Friday, August 27, 2010

Lebanon’s Russian doll

If Prime Minister Saad Hariri is someone who often seems to be enclosed in a political box – between his allegiance to Saudi Arabia, his newfound closeness to Syria, and the hostility of Hezbollah – Walid Jumblatt is the Russian doll of Lebanese politics, a captive of myriad concentric layers of alliances, dalliances, duties and threats.

The Druze leader provokes much scorn these days from those appalled with the vigor of his about-faces. The man who heaped reptilian metaphors on Bashar al-Assad only a few years ago has become the Syrian president’s most stalwart champion in Beirut. The leader who took charge of the revolt against Syria has been abased to socializing with Syria’s most ignoble order-takers. Like the student in class caught cheating, and who informs on his comrades in order to make things good with the teacher, Jumblatt seems most acerbic, most destructive, when referring to his previous political partners.

This is what you hear, and some of the accusations are difficult to refute. Jumblatt’s twin preoccupations, the defense of his Druze community and the perpetuation of Jumblatt authority over the community, require a considerable amount of humility, and humiliation. But in a system where the rule is every man for himself, or every man for himself and his regional patron, it’s difficult to demand of Jumblatt that he sacrifice all for the greater good of Lebanon, when almost no one else is willing to do so.

And yet the anger with Jumblatt persists, and it persists largely because of his style. Hariri has visited Damascus on several occasions, making his peace with those whom he and his entourage had once accused of being behind the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri. But the prime minister somehow escapes opprobrium, largely because he never went too far, never overstated his case, as did Jumblatt – indeed as Jumblatt needed to do, since the only way the Druze leader could remain relevant was to remain in the political vanguard and drag the system in the directions he chose.

Jumblatt’s latest priority is to push for the scuttling of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. That is no easy task. The Druze leader’s testimony is still with the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, and for Jumblatt to take it back (as may very well be the demand from his handlers in Damascus) would involve explaining why he lied in a signed deposition, which may eventually entail legal sanction.

Politically, the tribunal places Jumblatt in a tight spot. The Syrians want the institution to go away no less than Hezbollah does, but the two appear to differ over timing. To resurrect Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, Damascus needs to impose its will on Hezbollah and take for itself the leading administrative and security posts controlled by the party. Syria’s main tool is an indictment or a lesser tribunal decision that points the finger at Hezbollah. Such an accusation would hand Syria considerable leverage to bargain with the party, and once it gets what it wants by way of Hezbollah concessions, to then push Hariri into ending cooperation with the tribunal.

That is why Syria and Hezbollah, and behind the party Iran, are engaged in an increasingly visible struggle for power in Lebanon (witness the Bourj Abi Haidar incident), and it is why Jumblatt is so alarmed. He’s caught in the middle, and though the Druze leader has made clear that he’s on the side of Damascus (and Saudi Arabia, which pays the bills), he also happens to be most vulnerable when facing Hezbollah, which surrounds his mountains and showed in May 2008 that it could penetrate them militarily when necessary.

Recently, Jumblatt propped himself up by organizing a Druze conference in Lebanon, bringing together his Lebanese coreligionists with those from Israel, Syria and Jordan. The delegation from Israel was given permission to travel via Syria, and Assad allowed Syria’s Druze to attend, even though traditionally the Baath regime has hindered Jumblatti flirtations with its Druze community. Yet Jumblatt somehow managed to earn those two favors. It could be that Assad was partly seeking to bolster Jumblatt’s position with respect to Hezbollah, but you really have to wonder what will be, or already has been, demanded of the Druze leader by way of reimbursement.

Not surprisingly, the Druze conference made Hezbollah and its supporters apoplectic. Ibrahim Amin of the pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar, usually a reliable sounding board for party opinion, was highly critical, particularly of the presence of Israeli Druze. The newspaper has continued to target Jumblatt, and in an article this week it wondered about his true loyalties, asking in a headline: “Is Jumblatt with [the Syria-Saudi axis] or with the Syrian-Iranian alliance?” The article was more an effort to intimidate Jumblatt into selecting the latter, than an attempt to answer the question.

Much of what Jumblatt is doing can be explained by family. If the Druze leader is eating dust on a daily basis, that’s because he needs to set up his eldest son to inherit the Druze leadership, and he cannot do so if the Jumblatts are on bad terms with Syria, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia or whoever else calls the shots in Lebanon. It’s reasonable that many Lebanese don’t sympathize with this ambition, but that’s irrelevant; it is at the heart of Jumblatt’s calculations.

So will Walid Jumblatt ever break out of his multiple boxes? It’s unlikely for now. The arch-survivor is still surviving, but the price is getting steeper and the interest on Jumblatt’s debts dearer.

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