Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Warlord in His Castle Part II


by Michael J. Totten



2nd part of 2


Jumblatt instinctively understands better than most how carefully Middle Eastern minorities must position themselves in order to survive.


"Do you think the long term interests of Syria and Iran are in harmony?" Linville said.


"I think the interests are too interconnected between the Syrian regime and Persia," Jumblatt said, "and I think Persia is now stronger. Assad the father was more clever. He used the Iranian Revolution, but he still kept his friendship with the Arabs, mainly with Saudi Arabia. Plus the fact that well before American invasion, the overthrowing of Saddam, we had an Arab state between us and the Persians called Iraq. Now the Persian Empire is in Lebanon."


"Will Lebanon change if Iran gets nuclear weapons?" I said.


"It will not change," Jumblatt said. "It will give them more prestige, of course, with their allies. At the same time, they are not going to use the bomb. It will provoke a series of armaments – an arms race – in Saudi Arabia, maybe Egypt. It will be crazy. We will have bombs everywhere."


"How important is increasing the power and discipline of the Lebanese army?" McCutcheon said.


"The Lebanese army is composed of Lebanese," Jumblatt said. "One third Sunni, one third Shia, and the rest Christians and Druze. You also have to look at the allegiances of officers and soldiers. Most of the Christian officers are Aounists. And when I say Aounists, I mean Hezbollah. Most of them. Hezbollah was quite clever and was able to infiltrate. The Sunnis are there, and if you go that far, and if you have tension inside Lebanon, it will exhaust the Lebanese army. It could break the Lebanese army. Breaking the Lebanese army, breaking the state, will make us wreak havoc and the peaceful revolution will go to hell."


He is almost certainly right that the Lebanese army would break apart along sectarian lines if another internal war breaks out. It happened during the civil war in the late 1970s. It happened repeatedly in Iraq until the Americans were able to recruit enough conscripts who wouldn't bolt and join the militias.


"Are you concerned about a replay of what happened last year up here on the mountain?" Lee Smith said, referring to Hezbollah's violent assault on West Beirut and Druze villages near the town of Aley last May.


"They can do anything on the mountain," Jumblatt said. "Just 20 miles from here you have the area of Jezzine, which is the second line of defense of Hezbollah. What is left of Jezzine is, of course, in a Christian area. Still, in ten years time or maybe more it will be a Shia area. 500 years ago it used to be Shia. On this side you have my old supply lines from the Bekaa Valley. They are cut, but they are there. And they have Beirut's southern suburbs. They can squeeze anything through, and it would be foolish on my behalf to go to a so-called civil war. This is why last time, when the clashes started, I did my best to stop the clashes. Anybody can fight when they are squeezed. Anybody can fight. But we don’t have supply lines. We don’t have weapons. We will end up emigrating from Mount Lebanon. To where? The sea? No. To Syria."


"Do you think if the election wasn't pending in Lebanon," Linville said, "that Hezbollah would have opened a northern front during the Gaza conflict?"


"They are not that stupid," Jumblatt said. "They have to understand the population of the south. They inflicted the Israeli army with big losses. And they were good fighters. But, of course, three years later, I don’t think doing the same thing would be very popular in the south of Lebanon. And when the so-called unknown rockets were fired, people of the south were scared. It’s not every day that you can rebuild your house. The fighters of Hezbollah can hide. They have caves, they have their own expertise. But they also have got to be accountable to the population."


"How can you praise Hezbollah for being good fighters," James Kirchick said, "and protecting the people of the south when they were the reason Israel responded?"


"Because my past," Jumblatt said, "my political heritage, from my father to myself, was to defend the Palestinian cause. That is my answer. And my father, although he was killed by the Syrians, was killed because he was defending the Palestinians in Lebanon."


"Do you support negotiations between Lebanon and Israel?" said Michael Young, the opinion page editor at Beirut's Daily Star and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.


"It's enough to have been accused of betrayal after the 2006 war," Jumblatt said. "And to negotiate what?"


"Withdrawal from Shebaa Farms," Young said.


Israel took the tiny Shebaa Farms area from Syria in 1967. Hezbollah claims Syria took it from Lebanon and that Israel therefore is still occupying Lebanese territory. The United Nations insists Shebaa Farms belongs to Syria and certified Israel's complete withdrawal from Lebanese territory in the year 2000.


"It’s not to be negotiated with the Israelis," Jumblatt said. "It is to be negotiated with the United Nations. And first it is to be negotiated with the Syrians. Up until now, Shebaa Farms is not legally recognized as Lebanese territory."


"This is your position," Young said. "But it’s not the position of the state."


"Legally," Jumblatt said, "we need a signed document from the Syrian government, jointly signed by the Lebanese government, that says Shebaa Farms is Lebanese. So go to the United Nations. We could see if we could fix up an interim presence of United Nations forces in Shebaa. It could be possible, but I don't know. I don't think so."


"Is there any realistic way of either disarming Hezbollah or integrating them within the state and the army?" I said. "Or will this problem go on and on?"


"I think it will go on and on and on," Jumblatt said. "I think so. Unless – if you ask them, most of the Shia will give up their weapons in exchange for a political price. The political price will be maybe reshuffling of the actual Lebanese system. More power to the Shia community within the Lebanese sectarian system."


"That’s their ultimate goal, isn’t it?" I said.


"At the same time because, I mean, they are proud to have defended Lebanon against the Israelis," Jumblatt said. "After Gaza they said, 'Look, now you are asking us to surrender our weapons? Are you crazy?'"


"Israel wouldn't even come into Lebanon if Hezbollah wasn't kidnapping or shooting them," I said.


"They have invaded several times with excuse and without excuse from 1978 up until now," Jumblatt said. "They came clear to Beirut. Nothing has changed in Israel. Now it's Nasrallah, before it was Yasser Arafat."


"But if Hezbollah was disarmed," I said, "integrated into the state and the army, and the border was quiet, they wouldn’t come back here. I mean, why would they?"

"Why would they send their soldiers up here?" Kirchick said.


"There's a lot of reasons," Nicholas Noe said. He wasn't part of the group I was traveling with. He showed up at Jumblatt's gathering independently of the rest of us.


"What?" Kirchick said.


"Water is one reason," Noe said.


"Oh, come on," I said. "Be serious." Noe was putting forth an absurd conspiracy theory that had been bouncing around in Lebanon for as long as I've been traveling there, a theory that Lebanon's premier historian Kamal Salibi  dismissed as "rubbish" when I asked him about it.


"Another reason," Noe said, "is possible rockets from some other crazy Sunni jihadist group that lobs them in to start a conflict. Another reason is possible transfer of population. Now you have [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman in a lead role. These are all long-term threats. These might not be taken seriously by us as foreigners, but in Lebanon, as Mr. Jumblatt said, there is a long history of a lot of reasons for Israel to invade."


"Again?" I said incredulously. "With an armistice? Has Israel invaded Jordan since the peace treaty? Egypt? I mean, come on."


Hanin Ghaddar, an editor at NOW Lebanon who grew up in Hezbollah's southern stronghold, nodded in agreement with me. "Yeah," she said and laughed.


"The people of the south," Jumblatt said, "think the weapons of Hezbollah are protection against Israeli incursions."


That much is true. Supporting Hezbollah as a deterrent is perfectly logical if you sincerely believe Israelis want to annex Lebanon so they expand, steal water, or whatever. The problem with this, however, is that there is no constituency whatsoever in Israel for anything of the sort. It is a fantasy, and it's a fantasy that starts wars and kills people.


"Even though there were provocations at the same time?" Jonathan Foreman said. "Is there any way, in terms of states-within-states, is there any way…"


"I'm speaking about issues like that," Jumblatt said. "Realistically speaking. I’m not making moral judgments. This is Lebanon as it is."


"You talk about the increasing strength of Hezbollah and the difficulty of your own supply lines," Foreman said. "Is there any way to strengthen the position of Hezbollah's opponents? Is there any way you and others can become stronger in relation to Hezbollah?"


"There is no way," Jumblatt said. "Again, it would be suicidal and an endless civil war without any results. I’m just concerned – I’m telling you, I’m concerned this very afternoon about the kidnapping and death of one of my Druze community members. We have to prepare for funerals tomorrow. And tomorrow there is this big Hezbollah celebration in the dahiyeh for [assassinated Hezbollah commander Imad] Mugniyeh. The Shias will come from the south to Beirut through some areas where we have Druze."


"Are you worried something could happen?" Hanin Ghaddar said.


"Yes," Jumblatt said. "I am worried. I have been told now by the army that they have caught some people, and I hope they found who killed this guy. The people of Hezbollah are much more organized. It's a regular army."


"If today you could arrive at a deal where Hezbollah agrees to disarm in exchange for more political power – would that be such a bad thing?" Michael Young said.


"This process," Jumblatt said, "this system, cannot survive. This system, this confessional system, has proven to be obsolete. For internal and external reasons, we dispute this system. One day, I don’t know how – it will be time to change. We cannot be still be stuck…"


"Wouldn’t a deal like this be a way of changing?" Young said.


"Two parliaments, two chambers," Jumblatt said. "A senate for the interest of the communities where they can be equal, and one non-confessional parliament."


"If you can push Hezbollah into this logic and say…" Young said.


"Yes," Jumblatt said. "Of course. It’s a proposition. But also you have to convince my partners, with the sectarian division and hatred now between the Sunnis and the Shia, and with the obsolete and backward mentality of some of the Maronites. They are still ruling Lebanon, but it’s no more the 19th century."


"Is that the socialist Jumblatt speaking?" Hitchens said.


Everyone laughed.


"The socialist Jumblatt died a long time ago," Jumblatt said.


Everyone laughed even harder. We all knew it was true despite his political party's brand name.


"He died with my father," Jumblatt said. "He had a dream with the leftist parties to change Lebanon. It was my father's vision to change the system. This is also one of the reasons why he was killed. He was also seen by the Arab world as backing the communists. Somewhere in the Kissinger memoir he mentioned that my father was a radical communist. I told him his information was wrong."


"Not for the first time," Hitchens said.


Most of us in the room laughed again. We were familiar with Hitchens' slim volume denouncing Nixon's former secretary of state  .


"Can you say a few words about what the Progressive Socialist Party means to you and what you might mean for them?" Hitchens said.


"My father studied in Europe at one time," Jumblatt said. "As a member of a minority, he wished to achieve equality. He said it’s time to abolish the sectarian system in Lebanon. It’s time to have social justice, it’s time to redistribute land. He started with his own land because we were at that time one of the biggest feudal families of Lebanon. So he started with his properties. My mother told him, 'well, okay, but wait until you reach power.' My father said he had to be equal, like others. The sectarian system was against his wishes. And he paid."


I have no idea how much of the Jumblatt family land was redistributed to poor Druze in Lebanon, if any, in fact, had been redistributed. He seemed to have plenty left. The Jumblatt family lives in real Ottoman splendor, and he gave us all a tour of his grounds. His home could be a tourist attraction if it wasn't his private residence.


He had to cut our time short, however, so he could defuse a crisis.


As he said in the interview, a Druze man died that day after he was violently attacked by

Hezbollah supporters a few days before. Enraged members of his community wanted revenge, and they set up road blocks on the highway over the mountains from Beirut to Damascus. Cars were stopped. ID cards were checked. Those identified as Lebanese Shias – and therefore possible Hezbollah supporters – were pulled from their cars and beaten on the side of the road with long wooden sticks.


It doesn't take much to spark sectarian violence in Lebanon. A few well-placed car bombs could ignite the whole country. Jumblatt was wise to put a stop to the sectarian beatings, and not only because such behavior is deplorable. Sectarian violence can easily spiral out of control. The civil war in 1975 was sparked by small clashes that mushroomed.


A tiny fraction of Lebanon's Druze follow Hezbollah supporter Talal Arslan instead of Jumblatt. Yet when Hezbollah attacked Beirut and the Druze areas in the Chouf mountains last year, Arslan's men fought alongside Jumblatt's and violently repelled Hezbollah's invasion.


No matter how much Jumblatt may deplore Lebanon's sectarian system, communal ties are stronger than those that bind the nation or that bind political parties. If Hezbollah isn't careful, if Hezbollah comes off its leash again and kills people in Lebanon as it did last year, it will find that hardly anyone in the country who isn't Shia, no matter their calculations or politics, can side with a Iranian-sponsored militia in thrall to Khomeinism. Lebanese are no more likely than Iraqis to side with violent fanatics from other ethnic or sectarian communities when they are at war.


No matter how the Druze choose to navigate their way through Lebanese, Syrian, Israeli, and Middle East politics generally, they will fight with their tribe against any and all who would single them out for abuse. As local and regional minorities, they are unique in some ways. But they're more like the Israeli and Kurdish minorities than they are like the Bahais, the Copts, or the Alawites. They will not roll over, and they have more say in the direction of Middle East politics as a result.



Michael J. Totten

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


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