Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Warlord in His Castle Part I


by Michael J. Totten



1st part of 2


"This country is like a cake. On the top it is cream. Underneath it is fire." – Hezbollah spokesman


"We don't want the great Syrian prison." – Kamal Jumblatt


The Middle East is a rough part of the world, especially for its ethnic and religious minorities. In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein's Arab Nationalist Baath Party regime waged a war of extermination against ethnic Kurds in the north. Iran's Bahai community has been mercilessly persecuted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his fellow Khomeinists for decades. The vast majority of Jews living in Arab countries were expelled to Israel, and many in the Arab world still hope to expunge them from the region entirely by destroying the country they fled to as refugees. Egypt's Coptic Christians are second class citizens, and many Christian women in Iraq feel compelled by Islamist extremists to wear Islamic headscarves on their heads even though the state doesn't require it. Libya's Moammar Qaddafi represses the indigenous ethnic Berber minority, and the Shias of Saudi Arabia live under the boot heel of fanatical Sunni Wahhabis.

I could go on, but you get the drift.


The Druze minority communities in Lebanon, Israel, and Syria have worked out a survival formula that works better than most. They're weathervanes. They calculate. They, more than other Arabs, side with the strong horse.


In Syria, the Druze support the Baathist regime of Bashar Assad. Israeli Druze are fiercely loyal to the state and fight harder than most against the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah in elite IDF units. Many Palestinians consider them traitors.


It's trickier for Lebanon's Druze. Politics there are vastly more complicated – as complicated as politics in Iraq, if not even more so. The country is, in many ways, a microcosm of Middle East politics generally. You can usually tell which faction in Lebanon has the upper hand both locally and regionally because the Druze tend to belong to that faction. But what happens when the region is stuck in stalemate and deadlock?

Lebanon's Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently abandoned the anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah "March 14" coalition and declared himself politically neutral. Most seem to believe he did so because he thought Syrian power was on the rise again in Lebanon and didn't want to stay on the wrong side of the boss. A few say he fears a looming internal war between Sunnis and Shias and wants to step back and out of the way. He himself says compromise with Hezbollah, though it isn't desirable, is necessary because the Lebanese state is too weak to disarm a proxy militia backed by the powerful regimes in Syria and Iran. He believes, correctly, that Lebanon can't effectively take a hard line while the international community invites the rogue regimes in from the cold.


More recently, though, he took a step back toward the "March 14" coalition while negotiations are stalled over the formation of Lebanon's next government. "That shows some confusion on Jumblatt’s part when it comes to regional dynamics," Michael Young wrote in NOW Lebanon, "and when Jumblatt is confused you can be sure things are confusing."


Those who've followed his political trajectory since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri know that many have labeled him a Lebanese "neocon." He does, or at least did, fit the mold in some ways. He's not only the leader of Lebanon's Druze, but also the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, which is no longer progressive or socialist. During Lebanon's civil war, he accepted backing from the Soviet Union. His house in the mountains is still decorated with posters and knickknacks from Communist Russia. Much later, in 2005, he was one of the leaders of the Cedar Revolution that ousted the occupying Syrian military from Lebanon. He supported the Bush Administration's war to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and he even jokingly asked the White House some years ago to send car bombs to Damascus.


Earlier this year, Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Foreman, and I were attacked in Beirut by thugs from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The next day, Hitchens lauded Jumblatt at the American University as one of the "real revolutionaries" of the Middle East. The audience laughed. I'm not sure if he understands why, but I do, at least partly. Jumblatt is the type of quasi-feudal warlord that real communists used to put on trial and execute. His opposition to the Syrian regime was no doubt authentic – the Syrians murdered his father in 1977 – but he cooperated with that very same regime for more than a decade. He didn't fight his way into power by overthrowing a system; he inherited it from his father.


When Arab Nationalism and fervor for the Palestinian cause swept Lebanon before and during the civil war, he and his father championed both. When the Syrians ruled in Lebanon, he went along with that, too. When Lebanon later turned against Syria, he helped lead the charge. Now that Lebanon, and the region as a whole, is in a holding pattern and no one knows who will come out on top, Jumblatt doesn't know which way to jump.


None of this means every idea in his head is cynically calculated to best represent the "centrist" position. Nor does it mean the rest of the Druze don't sincerely feel what they say they feel. Jumblatt and his people are complicated. He isn't a revolutionary in the usual sense, but he isn't strictly a weathervane either as Lee Smith notes at the Hudson Institute.


He is a leftist, yet a "neoconservative." He's a quasi-feudal warlord who worked with the Soviet Union. He's an anti-Syrian revolutionary who collaborated with Syrian power. He's a sectarian leader who masterfully games the sectarian system to his advantage, but he hates that system because it restricts his power. (Because he isn't a Christian, Sunni, or Shia, he can never hold any of Lebanon's three most powerful posts which are reserved for them.) He champions the Palestinian cause and has no warm feelings for Zionism, yet he fiercely opposes all who fight Israel. The man is not easily pigeonholed or even explained, not by others, and not by me.


I've met him more than once on various trips to Lebanon. The first time, years ago, he hosted me at his house in Beirut. More recently I visited Lebanon with a number of colleagues, and he hosted all of us at his Ottoman-era manor in the Chouf Mountains.

"How can we control our own destiny," he said, "when we have a state-within-the-state called the state of Hezbollah? When we have open borders to all kinds of traffic and weapons and people from Syria to Lebanon? Hezbollah has said it before and will say it now: 'Thank God the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon defend the interests of the Iranian Revolution.'"


Hezbollah has a tactical alliance with Syria, but a heartfelt one with the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. If you didn't know any better, you might think, while driving around Hezbollah's de-facto Iranian satellite state inside Lebanon, that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or Iran's current supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the dictatorial ruler of Lebanon.


Hezbollah is doing its damndest to secure veto power in the next government cabinet even though it lost the election in June. If Hezbollah had won that election, two countries in the Middle East rather than one would be pursuing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's foreign policy.


"So we work day by day and compromise," Jumblatt said. "After the murder of [former Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri in 2005, and with some international support and pressure at that time from the Americans, from [French President Jacques] Chirac, from Europe, from the Arabs – Arabs meaning King Abdullah – we were able to force the Syrians out in late February 2005. But then it was, I think, the first time that [Syrian President] Bashar Assad was a little bit afraid. Then the killings and assassinations started again in June. The people who were killed from that time to the last one were people who denounced the Syrian presence and denounced the Syrian allies.


"We went at once, several times, to the [United] States with the one basic political issue, which was the International Tribunal that is supposed to bring the criminals to justice one day. Of course, we have said from the start it was the Syrian regime and their allies and proxies. But I was I think that at that time and up to now we have failed to bring enough pressure to the Syrian regime. As long as we have this Syrian regime next door, we won’t have a sovereign Lebanon."


He could have, and perhaps should have, added that he won't have a sovereign Lebanon as long as the current Iranian regime exists in Tehran. Lebanon regained some of its sovereignty after the Syrian military was driven out in 2005, but the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon has yet to defeat the Iranian Revolution in Lebanon.


"You did a good job in Iraq," he said, "so why don’t you do the same thing in Syria? I remember well the answer of Secretary of State at that time Condoleezza Rice. She said we should work on shaping Syrian behavior. It’s a very fragile and difficult situation here. Will the tribunal really change the behavior of the Syrian regime? I don’t know. Who knows? It’s the first time in history that such a tribunal is to be settled to fix up a political assassination. From the end of the Second World War you had the European tribunal, and the most prominent killers were in Serbia, Rwanda, and Cambodia. But these were genocides mainly. This one is for Lebanon."


It was a tense time as usual in Lebanon when he said this earlier in the year. The anniversaries of two political assassinations were being memorialized back to back – the assassination of Hariri in Beirut in 2005, and the assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh in Damascus in 2008. Low grade political violence simmered in various flashpoint neighborhoods.


"Yesterday," Jumblatt said, "one of our guys was assaulted in Beirut. He died today and I have to go this afternoon to cool things down. We are living with action and reaction. We could respond by attacking a Shia, and it will again become a vicious circle. The Lebanese Army is doing its best, but it is unable to impose its authority, its dominance. It’s unable to fix up being a part of the state of war and peace, unable to look at carloads of weapons coming into Lebanon. Next to Hezbollah you also have the Palestinian bases inside the camps. There are, I think, facilities for all kind of hostilities hiding in bunkers and in tunnels."


Jumblatt is no friend of Israel and never has been, even though his co-religionists inside Israel are fiercely loyal to the state in Jerusalem. It's clear, however, that he has a serious problem with everyone who actually fights Israel and would opt out of the Arab-Israeli conflict entirely if he could.


"The other issue is the Shebaa Farms," he said, "which are not Lebanese. Officially, legally, they are not Lebanese. They were taken from the Syrians in the late 1960s, and by pretending that they are Lebanese we are still hooked into the Arab-Israel conflict. The Shebaa Farms are still under UN Resolution 242. And we have nothing to do with the 242 Resolution because in 1967 Lebanon did not go to war [against Israel]. The Syrian and Iranian policy is to hook Lebanon into the 242 Resolution and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Jordan fixed up a settlement. Egypt, too. Of course, not Palestine yet. I don’t know when. Maybe it’s impossible."


Some of us in Jumblatt's house hadn't been to Lebanon before and wanted him to pull back a bit, to address some of the basics. Steve McCutcheon asked the first question.


"What tangible interest does Syria have in dominating Lebanon?" he said.


"If you look back to the so-called Baathist theory or ideology," Jumblatt said, "from the Atlantic to the Gulf, they have never accepted the fact that Lebanon would be independent. Never accepted that. So when the Baathists took power in 1963, it became the official excuse. Plus the fact that, putting aside ideology, for some years it was just a pretense for racketeering and using Lebanon for their interest. Not to mention the terrible American blunder in 1975 or 1976 when they gave Lebanon to Assad for one precise task, which was to destroy at that time the PLO and Arafat. And he did it. It took him some time, but he did it quite well. And there’s a common interest between the Syrian regime and the Israelis. They don’t care about independent Lebanon as long as they can trade Lebanon somewhere in the middle. They don’t care."


"At the end of your wonderful speech yesterday," Lee Smith  said, "you said 'no compromise.' What did you mean by that?"


"When my father was killed by the Syrians," Jumblatt said, "I was obliged to fix up a cynical compromise because I needed allies and I needed routes for weapons and ammunition. At that time I had an important ally called the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union saved me. It trained my people. I had a small militia and they supported me through Syria. So, of course, I shook Assad's hand. I knew that he killed my father, but I tried to forget for some time. Some people in Syria stupidly thought that Bashar Assad could be a liberal, could be a modern democrat. Now all of them are in prison, and some are dead."


"When was the first time that you publicly accused Syria of killing your father?" Christopher Hitchens said.


"From 1977 until, let’s say, 2000, I had to keep silent," Jumblatt said. "In 2000 I challenged the Syrian president, and the Patriarch of Lebanon said it’s time for the Syrians to get out of Lebanon. That was a crucial year because that year the South of Lebanon was liberated from Israel, in April that year. [Former Syrian President Hafez] Assad died later on that year in June. I was accused by the Syrians of betrayal and treason. Later on we had to postpone our language. We still have some among us who take the romantic approach of Arab Nationalism. And later on came September 11 and the news that the Americans were about to invade Iraq."


"You said the intervention in Iraq might have been helpful for the March 14 movement," Hitchens said. "Would that still be your view?"


Whether it's true or not, several Lebanese people have told me they think so because it convinced Assad that he might be destroyed if he didn't back down.


"It depends now on the outcome," Jumblatt said, "after America reduces its troops in Iraq. There are some signs in the last week that again the terrorists are blowing themselves up and trying to create chaos. It’s a very unstable situation. If there’s no compromise between the power surrounding Iraq – meaning the Iranians, the Turks, plus the Americans – I don’t know how Iraq can be stable. Also the Syrians, unfortunately, have been importing jihadists to the Damascus airport and exporting them to Iraq where they blow themselves up to go to heaven. Obama should be careful. He should be careful here and in Iraq. And he should be much more careful, of course, in the land that nobody was able to conquer, Afghanistan."


"Do you think the talks going on between Israel and Syria are genuine," James Linville said, "or are they just a show?"


"Assad doesn’t care about the [Israeli-occupied] Golan [Heights]," Jumblatt said. "Suppose we go ultimately to the so-called peace. Then later on, what is the purpose of the Syrian regime? What is he going to tell his people? Especially, mind you, he is a member of the Alawite minority. This minority could be accused of treason. It’s not like Egypt or Jordan whereby the government has some legitimacy. Here you get accused of treason by the masses, by the Sunnis. So using classic slogans like 'Palestine will liberate the Golan with Hezbollah' is a must for him to stay in power.


"I had a friend at the time – he is still my friend - when I was in Syria. He was the chief of staff of the Syrian army and is now living in Los Angeles. He was quite an important guy and honest with media. He was a Sunni from a big family in Aleppo. And when Hafez Assad was about to fix up the so-called settlement through Bill Clinton, and before they met him in Geneva, a prominent Alawite officer in the Syrian army came to Assad and said, 'What are you doing? We will be lost if you make peace. We will be accused of treason.'"



Michael J. Totten

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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