Friday, June 14, 2013

Walid Jumblatt’s high-wire act

The Constitutional Council has been unable to discuss the constitutionality of parliament’s decision to extend its term, because there haven’t been enough members present to form a quorum. Walid Jumblatt, with Hezbollah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, has kept a judge loyal to him away from the sessions, helping block consideration of the extension and guaranteeing that it will stand.

In periods of shifting sands, watch Walid Jumblatt. His siding with Hezbollah and Berri is nothing new. Playing the balance between them and March 14 has been his political strategy since the time of Najib Mikati’s government. But the Druze leader’s maneuvers take on new meaning today as the military balance of power in Syria may be changing to the advantage of President Bashar al-Assad. That is unless the American decision to arm the rebels reverses the tide.

Jumblatt has several different priorities, which he will try to manage simultaneously in the coming months. First, he will do what he can to avert a Sunni-Shiite confrontation in Lebanon. Not only would the regions under his effective control be caught in the middle, but the cost to Lebanon as a whole would be unimaginable.

That is one reason why Jumblatt has insisted that Hezbollah must be part of any new government, and why he supports one that includes all of Lebanon’s major political forces. As he sees it, the government must be a forum to resolve Lebanon’s internal crises, otherwise there is a risk that tensions will spread to the streets.

Second, Jumblatt is prepared to reorient himself in the event of a possible victory by the Assad regime. We’re nowhere near that stage yet, and Jumblatt has not toned down his rhetoric against the repression in Syria. However, he has been forthcoming with Hezbollah, a leading ally of the Syrian leadership, despite their differences over Syria.

Jumblatt has another credible ally protecting him against the Syrians, namely Russia. Ultimately, the Russians realize, the Druze leader would adapt to an Assad victory, and they see no reason to lose a potentially valuable ally in Lebanon, not least when Russian companies are looking closely at Lebanon’s offshore gas reserves. But Russian ambitions transcend commercial affairs. Strong ties with a key figure in the Lebanese political system are important if Russia can save Assad and use that success to rebuild its influence in the Levant.

And third, Jumblatt must maneuver so that any eventual reversal on Syria will not harm his relationship with Saudi Arabia. Until now, the Saudis have tolerated his connection with Hezbollah and have invited him to the kingdom on several occasions, sealing their reconciliation.

Jumblatt needs Saudi aid in order to sustain his power of patronage, so he will have to walk a tightrope if Assad ever succeeds in recapturing more territory. He will have to consider resolving his disagreement with Assad, benefiting from Hezbollah’s and Russia’s sponsorship; and he will strive at the same time to keep privileged lines open to the Saudis, who happen to be Jumblatt’s ticket to shaping Sunni choices at a time when the community is leaderless.

If Jumblatt can juggle this, it would place him in a pivotal position between Saudi Arabia and Assad, and between Russia and the Lebanese political scene. This could open many doors for the Druze leader as he looks ahead. Jumblatt will particularly try to ensure that any leverage he garners allows him to push for an election law that preserves his domination in the mountains, while allowing him to place loyalists on lists in the West Beqaa and Beirut.

But the essential question is what would happen to Lebanon if Assad were to triumph thanks to Russian and Iranian aid? The sway of both countries would rise significantly over Syrian and Lebanese affairs, and Jumblatt knows that this could provoke two reactions: it could heighten Sunni hostility, making the situation more explosive; and it would require that Jumblatt himself adjust to the new reality by bending Hezbollah’s way on issues vital to the party.

If Russian companies ultimately win contracts in the offshore oil and gas sector, Moscow would have a vested interest in maintaining Lebanese stability. At a time when the United States favors shrinking its footprint in the Middle East, many Lebanese would welcome the presence of an outside actor who is listened to in Syria and Iran, and who would endeavor to avert civil conflict. 

Russia has another door through which to enter Lebanon, that of the Christian minorities. With many Christians feeling adrift and in search of a foreign patron willing to protect them, they may welcome a Russia, or an imagined Russia, that speaks on their behalf. In contrast, as Christians look toward the West, all they see is an America generally eager to wash its hands of the Middle East’s problems and a Western Europe destabilized by its economic challenges and not terribly preoccupied by the fate of Arab Christians.

Jumblatt could exploit these trends if they ever came to pass. With his feelers out to all sides, he would be well placed to take from all sides. Jumblatt’s opportunism angers many people, but he often manages to remain standing when others have to regroup from their bad choices.

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