe chief] Detlev Mehlis."
Syrian MP George Jabbour described Khaddam's charges as "delicate and dangerous" and added in an interview with al-Arabiya that "Khaddam must not forget he was a part of the government. He played an important role in the country's foreign policy."
Khaddam said he had advised Hariri "to leave Lebanon because his situation regarding Syria had become complicated" in the wake of the threat.
"But, of course, at no time did it occur to me that Syria could assassinate Hariri," Khaddam said.
In late March last year, Syria denied a report from a UN fact-finding mission that Assad had threatened both Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt if they opposed the policies of Damascus.
Mehlis said in a recent interview with an Arab newspaper that he was convinced that Syria was responsible for the murder.