Walid Jumblatt, last man standing

One of the folds in the ongoing dispute involves Iran’s and Russia’s tug of war over Syria.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (R) attends talks at the parliament building in downtown Beirut. (Reuters)
Back in the spotlight. Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (R) attends talks at the parliament building in downtown Beirut. (Reuters)

Druze elders often refer to a thorny, complicated matter as “a case of several folds.” The term aptly describes a dispute between Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and Hezbollah and its allies, which are fixated on overpowering Jumblatt and turning him into a willing accomplice in their plan to extend influence beyond Lebanon’s borders.

The dispute between the two sides flared up in Mount Lebanon, where supporters of pro-Syrian Druze MP Talal Arslan, an ally of Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Hezbollah, were killed in clashes with supporters of Jumblatt, who heads the rival Druze Progressive Socialist Party.

Bassil, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, cynically used the incident to consolidate power and systematically disenfranchise many of his foes and allies, starting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has become ancillary to both Bassil and his Iranian allies.

After the shooting, Bassil’s bloc demanded the issue be referred to the Judicial Council, an extrajudicial body that handles matters of national security. Jumblatt, along with Hariri and Lebanese Forces Chairman Samir Geagea, stood in the way, causing Bassil to boycott a scheduled cabinet meeting. As a result, Lebanon’s cabinet has effectively been stagnant for more than a month.

While Bassil is central to the problem, he could simply be using the government standoff to distract the public as he braces for further economic sanctions against Hezbollah that could include the group’s allies. With growing economic and military pressure against it, Hezbollah cannot afford to come up against any voices of dissent within Lebanon’s cabinet, especially those with Jumblatt’s regional influence, including with Syria’s Druze and potentially Israel.

The second fold in the dispute involves Iran’s and Russia’s tug of war over Syria. While Russia is hoping to exit the inferno after forging a resolution that ensures an Iranian withdrawal and a Syrian Army that is strong enough to protect its borders with Israel, Tehran is unwilling to relinquish any of its political or military spoils.

Since the start of the Syrian revolution, Jumblatt has played a central role in the evolving dynamics. He has gone to great lengths to keep Syria’s Druze out of the conflict, encouraging them to desert from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military.

While Jumblatt and his old Russian allies diverged over Moscow’s support for Assad, Jumblatt established back channels between the anti-Assad Druze in Syria and the Russian military. One of those channels, ironically, helped the Russians convince the Druze to consider rejoining and helping rebuild a planned Russian trained-Syrian Army. Nevertheless, Jumblatt has drawn the ire of both Iran and Assad for pushing the Druze away from their axis.

Jumblatt and Hezbollah used to abide by a few simple rules to keep the peace. Neither side publicly attacked the other and each cooperated in security coordination to avoid violent altercations, particularly in mixed Druze-Shia areas. That era, however, appears to be over. Today, Jumblatt, seen as a threat to the expansionist project of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and his pro-Iran militia, is to be attacked at any cost.

It is true that Jumblatt does not have the strength he did a decade ago. In May 2008, he and his Druze supporters repelled a Hezbollah invasion into areas under their control and helped foil a coup against the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. However, while Jumblatt is weakened, he still stands as a symbol of resistance against Hezbollah and, perhaps more importantly, as a champion and protector of Syrian refugees, which both Nasrallah and Bassil are eager to deport.

In a recent television interview, Nasrallah took off the gloves and accused Jumblatt and other critics of Hezbollah of conspiring against their so-called axis of resistance. That statement revealed Nasrallah’s true colours and reminded everyone that the current government standoff is about far more than Lebanon’s Druze community.  It is a fight for what remains of Lebanon and its sovereignty.

Many look at the mercurial and fickle Jumblatt as a diminishing political figure who simply wants to reclaim his share of Lebanon’s archaic political system. However, what is more important is Hezbollah’s effort to hijack the Lebanese government and the future of the struggling nation that is left with only two options: economic or political collapse.

In this dangerous confrontation, standing by Jumblatt and opposing Hezbollah’s total takeover of the Lebanese state are moral obligations that no one should shy away from.