U-turn puts Hezbollah in the driving seat

Posted in Broader Middle East | 06-Aug-09 | Author: Sami Moubayed| Source: Asia Times

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt

DAMASCUS - Those who rejoiced at the election results in Lebanon on June 7 had a big surprise this week, as the tables seemed to turn on the pro-Western coalition in favor of the Hezbollah-led opposition, and Damascus.

During the elections, the March 14 Coalition, which is close to the United States and France, won 71 seats in parliament, while the opposition, backed by Syria and Iran, came out with 57, maintaining the minority they had held since 2005. On August 2, however, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party in Lebanon and one of the March 14 heavyweights, sent shockwaves throughout Beirut by announcing that his alliance with March 14 had been "driven by necessity and must end".

Speaking at the opening of a party assembly at the Beaurivage Hotel in Beirut, Jumblatt called for a new Lebanese alliance, "free of bias", claiming that March 14's program, which he had strongly praised and been a part of for years, had been driven on "sectarian and tribal levels". The Future Movement, headed by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, was shocked at his u-turn and issued a statement defending itself, though without mentioning Jumblatt by name. The Future Movement said it remained committed to the Cedar Revolution, launched with US backing in response to the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri, Saad's father, in 2005.

Another surprise in Jumblatt's speech was his praise for Syria, and his description of past visits to Washington and meeting with former president George W Bush - while the US was trying to change the regime in Damascus - as a "black spot" in his history. Jumblatt seems to have realized - eight months into the Barack Obama White House - that the policies of the Bush era are now obsolete in the Middle East. He appears to have concluded that rather than hold onto them and become an outsider, it is safer to change course - no matter how dramatically - to remain influential in Lebanon.

Members of the opposition March 8 alliance have been consistently demanding a "blocking third" veto power, to obstruct any legislation in Hariri's cabinet related to Hezbollah relinquishing its arms or the United Nations international tribunal investigating his Rafik Hariri's assassination.

Saad has struggled to form a government since the election, with the opposition refusing to join the cabinet unless this blocking third power was granted and reminding Hariri that they walked out of then Fouad Siniora's cabinet in 2006 for the same reason when he was premier - Siniora is currently serving as caretaker prime minister.

Last week, a solution had seemingly been reached. It was announced that the opposition would be allowed to name one of the five ministers appointed to the government by independent President Michel Suleiman. By consensus, it was agreed that Suleiman would be able to name the minister of Defense, Interior and three ministers of state - a Shi'ite, a Sunni and a Christian.

Accordingly, the opposition would get a say in naming the Shi'ite minister, which would give them control of 11 - rather than 10 ministers. This would effectively give them the blocking third in Hariri's 30-man cabinet.

Speaker Nabih Berri, a ranking member of the opposition, came out on Monday saying that the three Druze ministers in the upcoming Hariri cabinet could no longer be considered members of March 14. He added that Jumblatt's words would certainly have negative effects on March 14. Jumblatt's u-turn means that March 14 now has to subtract nine parliamentarians from its bloc, bringing them down to 62.

If Jumblatt decides to defect fully to the opposition, this would give Hariri's opponents a total of 66 seats - effectively turning the tables on March 14 and granting March 8 a parliamentary majority. Jumblatt's stance effectively makes all talk about a blocking third for the opposition meaningless, and sheds serious doubt on whether Hariri will survive as prime minister.

Additionally, it was reported that Jumblatt might visit Syria soon, under the wing of Palestinian statesman Azmi Beshara. Adding fuel to the fire, Jumblatt has told a Tunisian magazine, Realites, that, "I intend to fix my relationship with Damascus my own way. Looking back, I think I committed the sin of voicing too many anti-Syrian slogans." He added that Beirut "will not be proud of a confrontation with Syria".

Jumblatt has also changed his views on who killed Rafik Hariri in 2005. He had previously accused Syria, but he told the magazine that he was no longer certain who had carried out the assassination. There has been no response from the Syrian side on Jumblatt's possible defection, only articles in independent Syrian websites saying that Jumblatt - who is married to a Damascene woman from the Sharabati family - will arrive soon in Damascus. And a leak in the Beirut daily al-Akhbar, saying that Damascus is renovating Jumblatt's residence in the Syrian capital, which has been vacant since 2004.

Why did Jumblatt - known to be a political chameleon - change his colors so dramatically? The Druze warlord was a strong ally of Syria during Lebanon's civil war, and was royally rewarded for his services with government posts for him and his entourage throughout the 1990s. But when he realized that Syria's fortunes were turning in 2004 - shortly after the war on Iraq - he shifted towards the opposition, calling on the Syrians to leave Lebanon, though more than anyone else it was him that helped legitimize the Syrian presence in Lebanon, for nearly 20 years.

Jumblatt managed to read the political landscape in Washington well , realizing that the Bush White House was at daggers end with the Syrian government, because of its lack of cooperation in the war on Iraq. When Rafik Hariri was killed in February 2005, Jumblatt unleashed his anger not only at Syria but at its allies in Lebanon (notably then-president Emille Lahhoud), calling on it to leave and implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which, among other things, calls for the "disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias".

Right after the war with Israel in 2006, Jumblatt aggressively spoke out against Damascus, and he was the first member of the March 14 coalition to call for the disarmament of Hezbollah. He also bluntly accused both Syria and Hezbollah of involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri and other Lebanese figures, such as journalists Samir al-Kassir and Jibran Tweini.

Jumblatt went to Washington during the heyday of the George W Bush era and got red-carpet treatment at the White House, famously embracing then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in the midst of the 2006 Israeli war with Lebanon. He most recently met Rice in November 2008, and has never missed a chance to cozy up with the Americans - despite the fact that earlier in his career he was a self-proclaimed opponent of the US and admirer of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the godfather of modern Arab nationalism.

Jumblatt began to change his tune in May 2008, when members of Hezbollah clashed militarily with armed men from Saad Hariri's Future Movement. The Future's boys were no match for the well-trained fighters of Hezbollah and were rounded up in a matter of hours, and disarmed. This set alarm bells ringing at Jumblatt's palace on Mount Lebanon.

The entire ordeal was in response to a government attempt at dismantling Hezbollah's security and telecommunications network at Beirut International Airport. Jumblatt realized that his team was no match for that of Syria and Iran, regardless of how much support they had from the US, Saudi Arabia and France.

He has since then slowly been changing his rhetoric on Hezbollah and Syria, and this summer he surprised observers by meeting with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. Now, he has made yet another surprising move by abandoning Saad Hariri and the March 14 coalition, raising the question: Why now?

Jumblatt is a political animal who follows the prevailing wind, whether it comes from Moscow, Washington or Damascus. When Syria and the US were allies in the 1990s, he reasoned that it was best to be on Syria's side, due to its excellent relations with the Bill Clinton administration. When he saw that relations were irreparable between the Syrians and George W Bush, he decided to abandon ship - especially after the passing of resolution 1559, seeing that a head-on collusion between Damascus and Washington loomed on the horizon.

That happened when Hariri was killed in 2005, and Jumblatt tried to ally himself with Washington's "regime change" movement, but by late 2008 it was clear that Bush was leaving, having repeatedly failed at toppling - or even weakening - the Syrians. Now with Obama in power, there is no sense in maintaining hostility with the Syrians, since Obama is interested neither in regime change, not even instability in Damascus.

Obama's focus is on Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan - not the worries of Lebanon, and Jumblatt has realized this from day one. The Americans are willing to tolerate a reborn Syrian influence in Lebanon, if it guarantees peace and quiet in Beirut and Iraq. Obama saw the Saudis mending their broken fences with the Syrians - on the last day of Bush's term in office - and has overseen confidence-building gestures between Damascus and Washington.

One was how the Syrians helped bring about peaceful provincial elections in Iraq - with Saudi help - much to Obama's pleasure. He then saw how Obama began to turn a blind eye to sanctions on Syria, and how in July he lifted some sanctions on Damascus related to information technology and aviation.

Earlier, the US had decided to send an ambassador to Damascus, a post that has been vacant for four years, and Obama has been sending officials from the State Department to meet with President Bashar al-Assad. The US needed Syria to deal with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraq, and it was likely that unless Jumblatt mended his ties with the Syrians, a new deal was going to emerge in the Middle East, and he was going to be left in the cold.

The question remains: will the Syrians forgive Jumblatt, who went to unbelievable levels of criticism against Syria, using dramatic insults that remain strongly imprinted in the minds of Syrians, both the government and public alike? In the complex world of Middle East politics everything is possible. Jumblatt's u-turn is testimony to how low regional politics have sunk and how one's word - which meant his pride and honor during the age of Arab chivalry - can now swiftly be broken.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.