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assad jumblatt -damascus 1By: Bassel Oudat

Following five years of animosity and rhetoric, the leader of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and the Democratic Gathering parliamentary bloc came to Syria. Walid Jumblatt met with Bashar Al-Assad to discuss past differences and turn a new leaf in relations.

Following the meeting, the Syrian presidency released a brief and cautiously-worded statement saying that Al-Assad reviewed with Jumblatt “the brotherly and historic ties that bind Syria and Lebanon and asserted the importance of consolidating Syrian-Lebanese relations and cementing the role of the resistance against Israel.”

According to the statement, Jumblatt “praised Al-Assad’s position on Lebanon and commended his eagerness to safeguard its security and stability.” Syrian official media reported the statement verbatim, adding no commentary or analysis.

Although Jumblatt’s visit was expected, only a handful of Syrian officials and members of the PSP and Hizbullah knew its timing. Hizbullah has been mediating the reconciliation between Jumblatt and Syria.

Jumblatt arrived in Syria accompanied by a senior Hizbullah official. His first meeting with Al-Assad in more than five years lasted 90 minutes.

Jumblatt was less taciturn than the Syrians concerning the outcome. In Beirut, he described the first moments as being “very difficult”. Jumblatt said that he was wary because it was hard to meet the man he had spoken ill about in the past. According to Jumblatt, Al-Assad proceeded to break the ice and asked the Druze leader to speak his mind. The talks were “very positive, cordial, and frank”, Jumblatt stated.

Syria’s cautious approach to the visit reflected how far the Syrians were keen to keep things official and formal. But the upshot is Syrians can forgive. Jumblatt’s past confrontation with the Syrian leadership had left a painful wound, for the Lebanese leader didn’t flinch from using foul language in reference to President Al-Assad.

Jumblatt blamed the Syrian regime for a spate of political assassinations in Lebanon. He once said that anyone who criticises the Syrian regime “would be killed by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.” He accused the Syrian regime of killing his father, Kamal Jumblatt, as well as other journalists and politicians including Lebanese President Rene Moawwad, Mufti Hassan Khaled, prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, Samir Qusayer, George Hawi and Jubran Tuweini.

Jumblatt’s vitriol climaxed in the second anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri on 14 February 2007, when he called Bashar Al-Assad a “butcher” and a “tyrant”.

Syrian and Lebanese commentators agreed that the meeting between Al-Assad and Jumblatt was wide-ranging, profound, frank, and cordial, and might lead to a strategic alliance between the two countries.

Since August 2009, Jumblatt has made a series of statements indicating a change of heart. He said that moments of anger made him say “improper things about Al-Assad” and called on Al-Assad to forget the past.

Al-Assad said that Jumblatt’s remarks paved the way for a visit to Syria, adding that what matters to Syria is good intentions.

Damascus may have been hoping that as soon as Jumblatt goes back to Beirut, he would take sides with the Lebanese minority, basically Hizbullah, Amal and the Lebanese National Current. But Jumblatt doesn’t seem in a hurry to part with his old friend, the March 14 Coalition of the Mustaqbal Current, the Phalangists, and the Lebanese Forces.

After the visit to Damascus, Jumblatt said that he is not bound by any arrangements with Damascus, but added that he wants to safeguard the resistance and to consolidate Lebanese-Syrian relations “through institutional channels”.

One must keep in mind that Jumblatt didn’t go to Damascus until after Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri. And he said nothing to suggest that he would distance himself from his allies. So far it seems that Jumblatt wishes to continue his alliance with the Lebanese majority while taking a reconciliatory approach towards the minority.

Speaking in a news conference held in his house in Beirut one day after the visit, Jumblatt said that starting afresh with Syria is more important than dwelling on the past. He pledged “to support the resistance and protect it and rebuild relations between Lebanon and Syria through institutional channels.”

Jumblatt also called for the borders between the two countries to be drawn and urged stronger political, economic, and security ties between the two countries.

Syrian-Lebanese relations underwent steady improvement last year, following years of tensions that began with the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005. With Syrian blessing, Lebanon was able to make a few achievements, including the election of President Michel Suleiman and the formation of a national unity government.

Syria and Lebanon have exchanged ambassadors for the first time since Lebanon’s independence. And with Saudi prompting, Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri visited Damascus for talks with the men he used to accuse of murdering his father.

Observers say that Jumblatt’s decision to visit Syria seems to be inspired by sectarian as well as political considerations. The greater part of the Druze community, which Jumblatt leads, lives in Syria.

Jumblatt admitted as much when he said that, “the safety of the Druze is something to be acquired within the Arab horizon overlooking Palestine. In other words, through pan-Arabism and through Syria.”

The Druze community in Syria was pleased with the visit. Syrian Baath Party official Fayez Ezzeddin, a Druze, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Syrian Druze welcome the meeting between Al-Assad and Jumblatt. He added that Jumblatt’s visit to Syria was “motivated by political rather than factional considerations.”

“The Druze community in Suweidaa [southern Syria] is different from the Lebanese Druze. The Lebanese Druze live within a political and national political map that is sometimes influenced by sectarian considerations, for this is the nature of Lebanon. In Syria, the political map of the Druze community conforms with official politics… In recent years, the Druze of Suweidaa didn’t support what Jumblatt was doing. They knew that Jumblatt lives in Lebanon and thinks in a Lebanese way… But when Jumblatt visits Syria in such a positive atmosphere, all the Druze would support him. Reconciliation is a good thing,” Ezzeddin said.

Nearly 90 per cent of Syrian Druze live in Al-Suweidaa and have close family ties with the Druze who live in Mount Lebanon. Many Druze emigrated from Mount Lebanon to Syria two centuries ago due to tensions between the Druze and the Maronites. Syrian Druze have never had to worry about sectarian violence there like they did in Lebanon.

Jumblatt is the scion of a patriotic family that never reconciled with Israel. His visit to Damascus makes it possible to put together a political coalition hostile to Israel. He is also regaining a valuable strategic ally and making sure that the status of the Druze in Syria continues to be protected. Jumblatt needs to remain leader of all Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian Druze.

On Syria’s part, the time was right to turn Jumblatt into an ally. Jumblatt is a force to contend with in Lebanon, and his friendship means a lot to the Syrians and their allies in Lebanon’s minority coalition.Al-Ahram

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