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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, meets Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in Damascus on March 31, 2010. (SANA/SANA/REUTERS)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, meets Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in Damascus on March 31, 2010. (SANA/SANA/REUTERS)

Walid Jumblatt's Epiphany Add to ...

Call him a survivor.

Walid Jumblatt, godfather of Lebanon's 300,000 Druze, has an uncanny knack for allying himself with the right people at the right time.

Last week, it was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with whom he met in order to reconcile after several years of acrimonious estrangement.

In the spring of 2005, following the car-bomb assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, Mr. Jumblatt, along with Saad Hariri, Rafik's son, had been instrumental in creating the "March 14" opposition movement that so mobilized Lebanese and the international community that it effectively forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

Two years ago, Mr. Jumblatt called the Syrian President everything from a "snake" to a "monkey" and called for the Assad regime to be overthrown. For good measure, the Druze leader said it was Mr. al-Assad's father, Hafez, who was responsible for the assassination of Mr. Jumblatt's own father, Kamal, in 1977.

Despite all this, there was Mr. Jumblatt last week, looking down at the floor in front of the Syrian leader.

In a way, it was the murder of his father 33 years ago that ultimately drove Mr. Jumblatt back to Damascus.

At 60, the wiry, world-weary Mr. Jumblatt already has outlived his father - something that is not lost on the Druze leader.

The senior Mr. Jumblatt had not always been so pliable.

Both of the Jumblatts had supported the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1970s when the group sought refuge in Lebanon, and they continued to support it when the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975. Kamal Jumblatt also opposed Syria when it intervened in 1977, a fact that probably led to his death.

Following the killing - Kamal Jumblatt's car was ambushed as it rounded a sharp bend on the road outside his home - Walid Jumblatt moved quickly to support Syria, despite deep suspicions it had been behind the slaying.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Jumblatt supported the Christian Phalangists - and even, for a time, the Israelis when they invaded in 1982. A year later, however, he shifted his ties and waged a bitter ethnic battle against the Christians, driving thousands from many of their villages also in the Chouf Mountains.

For a time, Mr. Jumblatt was allied with the Shia Amal group, but he moved on to support the Sunni leaders who opposed the Shiites.

By the end of the war in 1990, and with the formation of the Rafik Hariri government, Mr. Jumblatt was made Minister of Displaced Persons and, ironically, became responsible for resettling the thousands of Christians he had dispersed.

Now, once again, he's come full circle, back to the arms of Syria.

In this move, he was helped on the road to Damascus by another of his erstwhile enemies, Hezbollah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, orchestrated the Wednesday meeting and had two of his most senior aides accompany Mr. Jumblatt to Syria.

All this leaping from one alliance to another is not unprincipled, Mr. Jumblatt insisted in an interview last year. "I have to be flexible," he explained. "My true loyalty is to the interests of my people."

The Druze, like the Ismailis from whom they are descended, are small in number and have always had to worry about their security. That's why, in every country, they've chosen to live in hard-to-get-at, easily defensible, mountain enclaves. And that's generally why they have opted to support the local leadership whoever that may be.

In Syria, it's the Assads.

In Israel, it's the government of whichever party is in power. In fact, Israel's Druze, who live mostly in the hills outside Haifa and along the border with Lebanon, are so loyal to Israel that Druze soldiers are considered among the hardest fighting of Israel's forces.

On the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, the loyalty of the 20,000 Druze appropriately straddles the frontier between Israel and Syria. They can't chance the possibility that they'll return, one day, to the control of Syria, where most Druze continue to live.

The prospect of his own Lebanese Druze community falling again under Syrian influence is also what drove Mr. Jumblatt to Damascus.

With the March 14 movement coming apart - Prime Minister Saad Hariri himself made the trip to Damascus in December and plans to return soon - and with Hezbollah enjoying political strength as well as Syrian patronage, Mr. Jumblatt, true to form, was repositioning himself in the interests of his people.

The Druze leader may be back in Damascus's good graces, but he won't enjoy much seniority in that position.

The honour of being Syria's man in Lebanon goes to Michel Aoun, the former head of Lebanon's army who once battled Syrian troops in the streets of Beirut, leaving thousands dead.

But as Mr. Jumblatt knows, enemies, like allies, can be fleeting things.

 

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