February 13, 2007

The Fiercest Liberal in Lebanon

BEIRUT – I met the wizened Druze warlord and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt during Hezbollah’s ongoing slow-motion putsch to topple Lebanon’s government. No other high-profile “March 14” leader matches Jumblatt’s fierce opposition to Syria’s Assad regime, its Iranian patron, and its Hezbollah proxy militia. He spends most of his time in his castle at Mukhtara high above Beirut in the Chouf mountains, but he took time out between meeting members of the Socialist International at his house in the capital to meet me for coffee in his salon.

Jumblatt’s history with the imperial Baath government is a long and twisting one. His father Kamal was assassinated by Syrian agents during the civil war in 1977. The details of the assassination are shrouded in mystery even today. In the most common version Baath-aligned terrorists in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party pulled the trigger. Another (unreliable) version of the story goes like this, as told to me by a young Druze friend while we stood on the murder site in the Chouf: Kamal Jumblatt was ambushed on the forested road by two Palestinian gunmen. The Palestinian hit men reported to Damascus after the deed was finished. Two Syrian exterminators then shot Assad’s Palestinian agents and buried them in the desert. The two Syrian hit men were then murdered by yet two more Syrian hit men, all the better to cover the tracks of original and cover-up crimes.

I don’t know what actually happened. Syria’s decades-long assassination and terrorist war in and against Lebanon has always been fought, serial killer style, from the shadows. Diabolical theories about the precise methods of Syrian terrorism serve Syrian interests just as much as the murders themselves serve Syrian interests.

Shortly after inheriting his father’s leadership position, Walid Jumblatt was summoned to Damascus by its ruthless ruler Hafez Assad. When he meekly objected to what the Syrian regime expected of him, Assad smiled and lovingly said “You know, Walid, I look at you sitting there and you remind me exactly of your dear father.”

Hafez Assad Black and White.jpg
Former Syrian dictator Hafez Assad

A Lebanese friend drove me to his house and warned me that security would be tight at the gate. “The Syrians, Michael, if they catch him they will cut off his head.”

Sure enough Jumblatt’s security agents leapt from their plastic chairs and aggressively approached me at the entrance. They weren’t hostile, as Hezbollah’s security agents often are, but they moved fast as though they expected I might draw a weapon and open fire at any moment.

My bulky Nikon D-200 hung around my neck from its strap.

“Turn on the flash,” said the lead security agent. “Then point your camera at the ground and take a picture.”

I did.

Security Photo Outside Jumblatt House.jpg

Then I flashed him my passport. The security guys seemed satisfied. My nationality probably made things a bit easier. The Syrians would have a hard time finding an American willing to assassinate a popular pro-American member of Lebanon’s parliament.

European members of the Socialist International were leaving Jumblatt’s house as I arrived. He wore a dark suit and waited for me in the shadows of late Winter evening on the side of the path leading up to the house. He greeted me coolly, professionally, and a little bit tiredly, as though he had spent most of the day meeting someone or other and would rather put his feet up and knock back a drink after an exhausting day. Lebanese politics are dangerous and stressful enough when things are calm. The Hezbollah crisis had barely let up since July when Jumblatt told the Wall Street Journal that he saw “darkness everywhere.”

He led me into the house. I asked if I could take a quick picture.

“Of course,” he said and stood next to a portrait of himself in his younger days when he was still on the radical left, before he became a Lebanese version of a neoconservative.

Walid Jumblatt Beirut House.jpg

None of the labels I affix to Jumblatt completely apply. He belongs to the Socialist International, but his economic policies are no longer related in any meaningful way to the ideas of Karl Marx. He is sort of a neoconservative insofar as he hails from the left yet credits regime-change in Iraq with Lebanon’s national interest. He goes even further than American neoconservatives, though, and calls for regime-change in Syria. He’s a liberal in the general sense of the word, especially by Middle Eastern standards, yet he’s also a feudal warlord and former militia leader who lives in an ancestral castle.

Progressive Socialist Party Flag.jpg
Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party Flag

“What do you think Hassan Nasrallah wants most right now?” I said. “Does he want power in Lebanon, war with Israel, or is he working on behalf of the Syrians?”

“Hassan Nasrallah is the representative officially of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei,” he said. “Khamenei has declared that he wants to overthrow the actual government and to replace it. Syria is becoming a satellite of Iran. They want to use Lebanon as a battleground or as a bargaining card. This is what they have done in the summer time, when they declared the war, when Nasrallah declared the war against Israelis. They want to make Lebanon a satellite of Iran and Syria.”

“Do you think Hezbollah will ever disarm peacefully,” I said, “or will it require force?”

“Nobody in Lebanon said or believed it was possible to disarm Hezbollah by force,” he said. “But nobody else also…as a Lebanese I don’t accept a state within a state. We have a state within a state. And a separate army, the Hezbollah army, next to the official army. Their intelligence is stronger than our intelligence. They control part of Lebanon without the possibility of the Lebanese state to enter it and enforce law and order. That’s the situation.”

“So what do you think the solution is?” I said.

“The solution is not in Lebanon,” he said. “The solution is in Tehran.”

As far as I know Walid Jumblatt has never called for regime-change in Iran, nor do I think that’s what he’s saying today. He is right either way, though, that the solution to Hezbollah is not inside Lebanon. Hezbollah is the Lebanese franchise and creation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Israel damaged and partly disarmed Hezbollah last summer, but Hezbollah has reacquired all their lost missiles and arms from Iran via Syria. As long as some Lebanese allow themselves to be used as Iranian proxies, Hezbollah will continue to exist until the Iranian regime ceases to exist or is contained. The Lebanese army can’t be expected to take on the Iranians and the Syrians any more than tiny Kuwait could liberate itself from Iraq in 1990.

“The solution is in Tehran,” he said again. “In the summer time they launched a kind of pre-emptive war against the Americans and the Israelis and we had to suffer as Lebanese a struggle which we don’t have anything to do with. In summer time we were expecting two million tourists. Nobody came. Now downtown is closed, hotels are closed, nobody’s coming from the Arab world, no tourists, that’s it. It’s not only the political implication, the economic implication of Iranian policy through the Syrian regime in Lebanon.”

“Do you think UNIFIL is effective?” UNIFL is the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon which lacks the authorization to disarm Hezbollah by force.

“I think if they can,” he said, “if they are able – Nasrallah and company – if they are able to overthrow the actual government by any means, I think it means reducing the impact of UNIFIL. Because they want the South as a free zone for them. They don’t want to reinforce UNIFIL with the Lebanese army. They want the South as it used to be, under their total control at any time to be used for their own purpose, and their own purpose depends on the will of the Iranians. The Iranians, to prevent pressures on their nuclear facility, are using Lebanon.”

“Do you know about the Iraq Study Group in the United States headed by James Baker?”

“Yes,” he said.

Former Secretary of State James Baker is widely detested in Lebanon because he green-lighted the Syrian occupation in exchange for Syria’s “help” in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Baker hails from the school of amoral right-wing “realism,” but even he today recognizes Syria cannot be allowed to return to Lebanon.

“What do you think about their proposals right now?” I said.

“It’s excellent because it calls for the cooperation of the Syrians in the international tribunal for the assassination of Hariri and the others,” he said. “And to stop the flow of weapons and ammunition and terrorists coming in from Syria to Lebanon, for Hezbollah mainly – which is excellent – and to respect Lebanon’s international resolutions starting with 1559 and then 1701. I’m speaking about the Lebanese aspect, it is good. The Iraqi aspect I haven’t elaborated on.”

“Why do you suppose Bashar al-Assad is so afraid of the Hariri tribunal?” I said. “Everybody already knows he’s guilty.”

Bashar Assad in Sunglasses.jpg
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad

The main reason Syria wants a new Lebanese government is so Beirut will not authorize a United Nations trial for the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah has fought the creation of the anti-terrorist tribunal since the idea was floated.

“Because they killed Hariri,” he said. “If [Assad] wasn’t that nervous and if he wasn’t enhancing his people – Nasrallah and others – to block the process of the tribunal…it means that he’s guilty.”

“Right,” I said. “But we all know he’s guilty anyway.”

“Yes, okay,” he said. “But I mean blocking the tribunal will delay his indictments.”

What most frightens Assad is that an international conviction against him and his government might authorize an American-led regime-change campaign in Damascus. Few Americans actually want that, though, mostly because of what is happening right now in Iraq. Assad’s role in Iraq’s destabilization is an effective life-insurance policy.

“Do you think if the Assad regime is removed by force,” I said, “that Syria would have the same kind of problems Iraq has?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “They don’t have the same problem like Iraq. They don’t have an ethnic problem in Syria. Not all the Syrians are Muslim Brotherhood. You have the Muslim Brotherhood, you have the Arabs, you have the Turks, you have Turkmens, you have the Kurds. I think Syria is a different phenomenon than Iraq. And you have also the army. Syria of course is now robbed, is captured, is kidnapped by Bashar and his clique.”

I suspect Jumblatt is wrong about Syria. There is a Sunni majority in Syria, but somewhere around ten percent are Christians, ten percent are Alawites, and another ten percent are Kurds. Syria is relatively homogenous compared with Lebanon and Iraq, but it’s still a tangled ethnic and sectarian mess ruled by the (heretical according to Muslims) Alawite religious minority.

My guess is Jumblatt is trying to downplay fears of a post-Assad Syria in order to increase support for regime-change in Syria which without a doubt would benefit Lebanon. But it’s hard to say. Everything Walid Jumblatt says is carefully calibrated for public consumption in several countries at once, including Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. He is not always easy to read, and I don’t recommend taking everything he says at face value.

“Does the Shebba Farms really belong to Lebanon,” I said, “or is this a Syrian ploy?”

The Shebba Farms is a tiny area occupied by Israel that is recognized by the United Nations as Syrian land, as a part of the Golan Heights. But Hezbollah claims the Shebba Farms are Lebanese as a justification for their violent “resistance.”

It is a Hezbollah ploy. When Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah didn’t raise the issue of the Shebba Farms until after the United Nations approved Israel’s full withdrawal. Hezbollah requires some outstanding issue between Israel and Lebanon, legitimate or manufactured, as an excuse to exist as a state-within-a-state and an illegal warmongering militia.

The same goes with the Syrians. Totalitarian rule based on the “Emergency Law” is supposedly necessary because of the unending war with Israel to retrieve the Golan. Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory knocks out the supports from underneath terrorist and Arab dictatorship propaganda. Assad can’t have it, and neither can Hezbollah. There always has to be more to demand.

“Officially speaking [Shebba Farms] doesn’t belong to Lebanon,” Jumblatt said. “It’s up to the Syrian government to acknowledge officially that Shebba Farms is Lebanese, to sign with the Lebanese government a document. This document should be sent later on to the United Nations. In such a case Shebba Farms would be Lebanese. But Shebba Farms is not Lebanese.”

Jumblatt is something of a radical, but he is not on the fringe of Lebanon’s politics. He occupies Lebanon’s radical center, which is why his answers to questions like these are important. He is a one-man public opinion barometer.

The Druze are always centrists of sorts. They are a minority in every country in which they reside. There is no Druzistan anywhere and probably never will be. They have learned over time that it’s safest to be weathervanes and join the mainstream wherever they live to avoid persecution. When the fervor of Arab Nationalism swept Lebanon, the Druze became Arab Nationalists. When Lebanon was forced to be pro-Syrian, the Druze were pro-Syrian. Since March 14, 2005, the Druze have been the most solidly pro-American and staunchly anti-Syrian group in the country. If Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah were the strong horse he’s portrayed to be, you could bet your bottom dollar Walid Jumblatt would be his friend. Instead he accuses Nasrallah of having a hand in the car-bombing assassinations of Lebanese politicians and journalists.

“Do you think Bashar al-Assad wants the Golan Heights back,” I said,
“or is it more convenient for him…”

“It’s more convenient for him if it stay like this,” he said.

Of course because, like I said, the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights is the foundation of totalitarian rule in Damascus.

“From 1974 the Golan Heights were under the process of disengagement treaty,” Jumblatt continued. “Part of it with Syria and the other part of it with Israel. But not a single bullet. And he just wanted…they kept it like this. And they used Lebanon as a pretext for the so-called propaganda, saying we want to fight the Israelis, but they were always fighting in Lebanon. Removing the pretext of Shebba Farms and removing the Golan as proposed by the Baker approach, I mean having the Golan demilitarized or even having US forces there, will remove all the pretext of the Syrian regime for their propaganda.”

“Who do you think won the war in July?” I said.

“We paid as Lebanese a heavy toll,” he said, “an economic toll and a civilian toll, okay? Of course we have to say, acknowledge, that the fighters of Hezbollah did well. Okay? It’s a brigade, an Iranian brigade fighting in the South of Lebanon. But it’s not Lebanon that won the war. Israelis did not win the war, but they destroyed our country.”

“Which country is more dangerous to Lebanon?” I said. “Israel or Syria?”

“Both together,” he said and laughed. “Israel and the Syrian regime, okay?”

Most Lebanese I know insist Syria is the greater enemy, but saying they are both equally dangerous is, I suppose, the “centrist” position in Lebanon.

“What do you think Israel should have done differently in July after Hezbollah kidnapped their soldiers?” I said.

“I think they, Hezbollah, started the war to avoid the basic issue, which is the tribunal,” he said. “I think so. Although the Seniora government supported Hezbollah, politically speaking, and refused a Chapter 7 version of 1701…a week later Nasrallah declared in his interview with Al Jazeera that he started the process of stopping the government. He said it’s time for a government of national unity. And from that time on Seniora and myself and Saad Hariri and others [have been] considered traitors and were….this whole propaganda about how we were helping or giving information to the Israelis. All this came from Tehran.”

Always the cautious politician with a multinational audience in mind, he did not answer my question. What should the Israelis have done? Huge numbers of Lebanese say the Israelis should have bombed Syria. But Jumblatt is a Member of Parliament and has to be careful. It’s one thing to say the Americans should bomb Syria, but another thing to say the dreaded “Zionist Entity” should have done it.

“Can you explain to an American audience,” I said, “what Lebanese mean when they say Lebanon will be the last country to make peace with Israel?”

“Because Lebanon is a composition of various confessions and communities,” he said. “We are suffering from a huge and quite important Palestinian Diaspora, maybe 200,000 or 300,000 Palestinians here. And we have an aggressive neighbor called Syria. It’s safer for us when the Syrians sign a peace with Israel for us to sign a peace with Israel. That’s it. We cannot ask to sign a peace unilaterally without having the Syrians first signing the peace.”

“What can the United States do to improve its image in Lebanon?” I said.

“The United States did a lot helping Lebanon,” he said. “The West, with France, with Chirac, the United States in 2005 thanks to the administration got the Syrians officially out of Lebanon. Thanks to this administration and the West we got so many important resolutions from, of course, from 1559 until the latest one 1701. Of course United Nations resolutions are good, but faced with rogue states like Syria, something else. Faced with pirates like the Syrian regime, something else. The image of the United States is bad in the Arab world because of the question of Palestine. In Lebanon the image of the United States is good among part of the population.”

“During the July War you said the Lebanese government was in danger of becoming weak like the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq,” I said.

“What I predicted is now a fact,” he said. “The Lebanese government included the ministers of Hezbollah who have resigned. The Lebanese government, after all, is a coalition between us and the others. But we have to specify, who are the others? It’s not like a coalition in a normal state where you have a coalition with other partners. Here we have a coalition between the official state and the other state. We have a parallel state. So we are not speaking with somebody else who is at the same table with equal terms. This somebody is else is aiming a rocket at our heads. Not only guns, rockets.” He laughed darkly. Lebanese do that a lot.

“Do you think the international community, including the US and France, is doing enough to help the Lebanese government?” I said.

“They have done a lot,” he said. “But of course now Lebanon is part of this regional struggle from one side – Russia, Iran, and Syria – and from the other side – America, the West, and us. We are unlucky. It’s like Poland in 1940 or 1939, divided between the Russians and the Germans.”

“How likely is another civil war in Lebanon?” I said.

“The only army or militia which has terrific weapons and is well organized is Hezbollah,” he said. “But if they want establish their rule over the entire country it would lead to sectarian strife. This is why we say always it is better to engage in a dialogue. Again, though, a dialogue with whom? I mean, it’s not a local dialogue. We are speaking to a foreign power.”

The Druze are mainstream as much as anyone can be in a polarized country like Lebanon that is torn in two and dominated, in part, by foreign dictatorships. At the same time, though, they have a radical streak that scares the hell out of their enemies and even sometimes their friends. And old saw in Lebanon says you should “eat with the Druze, but sleep with the Christians.”

Chouf Mountains Valley.jpg
The Chouf mountains, homeland of the Druze

If Lebanon does descend into sectarian strife, as Jumblatt warned in might, Hezbollah will seriously have to reckon with the Druze despite their small numbers (around 200,000 out of four million.) Ask anyone who fought in Lebanon’s civil war who scared them the most. The majority will probably answer “the Druze.” The Druze believe in reincarnation. The Druze feel they have nothing to lose. The Druze don’t want to fight, but when they do they never surrender. These cultural traits cross international boundaries.

Israeli Druze are intensely loyal to the state of Israel despite the fact that they’re “Arabs.” They serve in the Israeli Defense Forces and do rough work in the occupied territories. The Palestinians hate them and say they are traitors.

If Walid Jumblatt orders his community to come down out of the mountains and launch an armed human wave assault on Hezbollah’s dahiyeh, they will do it. They are outgunned and outnumbered by Hezbollah’s base of support, but they’re fierce when they fight and they fight more competently than most Arab fighters. Some Israeli Druze units in Lebanon suffered fewer casualties per capita than their Jewish counterparts, and they may be refashioned as an elite.

“The Bush Administration credits regime-change in Iraq with forcing the Syrians out of Lebanon,” I said. “Do you agree with that analysis?”

I already knew he agreed with that analysis at least in the past, when the Iraq war was going still going “well” – assuming that ever really was true. What I wanted to know is if he still thought so. Jumblatt jumps around a lot ideologically. He rarely stays in one place for too long unless it is safe.

“It's strange for me to say it,” he said when the war in Iraq looked like less of a quagmire than it does now. “But this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world…The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”

Here is what he thinks now: “The Bush Administration did well in Iraq. There was no way to topple Saddam Hussein without invading Iraq. Yes. But there were major mistakes committed when they decided to dismantle the Iraqi army. This was a major mistake which led later on to the actual civil war. It would have been better to keep the Iraqi army, to clean it of criminal elements, and to have a formula for a federated Iraq. Now it’s too late.”

“Do you think the Iraq war is related to Syria leaving Lebanon?” I said. “That if the US did not invade Iraq, would Bashar al-Assad have left Lebanon as quickly…”

“No, no,” he said “Bashar al-Assad wouldn’t have left Lebanon, ever. Bashar al-Assad by imposing [Lebanese President Emile] Lahoud, and when he started the series of Syrian crimes, and mainly when he killed Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese people said no. And we are still saying no. Because, I mean, the murders haven’t stopped. We buried another comrade, Minister and Member of Parliament Pierre Gemayel. Lebanon was very important for the Syrians, mainly for the family, the Assad family. They plundered Lebanon.”

Walid Jumblatt, like most members of Lebanon’s government, acquiesced to Syria’s domination of Lebanon and became “pro-Syrian.” Some Lebanese politicians, Suleiman Franjieh for instance, have been bought by Syrian carrots. Others, like Jumblatt and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, were corralled there by Syrian sticks. Hariri and Jumblatt were always the least convincing “pro-Syrians” of the lot during the occupation.

Bashar Assad knew it, too, and not only because his father thought he had to murder Walid Jumblatt’s father. Shortly before Hariri was assassinated by Syrian death squads, Assad threatened him in Damascus over the illegal extension of Lebanon’s puppet President Emile Lahoud. “Lahoud is me,” Assad said. “If you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon on your head and Jumblatt’s.”

“If the US loses the war in Iraq,” I said, “do you think it will be bad for Lebanon?”

Walid Jumblatt thought for a very long time before he answered that question. I could see his mind working cautiously, calibrating his response as he always does. The fiercest liberal in Lebanon said the following very carefully:

“It would be bad for Lebanon and for the Middle East if the US withdraws from the Middle East. Because we will face a different Arab and Muslim world. It is very strange and ironic that even the pro-Iranians in Iraq are asking the Americans to stay. You could write a theater about it. Making the Americans totally withdraw from the Arab world would be a mistake, would be a disaster for the moderates in the Arab world. The radicals and the Iranians would win.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 13, 2007 12:40 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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