Hafez al-Assad: ‘Al-Zoubi betrayed me, hold him accountable’

Personal papers of Syria's former vice-president detail Syria Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zoubi's fall from grace and his subsequent 'suicide'

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (C) is applauded by his Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam (R) and Syrian deputies on 11 March 1999 in Damascus.
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (C) is applauded by his Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam (R) and Syrian deputies on 11 March 1999 in Damascus.

Hafez al-Assad: ‘Al-Zoubi betrayed me, hold him accountable’

It was a single shot to the head that killed Mahmoud al-Zoubi, the prime minister of Syria from 1987 to 2000. Officially, he killed himself. Some wonder if that is true.

By the time he died, he had fallen spectacularly from grace. Accused of embezzlement and expelled from the party he led by the president he served, his assets had been frozen, and he had been told to appear before a judge on corruption charges.

The personal written records of late Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam—never before published—now offer fresh insight into the events leading up to al-Zoubi’s death on 21 May 2000.

He had been stripped of his premiership just over two months earlier and expelled from the Ba’ath Party on 10 May, less than two weeks before his suicide.

Documents carried by Khaddam from Damascus to Paris in 2005 unveil tense discussions within the leadership of the ruling Ba’ath Party prior to al-Zoubi’s appointment as prime minister in 1987.

These files, a copy of which has been obtained by Al Majalla, also reveal Khaddam’s thinking on al-Zoubi’s reasons for suicide.

‘I’ve been betrayed’

Three days before al-Zoubi took his life, President Hafez al-Assad invited Khaddam and several other senior leaders to his residence to discuss the former prime minister.

Those present included People’s Assembly Speaker Abdul Kader Kaddoura, Defence Minister Mustafa Tlass, Assistant Secretary-General of the Party’s National Command Abdullah al-Ahmar, and Assistant Regional Secretary of the Party Suleiman Qaddah.

By the time he died, Mahmoud al-Zoubi had fallen spectacularly from grace, accused of embezzlement and expelled from the Ba'ath Party.

"The President, visibly worn, initiated the discussion by expressing his betrayal by Mahmoud al-Zoubi and ordered an investigation and accountability," wrote Khaddam.

"Mahmoud al-Zoubi betrayed me. Investigate him and hold him accountable," Khaddam quotes al-Assad as having declared at the meeting in May 2000.

These notes are Khaddam's personal reflections and have not been independently verified. They nevertheless offer an intriguing insight into the thinking of Syria's leaders.

More than 12 years earlier, in early November 1987, the Ba'ath Party's regional leadership convened at the Republican Palace to discuss a cabinet reshuffle within Dr Abdul Raouf al-Kasm's government. Al-Kasm became prime minister in 1980.

Following the regional conference at the start of that year, the regional command had anticipated the reappointment of former Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Ayoubi to assemble the cabinet.

Khaddam believed al-Ayoubi to be "the best choice among those who had previously held the prime ministership or the newly elected regional command, owing to his integrity".

However, President al-Assad "directly nominated al-Kasm during the first leadership meeting to select a prime minister," wrote Khaddam.

"The nomination surprised us all, but attempts to discuss it were met with President Hafez's decisive statement: 'I see him as competent; there's no need for debate.' And with that, Mahmoud al-Ayoubi's candidacy was closed."

Picture dated 12 December 1998 shows former Syrian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zoubi during a visit to Beirut.

Making mistakes

During the party conference in November 1987, "the regional command atmosphere was mobilised against al-Kasm," recalled Khaddam.

"However, members were convinced that al-Assad wanted to keep him at the top of government. I was among those working to remove him.

"Al-Assad knew the atmosphere in the leadership. As usual, he slapped al-Kasm with severe criticism, only to conclude his remarks with positive comments."

Visibly worn, the president initiated discussion by expressing his betrayal by Mahmoud al-Zoubi, ordering an investigation and accountability.

Khaddam quotes al-Assad as having said: "I am confident that Dr Al-Kasm will change his work methods in a way that will avoid repeating the mistakes that members of the regional command are talking about."

What happened next raised eyebrows.

"At that moment, Dr Al-Kasm asked to speak and addressed his words to President al-Assad, saying, 'Every one of us makes mistakes. I make mistakes just as you make mistakes.'

"Al-Assad's face immediately changed, and he responded violently, saying, 'In fact, you do not deserve to be prime minister, and everything members of the leadership said about you is true. You are not fit for any responsibility.'

"He stopped speaking, and the hall fell silent for a few minutes," Khaddam said. When al-Assad continued his speech, he asked Khaddam to form the next cabinet, something Khaddam declined.

"I answered him immediately, saying that we were in difficult and complex external circumstances and it was not in the public interest for me to leave the Foreign Ministry. In addition, the reasons I declined to form the cabinet in the past still exist."

Al-Assad then asked General Hikmat al-Shehabi, sitting next to Khaddam, what he thought, quickly adding: "The problem is that you have many tasks in the armed forces."

Then al-Assad asked: "Who, then, should the regional command nominate?"

Khaddam recounted the moment of tension. "I and Mr Ezz el-Din Nasser (former trade union chief), who was sitting to my left, were afraid that the president would backtrack and keep Al-Kasm in position, which would be too difficult to bear.

"So, I proposed the Speaker of the Assembly, Mahmoud al-Zoubi. Within minutes, the proposition was confirmed. Al-Zoubi was appointed and formed his government."

Engineering ties

On 1 November 1987, President al-Assad issued a decree appointing al-Zoubi. He was a former agricultural engineer who had entered politics.

Al-Zoubi's premiership would last until 7 March 2000, the longest tenure in modern Syrian history.

While some saw him as unassuming, Khaddam said he was "astute and politically savvy… despite appearances".

Khaddam said al-Zoubi "actively sought President al-Assad's favour" by leveraging his position as a reserve member of the regional command.

"Following leadership meetings, he would regularly approach President al-Assad with an envelope, purportedly containing information on other leaders or ministers, precisely the kind of intelligence President Hafez craved."

Al-Zoubi sought the president's favour by passing him envelopes with information on ministers - the kind of intelligence the president craved.

Al-Zoubi also "cultivated a close relationship" with Basil, al-Assad's son and heir apparent, who died in 1994.

"He frequented Basil's office, readily fulfilling his requests, regardless of their legality, including those pertaining to employment and contracts."

Khaddam said al-Zoubi also "cultivated ties with Muhammad Makhlouf," al-Assad's wealthy brother-in-law, who died in 2020.

"Their daily meetings facilitated access for agents of foreign and local companies seeking lucrative contracts through Makhlouf's influence."

According to Khaddam, al-Zoubi sought to consolidate power by strategically forging alliances with influential figures, including the leaders of popular organisations.

Al-Zoubi leveraged his friendship with Ezz el-Din Nasser, head of the trade union federation, to build a connection with Maj. Gen. Ali Duba, the director of military intelligence. Khaddam says they met in secret in the sauna of the Méridien Hotel.

"Under the guise of sauna sessions, al-Zoubi would meet with both Nasser and Duba. Interestingly, despite these encounters, Maj. Gen. Duba remained openly critical of the government's actions and al-Zoubi's policies."

Comparing leadership

Al-Zoubi's time in office differed significantly from his predecessors in both his conduct and governance, argued Khaddam, who highlighted several key distinctions.

Unlike previous premiers Mahmoud al-Ayoubi and Abdul Rahman Khleifawi, who maintained "dignity" in their interactions with the president, al-Zoubi was "prepared to sacrifice his dignity to gain favour," said Khaddam.

He also was different from Muhammad Ali al-Halabi, who, despite fearing Rifaat al-Assad (President Hafez al-Assad's brother), managed to escape corruption charges.

"Al-Zoubi not only facilitated corruption but practised it," wrote Khaddam. "Finally, in contrast to Dr al-Kasm, who faced criticism for his strong anti-corruption stance, al-Zoubi treated corruption as natural."

Khaddam, who served as vice president during al-Zoubi's premiership, paints a bleak picture of that era, which featured economic decline, rising unemployment, and a deterioration in overall conditions.

Al-Zoubi not only facilitated corruption but practiced it… he treated corruption as natural.

Former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam

"Corruption spread through state institutions and agencies, including the judiciary and higher education. Responsibility in all government positions almost disappeared."

Khaddam recounted a 1989 meeting with President al-Assad where he raised concerns about Lebanon and Syria's internal situation. Khaddam, who had taken charge of the Lebanese file, focused the meeting on "corruption within the authority".

Despite Khaddam presenting complaints regarding al-Zoubi's pressure to approve illegal activities, President al-Assad dismissed the concerns.

"Where do you get this information from?" he asked Khaddam. "The reality is different. Things are good, but some want to disturb the system."

Khaddam replied that he got it "from ministers complaining about al-Zoubi's pressure for them to pass illegalities".

Hariri's reforms

In 1991, the late reforming Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri met Khaddam to discuss Lebanon's situation. During their conversation, Hariri asked about Syria.

"Why does the Syrian government not implement reforms to correct the economic imbalance? May I offer my assistance in this regard and propose to assemble a team of experts to analyse the Syrian economy and propose solutions?"

Khaddam told Hariri that this would need al-Assad's approval, since Hariri's experts would need to be given access to sensitive information, but promised to raise this with the Syrian president when they met.

When he did, Hafez sanctioned the proposal, telling al-Zoubi to assist the experts in their task. After more than a year's study, the team concluded their research and produced a comprehensive five-part report.

"This document meticulously examined all economic sectors, offering strategies for their advancement and restructuring, all while adhering to the overarching objectives of the government's economic policies," recollected Khaddam.

Despite the suggested changes, "it cautiously avoided changes that might challenge the foundational aspects of the regime's economic doctrine".

Hariri delivered a segment of the report to Khaddam and dispatched a substantial portion to the presidential office. "It was indeed an unbiased assessment that could have arrested the economic downturn and revitalised the economy," said Khaddam.

"Unfortunately, the report—despite its $3mn production cost—remained unread. This neglect reveals a pronounced lack of accountability and highlights widespread ignorance concerning national affairs."

Airbus contract

Al-Zoubi cultivated ties with the president's son, Dr Bashar al-Assad, in the years before he assumed power after the death of his father.

Among the noteworthy transactions during this period were negotiations for the purchase of Airbus aircraft, which attracted significant public interest.

To oversee these negotiations and the subsequent contract, a committee was formed.

As prime minister, al-Zoubi formed the committee and chaired it with Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Salim Yassin and the director of Syrian Airlines. Inexplicably, Transport Minister Dr Mufid Abdel Karim was not included.

The negotiations culminated in an agreement, which al-Zoubi introduced at a Council of Ministers meeting, during which Karim criticised the deal extensively, highlighting its various shortcomings and vulnerabilities.

Yassin also voiced significant concerns regarding the contract, despite having been on the committee to oversee it.

Nevertheless, according to Khaddam, "the Council ratified the contract after al-Zoubi implied that President al-Assad had reviewed and endorsed it".

Al-Assad promised to intervene with al-Zoubi, but then Khaddam discovered that the contract was already being implemented despite the concerns. Shortly after, al-Zoubi killed himself.

Khaddam further revealed that Dr Yassin approached him with concerns about the Airbus contract. Yassin believed that al-Zoubi was pushing forward with it despite it possibly being financially harmful to the Syrian state.

Khaddam advised Yassin to speak to the president, which he did the following day. Karim also submitted a detailed critique.

The president promised to intervene with al-Zoubi, but then Khaddam discovered that the contract was already being implemented despite the concerns.

Shortly after al-Zoubi killed himself, Yassin and Karim found themselves under arrest. They faced a staggering fine, surpassing even the value of the aircraft, plus 15 years in prison each.

Run-up to suicide

Days before al-Zoubi's demise, Khaddam recalled attending the pivotal meeting convened by al-Assad, together with Abdullah al-Ahmar, Suleiman Qaddah, Abdul Qadir Qaddoura, and Mustafa Tlass.

The president was ill and died a month later. "The pall of mortality was unmistakably etched on his visage," wrote Khaddam.

"He commenced the dialogue with a solemn declaration that 'Mahmoud al-Zoubi has betrayed my trust. Proceed to investigate and ensure accountability.'

"Directing his gaze towards me, he validated my prior apprehensions, stating, 'All your observations regarding him and his governance have been corroborated.'"

Khaddam said al-Assad did not specify how al-Zoubi had betrayed him, which led those present to assume it involved a significant bribery scandal.

Qaddah told al-Assad that they would expel al-Zoubi from the party," as Khaddam recalled "a collective resolve" to do so as they left the meeting.

"The following day, Qaddah convened us at the regional leadership headquarters of the Ba'ath Party to deliberate on 'a matter of grave importance.' Present was al-Zoubi, but Qaddah asked him to leave the room, as the discussion was pertinent to him.

"As he went to leave, he asked me: 'What's going on?' I told him that the matter pertained to him. 'Post-session, you shall be summoned, and Assistant Secretary Qaddah will elucidate the leadership's verdict and rationale.'"

Al-Assad did not specify how al-Zoubi had betrayed him, which led those present to assume it involved a significant bribery scandal.

Qaddah then outlined the allegations of corruption and advocated for al-Zoubi's expulsion from the party and investigation. The Regional Command escalated it to the National Command (Pan-Arab), which had the power to do so.

At the end of the meeting, al-Zoubi was called back in. Qaddah relayed the decision. "He was visibly shocked, repeatedly asking, 'What have I done?'" wrote Khaddam.

As they left, al-Zoubi again sought out Khaddam, asking: "What did I do?" Khaddam said his response was forthright.

"You have been summoned for an investigation, and the investigator will brief you on the allegations. Defend yourself, and should these issues implicate others, be upfront with what you know."

Desperate measures

According to Khaddam, al-Zoubi then said: "If they summon me for the investigation, I will take my own life." Khaddam wrote that he did not feel this was a true threat and replied: "Why contemplate suicide if you are innocent?"

Khaddam further wrote that at 2 pm that day, "al-Zoubi reached out to me, pleading, 'Please, Abu Jamal, convey to the president my intent to commit suicide should I face investigation.'"

Khaddam said he reiterated his earlier advice, "to which he echoed his grim resolve, but my response was stark, that 'committing suicide will not vindicate you if you are unseen in death'".

Soon, it became apparent to Khaddam that al-Zoubi had said much the same thing to General Hikmat al-Shihabi, the Army's Chief of Staff.

"It mirrored his plea to inform the president of his suicidal intent if investigated," wrote Khaddam. "Al-Shihabi's advice to al-Zoubi was identical to mine, reflecting a sombre echo of our shared disbelief."

After he was expelled from the Ba'ath Party, the secret service personnel who had guarded al-Zoubi's residence and provided him with transport were promptly removed.

Al-Zoubi reached out to me, pleading to convey to the president my intent to commit suicide should I face investigation.

Former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam

Al-Zoubi contacted General al-Shihabi's son Haitham, who owned a prominent car dealership.

Haitham personally delivered a vehicle to al-Zoubi's home to finalise the purchase, but al-Zoubi lacked the full amount, so Haitham accepted only partial payment.

The following day, the chief of Damascus Police arrived at al-Zoubi's home with two officers to escort him for questioning.

Informed of their intention, al-Zoubi went up to the second floor, where he took his own life with a gunshot wound to the head.

Betrayal revealed

What was this 'betrayal' that al-Assad had referred to? In his private papers, Khaddam revealed what many had not known: that it was a grave act of deception by al-Zoubi.

"I learned later that al-Zoubi had committed forgery by imitating President Hafez al-Assad's signature to illicitly withdraw $65mn from the state's reserves," he wrote.

"Astonishingly, these reserves, valued at $12bn, were registered under President Hafez al-Assad's personal name, an aspect no-one anticipated could be compromised."

Khaddam said al-Assad was shocked to receive a document indicating the $65mn withdrawal made abroad under his name. "This startled him, prompting a request for the transfer records from the bank.

"A copy of the transfer request was obtained and scrutinised, confirming that the signature had been falsified. Further inquiry with the bank identified Mahmoud al-Zoubi as the recipient of the transferred funds.

"Enraged by this discovery, President Hafez instructed a senior security official to confront al-Zoubi with an ultimatum: return the stolen funds or face execution.

"The funds were subsequently returned to the bank, effectively closing this tumultuous chapter of Mahmoud al-Zoubi's administration."

Corrective measures

When al-Zoubi took his life, he was no longer in office. In early March 2000, an unexpected meeting of the regional command was convened. The announcement that President al-Assad would be in attendance stirred anticipation.

"We made our way to the meeting room, and then the president entered, visibly frail, his complexion pallid, and his speech faltering as he began to address us," wrote Khaddam.

"The president said: 'I have decided to initiate a corrective movement due to the dire state of the government and the country at large.'"

Al-Assad was shocked to receive a document indicating a $65mn withdrawal had been made abroad under his name.

In a moment of candour, Khaddam leaned towards al-Assad, reminding him that "we have been asserting for a while that the nation is in dire need of a corrective movement", invoking the memory of the coup led by al-Assad in November 1970.

Al-Assad's response was terse. "Abu Jamal, the corrective movement I intend to implement is distinct from what you envision."

Khaddam replied, asking: "Didn't we address this matter in December 1999 and establish our agreement?" But he was told by a colleague not to contest the point with the president, who was "weary". Khaddam said he heeded this advice.

President al-Assad told the meeting that "we will institute a change in government", before momentarily forgetting the name of his new prime minister.

He asked Qaddah, who replied that it was Muhammad Mustafa Mero, the then-governor of Aleppo. This disclosure elicited surprise. Two weeks earlier, the regional command had dismissed Mero from his post and initiated his retirement.

Several other ministerial names were put forward, but no-one from the leadership engaged in further discussion. Consequently, al-Zoubi's government was concluded.

He spent his remaining days as a member of the regional command, until his death on  21 May 2000. Weeks later, President al-Assad also died, passing the crown to his son.

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