Sunday, March 10, 2013

Walid Jumblatt on the Fate of Syria and Lebanon

by Thair Abbas

Druze leader: 'If the Orthodox law stands, I will not run.'

File photo of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (AAA)
File photo of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (AAA)

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Lebanese MP, Druze leader, and head of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt is not at ease these days. From his standpoint nearly all of the recent developments in and around Lebanon bode ill, especially in regards to the Syrian crisis, which threatens to plunge Lebanon into chaos. Domestic discourse has degenerated to the basest sectarian levels in light of the Orthodox Gathering law, which stipulates that voters can only elect candidates from their sect or denomination. 

In a wide-ranging, in-depth interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Jumblatt discussed his objections to the controversial new legislation, the toll taken on Lebanon by the Syrian crisis, Lebanon’s troubled attempts to settle on a new electoral system, and declared that he will not stand in future elections if they are conducted under the controversial new law.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Does President Suleiman’s and Prime Minister Mikati’s signature of the electoral bodies decree mean that the elections will be held in accordance with the 1960 election law?

Walid Jumblatt: Signing that decree is among the duties and powers of the president and the prime minister. The second stage is forming a body to oversee election campaigns, and this is a prerogative of the government. I expect that this undertaking will meet considerable opposition from the March 8 Alliance within the government. Despite President Suleiman’s and PM Mikati’s signing of the decree, they have both declared their commitment to hold discussions so as to reach a consensus on the election law.

Q: What do you think is the solution?

The logical solution is to bridge the gap between the government’s draft law, which calls for a plurality voting system, and the law which calls for a majority system. The evidence suggests that President Suleiman is willing to go forward with a law that mixes the plurality and majority systems. The Future Movement refused to introduce a plurality system, but it has now agreed to combine the plurality and majority systems and craft a draft law introducing a mixed system upon which all parties can agree. The dispute over the shape of some electoral districts persists and we must resolve this.

Q: It’s as if each side wants to win the election before it is actually held by tailoring the law to their advantage . . . 

Yes, but it is linked to the political strife that has been exacerbated by the events in Syria, so it is better that we agree on an election law and that elections be held as scheduled. Then a new technocratic government free of bias may be formed rather than the country being dragged into the dark tunnel by the postponement of the elections. If this were to happen, the country would slip into a downward spiral fraught with economic, political, and security dangers.

Q: Could there be a delay on technical grounds? 

A technical delay and a political delay are two different things. The former is acceptable for up to two or three months, especially considering that the Lebanese voter may not be accustomed to a plurality system. How the plurality and majority systems will be combined must be explained in detail to the voter. At the polls the voter could possibly be faced with a regular ballot box, a majority box, and a plurality box. Thus delaying the elections on technical grounds is acceptable for two or three months to ensure that the system is thoroughly explained to the voters and politicians, including myself. As for a political delay, it would drop the country into a political labyrinth to the detriment of everyone.

Q: Do you think there are some who do want to delay the elections through political means?

When we hear the statements from some Free Patriotic Movement members and their insistence on the Orthodox law, which threatens to tear the country apart and negate the principle of respecting the rights of other sects, yes we begin to suspect that there are some who mean to postpone the election through political means. The leader of the Free Patriotic Movement [General Michel Aoun] suggested the unheard of proposition that the government act as the legislative body, eliminating the role of the National Assembly. Yes, I do suspect that there is a plan to politically postpone the elections. However, I do not of course know what the Lebanese Forces Party’s real intentions are. 

Q: What would a political delay do to the country?

Political postponement would plunge the country into a maelstrom of the unknown, and it would give the international community the impression that we cannot hold elections on schedule. This would deal a severe blow to the Lebanese economy and possibly cause investors to flee, not to mention the destabilizing effects it would have on Lebanon’s security and politics.

Q: Given the current sectarian turmoil and degenerating security situation in some areas in Lebanon, do you think elections can be held under these conditions?

The turmoil is a reality and it’s being addressed. For example, let’s look at (Sheikh) Ahmad Al-Asir. Part of dealing with him is arresting those who shot his bodyguards, and moderate Sunnis such as Sheikh Saad Al-Hariri and Mrs. Bahia Al-Hariri must come out saying that they reject this inflammatory rhetoric. However it is still the state’s duty to arrest those who killed Sheikh Asir’s bodyguards so that the whole Sheikh Asir issue can be scaled down to its proper size. This way we can return to the issue of redirecting the muzzles of the Hezbollah’s rifles, which defended the south against Israel in 2006 and liberated the south in 2000, so that they point at those who threaten Lebanon and thus continue to defend the country. Today Hezbollah has become embroiled in external affairs connected to the Syrian civil war, and this creates tension and spurs other groups, such as the March 14 Alliance, to take reactive measures. Some guns fight for the regime in Syria while others fight for the people, and this is causing political tension to spillover into Lebanon.

Q: Is any group in Lebanon actually capable of effecting change in Syria?

No. The stance of the Western community, and specifically the United States, as demonstrated by Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit, is divergent on the Saudis’ stance. They want to give humanitarian aid, saying that they do not want to provide weapons, despite the fact that it would expedite the downfall of the regime, because of the so-called extremists lurking in the Syrian Revolution. 

The longer we prolong the life of the regime, the longer the civil war will continue to rage across Syria, and with each day Syria’s sectarian rifts grow deeper. This has been the US’s policy ever since the Siege of Baba Amr. Secretary Kerry’s statements increased my suspicions that there is a conspiracy working against the unity of Syria.

Q: What must the West do in regards to the Syrian crisis, and why this rationing of material support?

It seems as if the West wants to prolong the Syrian civil war, evidenced by the promises it made to the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council, and its grandiose pledges to the Syrian National Coalition. However on the ground it is clear, unless there is something that I am missing, that they are proceeding with their designs to dismember Syria and redraw the map of the region, having started that already in Iraq.

Q: We are now entering the third year of the Syrian crisis. If things continue as they have, how long do you expect the crisis will last?

United States’ policy does not care much about the fate of the Arab Middle East. It is interested in its internal affairs and its primary concern is to protect Israel over all else. What did the previous US administration do regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict? Nothing, of course. In his famous speech at Cairo University, Obama said that there would be a return to negotiations after a settlement freeze. But settlements continue to be built, and negotiations were cut off because they are useless. Thus it is apparent that the US is only focused on protecting Israel, non-recognition of the surroundings, and the destruction of Syria. Syria is being undermined because it was a pivotal force in the resistance to Israel, and now it is being destroyed. The Americans and the Israelis are sitting back watching.

Q: Two years into the Syrian crisis, it’s clear that divisions are widening between the minority groups on the one hand and the Sunni majority on the other.

The various and sometimes suspicious articles of Fouad Ajami and others worry me. I fear that they are encouraging a remapping of the region and erasing the borders of laid out in Sykes-Picot. This could drag the region into a downward spiral of sectarian conflict and perhaps nationalist separatist movements, we should not forget the issue of the Kurds in Syria.

Q: In what sense have the Druze succeeded and it what sense have they failed in Syria?

I was clear when I called on Syrian Druze to forgo serving in the Syrian army. The Syrian military was once a resistance force against Israel, having won heroic battles against Israel in the 1973 war and during the invasion of Lebanon at Sultan Yacoub, Ain Zhalta, and Beirut. Together with the Arab Syrian army we brought down the sinister May 17 Agreement. However the regime has transformed it, and today this army is led by criminals who suppress their own people. That’s why I called on the Arab Druze to leave the army so that they could protect themselves and their future, and thus respect the Arab Druze heritage of resisting Israel, something which started when they, along with other Syrians, opposed the fragmentation of Syria in 1925.

Q: Where have they succeeded and where have they failed?

It is not about success or failure. My repeated calls have begun to resonate, as shown with the martyrdom of Lt. Khaldun Zinedine. Druze are refusing to be conscribed and the regime is in need of men. They called up the reserve regiments and very few Druze answered the call. Yes, I think I succeeded, but there is more work to be done. There are Syrian Druze officers who defected to join the revolution in the regions of Idlib and Horan and more must follow in their footsteps. 

I feel that I succeeded despite the many difficulties. The regime has basically destroyed the political, tribal, and family structures of not only the Druze in Syria, but also of the Alawites. We cannot lump the entire Alawite sect into the category of traitors because the regime has also destroyed its tribal structures and assassinated its senior leaders. I do what I am doing to protect the heritage and the future of the Druze, because their fate is bound to Syria in the same manner as the majority of Arabs in Syria, for they are Arabs before they are Druze.

Q: Do you worry about the fate of the minority groups in Syria if the situation continues to worsen?

This view is preached by the regime, an alliance of the minorities . . . It doesn’t care about anything, not about the unity of Syria, its heritage, its people, of whom it has killed and arrested tens of thousands. It has razed thousands of cities and villages to the ground, and it has led Syria to its own systematic destruction.

Q: Do you think that dialogue can somehow salvage what is left of Syria and find some sort of settlement that would end the crisis?

Sheikh Moaz Khatib was bold when he said that he was prepared to negotiate on the condition that tens of thousands of detainees be released. The cynical answer from Bashar Al-Assad was that he is prepared for dialogue once the rebels lay down their arms. When a correspondent asked him about the martyrs of the Syrian revolution, he said to her, “Can you give me their names?” He is schizophrenic. Judging by most of his speeches I think he’s living in another world, which explains how he can treat his own people the way he does and ignore the fact that there are tens of thousands of dead and missing by writing them all off as terrorists. So how can there be a solution? There is none except to topple the regime. 

As for the major countries, this one wants a political solution, that one wants a clearer translation of the 2012 Geneva Conference. They say that at the Geneva Conference Lavrov, Fabius, and Clinton came to a specific agreement on how to address the Syrian crisis, and then they began to accuse one another. Clinton and Fabius said that they would implement the solution after Bashar was overthrown, and the Russians said we agreed on a political solution with a transitional government vested with total powers and from there we would deal with the issue of Bashar. All the sides involved are leaving Syria to tear itself apart, no more, no less. The terms of the first Arab League initiative were very clear: engage in dialogue, respect peaceful movements, release detainees, investigate cases of missing persons, hold culprits accountable, and hold free elections that will lead to the exchange of power. 

Then these demands disappeared and were replaced by various observer missions which failed. Now we are approaching this from the angle of the Geneva Conference. How sly that all was! And it confirms that there is a conspiracy to destroy Syria

Q: Returning to Lebanon, are you afraid that the Syrian crisis will spillover into Lebanon?

Yes, I’m afraid that could happen. In Tripoli there are some politicians who finance groups, I won’t say that they are Takfirist or Salafist groups, but they are extremists. And these politicians are making a mistake. Some Arab countries are also making the mistake of encouraging Asir to keep up his incendiary and slanderous rhetoric which is denigrating to a number of leaders in the Shi’ite community. There is a political dispute in Lebanon which dialogue can resolve. And if it can, Hezbollah must communicate to the Iranian leadership to refocus its aim on Israel, and not on defending the Syrian regime.

Q: Sheikh Al-Asir and his associates say that they are defending a targeted community . . . 

Who is this targeted community? There is an angst which we must understand, regardless of Hezbollah’s policies, among large segments of the Shi’ites in Lebanon who are worried that there is a conspiracy against them. In contrast, some believe that the Sunnis mean to deal with their historic frustrations which resulted from the Syrian takeover of Lebanon. They think that if the regime falls, they will be able to exact revenge against those who were in business with Syria. This view must be rectified. I am among those who were in business with the Syrian regime for 29 years, along with prominent Sunni figures and others. Rafiq Hariri, senior Christian and Muslim officials all had dealings with the Syrian regime at that time so as to preserve the Arab identity of Lebanon and to maintain the Taif Agreement. We cannot simplify things down to Sunni and Shi’a; this would be a grievous error. 

Q: There are those who say that Hezbollah’s actions led to this reaction from the Sunni street . . .
If this is the argument, it still does nothing to address the sectarian turmoil and the inflammatory speeches appearing here and there. It can only be addressed by sitting down at the negotiating table and coming to an understanding regarding the issue of arms and mutual openness about Lebanon’s future. There are two basic components: Sunni and Shi’ite. There is no option except for coming to an agreement regarding Lebanon’s future and staying committed to the principle of non-intervention so as to not become entangled in the events unfolding in Syria. This way we can prevent the Syrian civil war from spilling over into Lebanon. Yes, the era of Syrian control harmed many prominent Lebanese patriots. Yes, the era of Syrian control included assassinations. However we should not forget there is another side to this coin, considering that we were able, with Syria, to prevent the partition and fragmentation of Lebanon and force the Israeli occupation out of most of the occupied Lebanese territory.

Q: You were among these involved in such negotiations from 2006 to 2012, but despite the prolonged talks, little was produced.

I disagree. We cannot reject dialogue in principle. Brandishing weapons, domestically or abroad, is unacceptable, just as the principle of rejecting dialogue is unacceptable. We must return to the underlying key issues: using weapons only at appropriate times and circumstances and only at the disposal of the Lebanese state. This is what President Michel Suleiman said. We know that the security and military system of Hezbollah is not a strictly local system—it is a regional system. We know this. However the Islamic Republic of Iran has not been acting in a common-sense manner. They claim that they stand with the oppressed in Palestine and elsewhere, and today they stand with the ongoing persecution in Syria, with a Syrian regime that kills its people, contradicting what Imam Khomeini advocated, as I understand it.

Q: What does Lebanon desire from Iran?

That it not use Lebanon as a bargaining chip during dialogue with the US. We know full-well that dialogues between Iran and the US have begun, but we do not want to them to come at the expense of Lebanon and the Arabs.

Q: Do you feel that Lebanon is likely to be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations?

It wouldn’t be the first time. It is time for us to become a legitimate country, and get out of the cycle of being used as a bargaining chip and maintaining the status quo, that being the truce with Israel, and rejecting settlement construction, and non-entry into any negotiations with Israel until a just two-state solution emerges.

Q: Returning to Lebanese politics, with the emergence of the Orthodox Gathering law, we can see a unified Christian position emerging for the first time in many years . . . 

I disagree. There are independent Christians, and first among them is President Michel Suleiman, who absolutely opposes the Orthodox law, and it’s a good that happened. If he hadn’t come out in opposition with other senior Christians MPs, such as Sheikh Boutros Harb, things could have become even more starkly sectarian. There is no consensus over the Orthodox law at all.

Q: They say that the Christian MPs received votes from non-Christians, and this reflects the good work done by Christian representatives?

If we followed this argument to its logical end, we can also say that Muslim MPs received votes from non-Muslims. Lebanon is rooted in diversity and a mixed co-existence. If we were to operate based on the principle that voters can only elect representatives from their specific sect or denomination, then the Lebanese model will be dead.

Q: Does this law demonstrate the fears of the Christian community in Lebanon?

I think not. Those who proposed this law are unfortunately sequestering the Christian community and distorting the national Arab-Christian history and its historical openness to Islam and Arab identity. It betrays the legacy of Mikhail Naima and Gibran Khalil Gibran and the Arab Awakenings of Nasif al-Yaziji and others. Christian banners still fly high in the Arab resistance and Arab renaissance, beyond the reach of these naïve leaders who are ignorant of their own history. George Antonius was one of the pioneers of Arab nationalism, as were George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh.

Q: Will you run in the new elections?

If the Orthodox law stands, I will not run.

Q: What about your son Timor?

There will come a time for Timor to run, but he must undergo political training first. He will be at my side; he accompanied me on my recent trip to Saudi Arabia and he will accompany me on future trips. Timor will definitely continue to work at the offices in Mokhtara. I promised the party that new blood would have a bigger role, and this is a separate issue from Timor. Mokhtara must remain a home to all Lebanese.

Thair Abbas


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