He’s done it again.
Walid Jumblatt has left the March 14 coalition – or maybe not.
Being the leader of the fiercely proud and historically influential Druze minority, “Walid Beik” operates to keep his community secure and his dynasty relevant. With that said, it appears that three trends have led Jumblatt to move away from the March 14 coalition.
First, the Druze leader believes the regional winds are blowing in a new direction.
At the very least, he is unsure how Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Syria, and America’s attempt to follow suit, will affect politics in Lebanon. Uncertainty led the chieftain to mend fences with Damascus and, when met with an immediate domestic and regional backlash, to retreat from the “Beau Rivage declaration” (fittingly, the Beau Rivage Hotel was long a center of Syrian intelligence activity in Lebanon).
Second, Jumblatt fears a conflict that would threaten his community’s fragile presence in the Levant.
A repeat of Hizbullah’s 2008 assault on Beirut and the Chouf certainly qualifies as such a hazard. While the Druze repelled the attack, the community cannot afford sustained conflict with the Shiite party, which dominates areas that surround the Druze heartland.
Jumblatt is also wary of a Sunni-Shiite conflict that could ensnare the Druze. Mistrust prevails in the wake of last year’s fighting, and a controversial Der Spiegel report linking Hizbullah officials to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri has only magnified the potential for strife.
Additionally, in reconciling with Hizbullah, Jumblatt may be shielding his community from internal maneuvers designed to protect supply lines and communications networks in the event of another Israel-Hizbullah war. Hizbullah’s channels, linking the Bekaa Valley with South Lebanon, traverse areas near Jumblatt’s own mountain stronghold and the party will certainly go to great lengths – as it did in May 2008 – to protect its infrastructure.
Third, Jumblatt had taken a backseat in the March 14 coalition and has acted to increase his political autonomy and influence.
Since inheriting his father’s political mantle in 2005, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri has gradually (and, at times, frustratingly) found his bearings. Quite simply, Hariri has not had to lean on Jumblatt for a while, and the latter ceased being the coalition’s driving force.
Nor was Jumblatt the coalition’s spearhead. March 14 Christians, particularly Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, have increasingly assumed that role and gained Hariri’s ear over the past year. Of course, Jumblatt’s political gymnastics made his allies trust him less and decreased his sway within the movement.
In short, Jumblatt sees more value as a wild card. But what does his shift mean for others?
As it stands now, Lebanese leaders have coalesced around three alignments: a pro-Western camp; a pro-Iranian camp; and a “centrist” camp influenced by Syria. These groups are not mutually exclusive and their relationship, mirroring the regional dynamic, will ebb and flow.
The United States and Saudi Arabia will continue to back Hariri, who leads the pro-Western camp, even if their relations with Syria thaw. Similarly, Iran will continue to support and bankroll the Hizbullah-led opposition. The “centrist” bloc’s actions will presumably depend on how the Asad regime positions itself in the region.
If Syria is serious about playing a constructive role in the Middle East, the situation in Lebanon might improve. Conversely, if Syria merely aims to buy time and extract concessions from the United States, then Lebanon will pay the price.
At the local level, Jumblatt’s move may encourage opposition figures to join the pro-Syrian bloc on some issues. For instance, Marada chief Suleiman Franjieh and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri both have an interest in opposing privatization, stalling anti-corruption measures, and crafting a pro-Syrian foreign policy.
Such a shift, if it occurs, will not diminish the March 8 bloc’s power. Most Shiites support Hizbullah, which Iran supplies and funds; and former General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement retains much support within the Christian community.
Even so, Jumblatt’s departure is not a disaster for the March 14 movement. Whatever happens, Hariri can still count on Jumblatt’s support. Realistically, the Druze leader cannot afford to alienate Sunnis any more than Shiites. After all, Sunnis are a dominant majority in the Middle East and Jumblatt’s own electoral survival depends on good relations with Sunnis in the Chouf.
Moreover, Hariri’s Future Movement may move closer to the Lebanese Forces and Phalange, at least in the near term. These parties embrace Lebanon’s liberal economic tradition, oppose Syrian interference in Lebanon, and are comfortable in calling for serious talks on Hizbullah’s arms. Though smaller, the surviving coalition is more cohesive than its predecessor.
As always, the Beik fascinates and exasperates. An opportunist with a flair for making extravagant and contradictory declarations, the man is neither consistent nor accountable.
In some regard, however, he must be thanked. Unabashedly committed to his own survival, and that of his community, Walid Jumblatt has revealed – once more – the truth at the heart of politics in Lebanon.
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