Man of the Mountain

A Reason interview with Lebanon's Walid Jumblatt.

Iran weighs heavily on Walid Jumblatt's mind these days, as the paramount leader of Lebanon's Druze community answers questions in his mountain palace at Mukhtara, which he rarely leaves these days, fearing assassination by Syria. "In two weeks' time, [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is going to Damascus to sign a defense cooperation agreement," he told me. "Neocons are no longer in power in Washington, but you can find them in Tehran."

Jumblatt has gone through several incarnations in recent months, as Lebanon seeks to break free from 29 years of hegemony imposed by Syria, following the Syrian military withdrawal from the country last April. He initially led opposition to the Syrians after the killing of Rafik Hariri on February 14, but Jumblatt was also instrumental in later cutting a deal with two pro-Syrian Shiite groups, Hezbollah and Amal, to protect their quota in parliamentary elections during the summer. This about-face earned him the hostility of many Christians, who felt the deal was directed against them. That is, until Jumblatt's latest turnaround, where he broke with Hezbollah, accusing it of supporting Syrian aims in Lebanon. This followed the assassination last month of journalist and parliamentarian Gebran Tueni, where it became clear to Jumblatt that no understanding was possible with the Syrian regime—though he might conceivably have considered a good one had it been offered.�������

Jumblatt's binoculars perpetually sweep the region's political horizon to see what distant tremor might threaten his tiny 200,000-strong community—and his authority over it. This makes the Druze leader an insightful interpreter of the fluctuations in Middle Eastern politics—particularly issues of interest to the United States, such as Iranian-Syrian relations, Saudi-Egyptian maneuverings to save the Syrian regime, and the future of Hezbollah.

Jumblatt's nightmare is that Syria will succeed in re-imposing its control over Lebanon, with Arab endorsement. Apart from what this would mean for Lebanon's newfound freedom, it would sound the death knell for Jumblatt. On the day we met, he was worried about a Saudi-Egyptian plan plainly designed to guarantee that the Hariri investigation would not undermine Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Why, I asked, had the Saudis altered course on Syria? After all, a week ago the former Syrian vice-president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, appeared on the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya station lambasting Assad; a few days later, Saudi-owned media spiked several interviews with Khaddam, and Al-Arabiya cancelled a one-on-one with Jumblatt.

"Bashar seems to have blackmailed the Saudis and Egyptians. He seems to have said 'It's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood' to the Egyptians; and he may have scared the Saudis by threatening them with Al-Qaeda, which he happens to be backing in Iraq."

Were there other explanations for the sudden Saudi shift in direction? "There may be differences of opinion in the royal family," Jumblatt answered. He speculated that the foreign minister, Saud Al-Faysal, for decades the avatar of status-quo Arab politics, may be keener to sustain the Assad regime than another Saudi mediator with Damascus, Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the U.S. who now heads the kingdom's National Security Council.

Jumblatt affirmed that the Saudi-Egyptian plan—which seeks to impose vaguely-defined "coordination" between Lebanon and Syria on a variety of bilateral issues, and to muzzle Lebanese media when it comes to matters Syrian—had "failed." For Jumblatt, "implementation of such a plan would take us back to where we were with the Syrians before they left."

Why had the plan failed? "Because both [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice and [French President Jacques] Chirac have rejected any plan that might weaken Lebanon's sovereignty." Indeed, Rice released a statement on Wednesday saying: "The United States stands firmly with the people of Lebanon in rejecting any deals or compromises that would undermine the [Hariri] investigation, or relieve Syria of its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions... As Resolution 1559 demands, Syria must once and for all end its interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon."

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