Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2001, Pages 35-36
Letter From the Levant
Syria Loses Its Former Ally in Lebanon, Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt
By Sami Moubayed
For more than two decades, former Lebanese government minister Walid Jumblatt has been a tactical ally of Damascus. As did all of his Lebanese counterparts who chose to continue their careers in post-civil war Lebanon, the Druze leader made it a point from day one to strengthen his ties with Damascus. Otherwise, as everyone knew, his days in Lebanese politics would be numbered. For more than 20 years, therefore, Jumblatt played by the rules of the game—Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad’s game—submitting to the beck and call of the Syrian leadership, building connections in Damascus, and thereby increasing his legitimacy in Beirut.
In November 2000, however, tired of playing the lackey, and longing for a new role in regional affairs, Jumblatt suddenly decided to switch sides and move into Lebanon’s emerging anti-Syrian coalition. In a flash, he fell from grace in Damascus—but, contrary to Syrian expectations, his popularity in Lebanon has skyrocketed.
Walid Jumblatt rose to prominence following the 1977 death of his father, renowned pan-Arab statesman and nationalist Kamal Jumblatt, who once was described as a “Gandhian Socialist.” The traditional chief of Lebanon’s Druze minority, Kamal Jumblatt also was a dedicated socialist and founder of his country’s Socialist Progressive Party. One of the loudest critics of Syria’s 1976 intervention in Lebanon on behalf of the Maronite Christians, the elder Jumblatt called for anti-Christian solidarity and Druze autonomy, never missing a chance to criticize the Syrian military presence.
An ambitious man, Kamal Jumblatt dreamed of smashing the confessional system that barred him, as a Druze, from the presidency, and restricting his position tominister. During his country’s civil war, Jumblatt’s Druze forces fronted for the Palestinian militias, launching attacks against the Maronite Christian leadership, Assad’s allies at the time, and killing off Lebanese Christians. In retaliation, he was shot dead on March 16, 1977 at the gates of his headquarters in the Shouf district.
In accordance with Arab, Druze, and rural customs, Kamal’s son, Walid Jumblatt, succeeded his father as Druze leader. A student of political science at the American University of Beirut, and husband of Syria’s former Defense Minister Ahmad Al-Sharabati, in his early years Walid Jumblatt had been reknowned as a playboy, a successful businessman, and a popular social figure—everything but an ambitious politician. In every sense, then, the position of zai’im, or leader in Arabic, was imposed on him.
In an attempt to counter Kamal’s anti-Syrian fervor, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad took the young Jumblatt under his wing, determined to mold the new Lebanese Druze leader into a dedicated Syrian loyalist. Whenever Walid Jumblatt would question Assad’s policy or seem reluctant to follow an order, the Syrian leader would smile and say, “How closely you resemble your father...he used to pay me visits just like you, sit in the same chair and, just like now, we would argue over matters.” The message was crystal clear to Jumblatt: either he remain in Assad’s orbit or meet his father’s fate.
Rallying to the same slogans of pan-Arabism, socialism and anti-Israel rhetoric, Jumblatt and Assad eventually became allies. Although many accused Assad of being behind Kamal Jumblatt’s murder, Walid himself never brought up the matter. Indeed, to the contrary, he tried to avoid the subject in every interview or confrontation. Whenever he was asked about his father’s relations with Assad, Jumblatt would respond that he did not remember. When pressured further, he would reply, “My father was badly advised.”
When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, Walid Jumblatt had the opportunity of siding with Gen. Ariel Sharon’s forces against the Syrian army. He declined to do so, however, for ideological reasons. This pleased Damascus politicians, who thenceforth granted Jumblatt VIP status, providing him direct access to President Assad, consolidating his position as the sole Druze chief, and appointing him minister of the displaced in the post-civil war period.
When Jumblatt’s relations with President Emile Lahoud plummeted in 1998, Syrian authorities saw to it that the Druze leader was unharmed, and ordered Lebanon’smedia decision-makers to refrain from insulting Jumblatt in any way. A frequent visitor to the presidential palace in Damascus, he earned the name “Syria’s Number One Man.” He eventually became an ally of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who sympathizes with Syria, and snuggled up to Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam. Then, in June 2000, Hafez al-Assad died, and the Lebanese political scene changed forever.
Seeking to maneuver out of Assad’s dominant influence, Jumblatt finally had the chance to flex his muscle. His first provocative remarks came when his friend and ally, Syrian chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi, was charged with misuse of public office, embezzlement and corruption. As Shihabi was forced to make a secret flight to Los Angeles via Beirut in order to avoid trial, Jumblatt issued a formal statement defending the ex-officer, advising Damascus to rethink its moves and preserve “nationalistic and patriotic figures like Hikmat Shihabi.” This annoyed the Assad family, which, however, issued no response to Jumblatt’s statement. Shortly afterward, Jumblatt mollified Damascus by attending Assad’s funeral and issuing statements of support for Syria’s new president, Bashar Al-Assad.
Syria did not interfere in Lebanon’s September 2000 parliamentary elections, and for the first time in his career, Jumblatt was on his own. He discovered that paying a complimentary visit to Damascus on the eve of the elections was not enough to garner Syrian support for his candidacy. To Jumblatt’s surprise, however, even without Syrian help he won an overwhelming and unprecedented victory—not only among his co-religionists, but among all Lebanese as well. His victory taught Walid Jumblatt that family roots, traditional ties, the patron-client system, and his father’s reputation could do him more good than 24 years of Syrian patronage. Unlike other pro-Syrian statesmen, who were dead in the water politically the moment they fell from grace in Damascus, Jumblatt experienced a political “rebirth.”
October 2000 brought a wave of anti-Syrian demonstrations throughout Lebanon. Freed from Hafez Al-Assad’s grip, and with the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, the Lebanese simply blurted out that they no longer wanted Syrian troops on their soil. Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutrous Sfeir issued a statement supporting this demand and asked for the redeployment of Syrian troops. To everyone’s surprise, rather than defending the Syrian position, as President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Hariri, and Master Speaker Nabih Berri rushed to do, Jumblatt addressed the Lebanese parliament on Nov. 3 and echoed Sfeir’s demand, asking Syria to reconsider its military presence in Lebanon.
Syria’s Druze Uprising
Immediately on the heels of Jumblatt’s parliamentary address came the Druze uprising in Syria. On Nov. 5, members of the Druze community in the Arab Mountain district clashed with wandering Bedouin who had set up camp in Druze plantations. The Bedouin had been chased away, and their caravans burned down. In retaliation the Bedouin, using firearms, attacked the Druze by night, killing three and injuring more than 50. Seeking to protect the Syrian Druze as his father had protected them in their 1953 battle with the Shishakli regime, Walid Jumblatt began preparing for a visit to the Arab Mountain. This was the last straw for Syrian authorities in Syria. For Jumblatt to maneuver in Lebanese politics without Syrian consent was one thing, but to interfere in Syrian affairs was another.
On Nov. 7 the Syrian government declared that Walid Jumblatt, its former ally in Lebanon, no longer would be accorded VIP status. Jumblatt could visit Syria like any other citizen, Damascus said, but he should not expect any red-carpet treatment. The regulation was expanded to include Jumblatt’s closest aides, members of his Socialist Progressive Party, and his “Democratic Coalition” in parliament.
News of Jumblatt’s banishment caused an uproar in Lebanese political circles. The Druze naturally rallied around their leader, flocking by the thousands to his castle in the Mukhtara to affirm his leadership and echo his demand for Syrian troop redeployment. Ironically, the Maronites, traditional enemies of the Jumblatt clan, also supported his move, with Patriarch Sfeir issuing a decree backing Jumblatt’s words and defending him as a Lebanese nationalist.
Pro-Syrian statesmen, however, frowned at theseremarks. In parliament, Lebanese Baath Party Secretary-General Assem Kanso, a patron of the Syrian leadership, criticized Jumblatt sharply, threatened to kill him, and questioned how anyone in his right mind could “join the scramble of hatred against big sister Syria and Arabism.” Going even further, Kanso accused Jumblatt of being an agent of the Jews and a symbol of Zionism.
Jumblatt himself made no public statement on the controversy. His associates and allies, however, insisted he did not want to ruin his relations with Syria and, in fact, wanted to turn over a new leaf with the Bashar Al-Assad regime based on equality and respect. To demonstrate his goodwill, Jumblatt instructed his ally Ghazi al-Aaridi, Lebanon’s minister of information, to write a column in the Syrian newspaper al-Baath commemorating the 30th anniversary of Hafez Al-Assad’s coup d’état. The following day, Nov. 17, the Paris-based Lebanese magazine al-Watan al-Arabi, reknowned for its inaccuracy, ran an article claiming someone was out to kill Walid Jumblatt and hinting that it might be Kanso and his cronies. While members of his party hurried to refute the story, stepping up their pro-Syrian propaganda, Jumblatt remained silent.
The Jumblatt case is even more interesting because of its historical context. For years, many of his father’s loyalists had frowned upon Walid for working with Syria. In the early 1980s, they scoffed at his leadership, claiming he could not possibly lead the Druze community for long. The past 20 years, however, proved otherwise, for, with Syria’s help, Jumblatt was able to rise above all his enemies and reach the highest positions available to a Druze in the Lebanese confessional system. He defeated his Druze rival, Prince Talal Arslan, secured a ministerial post, and established himself as a respectable politician. There is no question that Jumblatt profited from Syria’s endorsement.
Today, Jumblatt has transcended his limited role as a Druze leader and established himself as a pan-Lebanese nationalist. To be perceived as a puppet of Syria today would be a setback for his reputation rather than an asset. By becoming a defector from Syrian patronage, Jumblatt runs the risk of complete destruction if the Syrians remain in Lebanon. Should they leave, however, he would achieve an unprecedented status—exceeding that of Kamal Jumblatt himself.
Given the rigid Lebanese political system of “pass/fail,” Jumblatt’s options are few. He might join Michel Aoun in exile, Samir Geagea in jail or, even worse, his father, Kamal Jumblatt, in the afterlife. Or he may end up as a minister in the post-Syrian era—if such an era ever comes to pass.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst who divides his time between Damascus and Beirut.