Arab World: The weatherman and the wind

Lebanon’s Walid Jumblatt has transformed from a stalwart of the pro-Western March 14 movement into a supplicant of Damascus. What happened?

April 2, 2010 16:56
 Druse leader Walid Jumblatt speaks during a press

walid jumblatt lebanon druse 311 AP. (photo credit: AP)


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Bob Dylan wrote that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” With great respect to Dylan, however, if you are truly looking to ascertain the direction of the winds in a particular place and time, it doesn’t do any harm to listen to what the most experienced local weatherman is saying and to watch what he’s doing.

The small and dispersed Druse sect has over time developed the most sensitive instruments in these parts for knowing in which direction the winds of political power are blowing. This ability derives from necessity. The Druse strategy for survival has been to spot which trend, leader, country or movement is on the way up, and to ally with it in good time. This explains, for example, the long alliance between the Druse of the Galilee and the Zionist Jews.

It also explains one of the most curious political turnabouts in the last half decade: namely, the transformation of Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt from a stalwart of the pro-democracy, pro-Western March 14 movement into a supplicant of Damascus.

Jumblatt, hereditary Druse warlord and leader of the Progressive Socialist Party in Lebanon, met in Damascus this week with Bashar Assad, hereditary Syrian president. Assad is the son of the man who murdered Jumblatt’s father Kamal, a towering figure in modern Lebanese politics.

The meeting was the first between the two since 2004, when the agitation to end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon began. Jumblatt had apparently been trying for the meeting for some time, with Assad enjoying keeping him dangling, as a local vizier might with a courtier – or a cat with a mouse.

The Syrian news agency SANA reported that the two discussed the “historic and brotherly ties” between Syria and Lebanon, and the importance of enhancing them. Jumblatt, according to SANA, had particular praise for Assad’s efforts to safeguard Lebanon’s “security and stability.” The two also agreed regarding the importance of the role played by the “resistance” (i.e. Hizbullah) in confronting the “schemes” of Israel.

Jumblatt’s company on the trip to Damascus was of note. According to the An-Nahar newspaper, he was escorted not by officials of his own party, but rather by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Hizbullah officials Wafiq Safa and Hussein Khalil. The Shi’ite Islamist group played the key role in mediating between Jumblatt and Assad.

ALL THIS represents an interesting journey for Jumblatt – both in the geographical and in the wider sense. It was he, after all, who previously referred to the Syrian president variously as a “snake,” a “tyrant,” “the one who killed my father” and a “monkey.” With regard to Hizbullah, Jumblatt, in January 2008, called the movement “savage people, not an opposition... declaring war whenever they want, and kidnapping soldiers whenever they want.” He accused Syria of responsibility for a wave of murders of pro-Western political figures following the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005.

Regarding Hizbullah’s desire for veto power in the coalition, Jumblatt said bluntly that “they can take it by force, over our dead bodies, but I will not give up veto power for the sake of Hizbullah, their allies and the Syrian regime.”

Nor did the matter stop at words alone. In the fighting in May 2008, which brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war, it was Jumblatt’s Druse fighters who put up the most impressive resistance to Hizbullah. In the Druse heartland of the Chouf mountains, up to 40 Hizbullah fighters were killed during the clashes.

So what has happened? What has transformed the formerly defiant Jumblatt into the humble, awkwardly apologizing figure emerging from the meeting in Damascus?

The answer is not complex. The Druse weatherman has taken a glance at the sensitive and vital weather vane maintained by his community, and has noticed that it is currently pointing toward Damascus and Teheran.

JUMBLATT TURNED away from Syria and toward the West in 2004, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. For a moment, at that time, Iran and Syria were cowed. Their subject peoples shifted their hopes and their allegiances accordingly. But that moment looks rather remote now. Through a combination of cunning and murderous ruthlessness, Damascus and Teheran have rebuilt their power in Lebanon, in Iraq, among the Palestinians and beyond.

The change started at the top. The current administration in Washington has made clear from the outset that it seeks accommodation with its regional enemies, rather than confrontation with them. This has made its regional enemies happy and dismayed its friends.

Saudi gestures of rapprochement toward Syria last year showed that Riyadh had concluded there was no advantage to be gained from a policy of attempting to block Syrian ambitions. The Saudi-backed March 14 movement, which failed to develop its own “hard power” in Lebanon to match that of Hizbullah, was in effect left helpless – despite its election “victory” in June 2009.

As a result, the Druse chieftain Jumblatt took a long and sober look at his situation. His first concern, of course, is far from the slogans about regional democracy, or Arab nationalism, which he has uttered in the past as part of his alignment with this or that power interest. Jumblatt’s concern is protecting the Druse, and keeping them on their lands. As the May 2008 fighting demonstrated, the Druse in the Chouf face an enemy backed to the hilt by Iran and Syria, while they themselves now have neither reliable ally nor armorer. Without supply lines, with local partners unwilling to fight or incapable of it and with the “international community” indifferent, Jumblatt has made his calculation – and gone to Damascus.

That the most sensitive instrument for the reading of regional trends is currently indicating that Iran and Syria are the people with whom it is worth being friends should be of concern to anyone who cares about the future of the Middle East. It is perhaps the strongest indication yet of where the current Western policy of punishing allies and rewarding enemies is likely to lead.

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