Across the Bay

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Man of the Mountain

Michael Young conducts a very interesting interview with Druze leader Walid Jumblat. The interview touches on the recent Saudi-Egyptian activity, as well as the security cooperation Asad will sign with Iran's Ahmadinejad, who will be visiting Damascus soon. Jumblat is rightly worried about the involuntary annexation of Lebanon to a diastrous Syrian-Iranian axis.

As Jumblat himself had said recently, Bashar may have threatened the Egyptians and the Saudis, which may have caused them to take a step back (Mubarak, at any rate, prefers not to see Bashar fall, not just because of the MB issue, but also because of the Gamal Mubarak project he is cooking for Egypt). Also, Jumblat takes into consideration the internal divisions in Saudi Arabia:

"Bashar seems to have blackmailed the Saudis and Egyptians. He seems to have said 'It's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood' to the Egyptians; and he may have scared the Saudis by threatening them with Al-Qaeda, which he happens to be backing in Iraq."

Were there other explanations for the sudden Saudi shift in direction? "There may be divisions in the royal family," Jumblatt answered. He speculated that the foreign minister, Saud Al-Faysal, for decades the avatar of status-quo Arab politics, may be keener to sustain the Assad regime than another Saudi mediator with Damascus, Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the U.S. who now heads the kingdom's National Security Council.

Jumblatt affirmed that the Saudi-Egyptian plan—which seeks to impose vaguely-defined "coordination" between Lebanon and Syria on a variety of bilateral issues, and to muzzle Lebanese media when it comes to matters Syrian—had "failed." For Jumblatt, "implementation of such a plan would take us back to where we were with the Syrians before they left."

Why had the plan failed? "Because both [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice and [French President Jacques] Chirac have rejected any plan that might weaken Lebanon's sovereignty." Indeed, Rice released a statement on Wednesday saying: "The United States stands firmly with the people of Lebanon in rejecting any deals or compromises that would undermine the [Hariri] investigation, or relieve Syria of its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions… As Resolution 1559 demands, Syria must once and for all end its interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon."

Though Jumblatt helped torpedo the Saudi-Egyptian initiative, he seemed little reassured that the Arab states would not again seek to save Assad's bacon. For him, however, one way to undermine such efforts is to create an international tribunal "that alone would have the power to call in suspects involved in Hariri's assassination, like Bashar Assad." Jumblatt makes no bones about the fact that the Syrians ordered the murder. "The only problem with such a tribunal," he conceded, "is that it takes time." Plenty of time for assassinations in Lebanon to continue.

It should be mentioned that no one really knows what actual influence the Saudis and Egyptians actually have, and what guarantees they can actually give, given the strong Western response (Chirac, Rice, Straw), and their rejection of any compromise or undermining of the investigation, which should be "pursued to its end" (with an anonymous American official telling an-Nahar, "if the investigation reaches president Asad personally, then so be it."). The strong rejection from the March 14 alliance and the Aounists in Lebanon also benefitted from this US-EU response, and seems to have killed this particular initiative, just as it did with the Amr Moussa initiative earlier (in essence, it's the same initiative, only this time, for some reason, it was tolerated by the Saudis, unlike the first time around). This dual response has caused the Saudis and Egyptians to qualify their efforts, and to stress that they do not concern in anyway the UN inquiry, stressing that Syria should cooperate with it fully, which takes us back to square one, as cooperation means Assad will be implicated.

As for Iran and Hizbullah:

The Iranian relationship with Hezbollah is also of great concern to Jumblatt, because Hezbollah is closely allied with Syria, is heavily armed, and because the Druze leader doesn't believe the Lebanese government can persuade the party to disarm. According to Resolution 1559—the September 2004 Security Council decision demanding a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon—Hezbollah and other militias in the country must surrender their weapons. However, Hezbollah's arms are there partly to help Iran. The group reportedly has thousands of rockets in southern Lebanon targeted at Israel, to deter an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. "According to what I have heard [from within the Shiite community], the Iranian side in Hezbollah has gained ascendancy over the Syrian side," Jumblatt says. An Iranian-Syrian defense treaty would only bolster the group, making it more intransigent.
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For Jumblatt, Hezbollah is, dangerously, a "state within a state."

Left unmentioned is how the Saudis and Egyptians (let alone the West) will react to the Syrian-Iranian treaty. Anyway, read the whole thing.

Update: For more on the possible splits inside HA, see this post by Caveman. Al-Siyassah had made similar claims about the role of Hashem Safieddine inside the party a little while back.