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The Weathervane

BEIRUT — The beik is staying in the mountains these days. To reach him, you take the highway south out of Beirut, heading along the Mediterranean coastline. From there, the route is vertical: A winding road takes you up the mountain range, past soldiers standing guard by a cement hut painted with the Lebanon flag, through scattered villages and over sharp cliffs that have denied would-be invaders for millennia. And there, in a 300-year old castle overlooking the town of Mukhtara, sits Walid Jumblatt.

Jumblatt is the head of Lebanon’s Druze, an esoteric Islamic sect whose entire population in the country could perhaps fill the Rose Bowl twice. Beik is an old Ottoman honorific, a holdover from centuries past, when the Jumblatts were the feudal nobility of the region. This current beik has ruled over Mukhtara since 1977 — before Hezbollah existed, and when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was still in grade school.

Despite his community’s small numbers, Walid Beik has emerged as a symbol of the tumultuous politics in Syria and Lebanon. He preserves his influence by being the swing vote in Levantine politics — throwing his weight behind whichever power has the political wind at its back.

It can be a cold-hearted venture: After the Syrian regime assassinated his father during the Lebanese civil war, Jumblatt swallowed his anger and emerged as a staunch ally of President Hafez al-Assad. He abandoned Damascus in 2005 after his ally, former President Rafiq al-Hariri, was assassinated by a giant car bomb in downtown Beirut. Joining in an alliance with Rafiq’s son Saad, he emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of Hezbollah and Assad, whom he dubbed the "Damascus dictator." He then reconciled with the Syrian regime in 2008 after Hezbollah and its allies invaded his mountain heartland — only to shift again as the revolt aimed at toppling the Assad regime gained momentum.

Jumblatt shrugs off the implication that there is something objectionable about his political shifts.

"Politics is made out of change," he tells Foreign Policy. "There is no fixed status or rigid status. Sometimes you have to change through the environment. When the Syrian regime started killing its people, I supported the Syrian people."

One day after our interview, on Oct. 3, Syrian artillery opened fire on a Turkish border town, killing five civilians — Ankara responded with a hail of retaliatory fire on Syrian territory. NATO issued a statement reacting to the shelling with just the sort of rhetorical assault that infuriates Jumblatt: The alliance denounced the Assad regime’s "flagrant breach of international law," and pledged to "closely follow the situation," but gave no indication it was considering military action.

"As long as the West is not supporting the rebels with adequate weapons — Stingers and anti-tank missiles — [the conflict] will drag on," he says.

But even as he stokes the fires of revolt in Syria — he has also attempted to rally the Syrian Druze against Assad – he is not burning his bridges with all the regime’s allies, or building new ones with all its enemies. His harshest criticisms in this interview were reserved for the United States, which he sees as hypocritically using fears of an Islamist takeover or a post-Assad dictatorship to justify its inaction.

"Who supported the jihadists and the Islamists apart from Washington, when they were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan? And who ruined Pakistan at one time except the policy of Washington, in the 1960s and 1970s?" he asks. "The West at that time supported all of the dictators from Hafez al-Assad to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to [Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali, against the will of the Arab people. Let the Arab people decide their own fate."

 

The beik has a way with words. In years past, he has called Bashar "a snake, a butcher," "an Israeli product," and urged Washington to send car bombs to Damascus. He lamented in 2003 that then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had survived a rocket attack in Baghdad, describing the hawkish U.S. official as "a virus." The media broadsides, however, are not gratuitous: They bolster Jumblatt’s public profile far beyond his political weight, and can disguise his efforts to balance the interests of rival powers.

So while Jumblatt has blasted Assad as "a tyrant who suffers from megalomania" this time around, there is one weapon he refuses to deploy against the Syrian president: His ability to bring down the pro-Syrian government in Beirut. Lebanon’s ruling coalition, which is dominated by Hezbollah and its allies, relies on Jumblatt’s support to remain in power. But "nothing," he says, could convince him to leave the government and support a coalition made up of anti-Syrian parties.

So it is that in this country of paradoxes, Lebanon’s political balance of power has once again tipped against Assad — but the levers of power remain in the hands of the pro-Syrian parties.

"Walid Jumblatt is trying to say: ‘I am part of this government because this government could ensure stability, and I’m staying in this government not because I feel it’s a productive government, not because I share the thoughts of all my allies in this government — no, I’m staying because I think in doing so I’m preserving stability,’" says Ziad Baroud, a former Lebanese interior minister and politician.

It’s a logic that appeals to leaders like Baroud, who have tried to remain independent from the major pro- and anti-Syrian alliances. His goal is to insulate Lebanon from the upheaval next door: "What is happening in Syria is very unfortunate, but at the same time we cannot take the country to something similar," he says. "We had our share — for years. And we know what civil war is about."

Jumblatt’s realpolitik may have its own unassailable logic, but it has resulted in some typically tangled alliances. The thorniest is with Hezbollah, with whom the Druze leader says he maintains good ties.

Jumblatt says his ties with Hezbollah remain strong, even as the two forces back rival sides in Syria. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has lauded the Syrian government as "a regime of resistance" — a reference to Israel — and rumors that the Shiite militant group’s fighters are supporting Assad militarily were bolstered this week upon the death of Hezbollah operative Ali Hussein Nassif, who the party said lost his life "doing his jihadist duties." A Lebanese security official said that Nassif was killed fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime.

Jumblatt, however, doesn’t want to dwell on Hezbollah’s role in Syria. It is their shared anti-Israel stance — perhaps the only constant in his decades-long political career — that cements the alliance.

"We have not to forget the almost daily, daily declarations of the crazy guys of Israel, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak, willing to attack Hezbollah, willing to attack Iran," he says. "In case the Israelis commit this foolish adventure, of course they will attack Lebanon, and we will have to defend ourselves. With all available means."

It all quickly veers into the absurd. The man whose fighters rained artillery down on U.S. Marines during the Lebanese civil war — and who speaks bitterly about U.S. foreign-policy crimes to this day — maintains that he "would have preferred to be a garbage man in [New York City] than a zaim [feudal leader] in Lebanon." The man who is now supporting the Syrian uprising had visited Assad only a year prior to the revolt, after offering his apologies for his earlier "indecent comments."

So who, at the end of the day, is Walid Jumblatt? He might have put it best in a 1984 interview with Playboy, of all magazines — Bo Derek in a cowboy outfit graced the cover. The scene was a Geneva hotel, where the feudal chieftain was struggling fruitlessly to negotiate an end to the country’s ruinous civil war. "We are all warlords in Lebanon," he said. "[L]ike feudal lords or godfathers, something like that…We are just surrogates for somebody, puppets for somebody. Everybody is a puppet."

It is a worldview that can appear, at first glance, fatalistic — the Playboy interviewer asked if Jumblatt’s bombastic statements were his way of saying "What the hell?" to his impossible position. "Not ‘what the hell?’ when it comes to the interests of my community," he retorted. "That I care about. My aims are very limited. It’s better to have limited aims."

The aim is to protect the Druze — to guide his stadiums-full of supporters through the upheavals that seize his corner of the Middle East. And it is a role Jumblatt must take on again, with the Assad regime tottering and powers bigger than himself planning to remake the region in its wake. He has been playing this game longer than anyone else: The men who tried to control him when he first took the reins in Mukhtara are all dead, physically or politically. But Walid Beik is still there, in the mountains.