The shift in allegiances of Lebanon's chameleon-like Druze leader has sent tremors through the country's political system.
For almost three months the headlines of Lebanon's papers have told a similar story of the deadlock in forming a cabinet. The optimism that followed the victory of the March 14 alliance -- made up of the Progressive Socialist party (PSP), the Future Movement and others -- in June's elections has been lost in the maze of internal and external politics.
Arguably one of the most significant turning points can be attributed to an astonishing shift in the allegiances of the PSP leader, Walid Jumblatt, on 2 August -- from seemingly being Syria's arch-enemy in Lebanon to heading back into the Damascene fold. The ramifications of Jumblatt's departure from the (Saudi and US-backed) March 14 alliance continue to send tremors through the country's fragile political system. If Lebanon can be said to represent a microcosm of the Middle East's politics, then Jumblatt can be described as a bellwether of prevailing trends in political power. Indeed, he described himself as "an exceptional and independent case."
His defection is evidence of the death of the Bush conceptual framework for the Middle East that divided the area into "moderates" and "extremists." The battle lines were drawn between a US-supported alliance of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt, Fatah Palestinians and the Lebanese March 14 alliance versus Iran, Syria, the Lebanese March 8 alliance and Hamas. Previously Jumblatt decided to side with the aggressive new US neocon administration at a time in which Bush's "you're either with us or against us" approach left little room for compromise.
Yet the wave of change promised by Bush's interventions in the Middle East crashed on the bloody rocks and rubble of Iraq, leaving Lebanon increasingly isolated. The departure of the Syrians, the setting up of a tribunal after the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the recent election victory of the March 14 group suggested that serious change had been brought to Lebanon. But the series of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures and, in particular, the US impotence in the face of Israel's month-long mauling of the country's infrastructure in 2006 (which was estimated to put the country back some 15 years) was a reminder that the US was a part-time player in the Lebanon arena, whereas it is the Syrians who have the long game.
The new US approach to the region is a realist one characterized by its focus on dialogue with its enemies. The warming of relations with Syria in particular, with reports suggesting that a US ambassador to Damascus will be appointed shortly, has forced Jumblatt to significantly adjust his alliances to better protect his sect. In announcing his flip-flop, the chameleon-like Druze leader spoke of his regret over the alliance with US neocons, describing 2006 meetings he had in Washington as a "black mark." Yet his resume is a testimony to his ability to adapt interests to power regardless of its source. After all, this is the man who was forced to become leader of his sect at 27 when his father was assassinated by the Syrians, yet formed an alliance with Damascus in 1983, a year after he reached out to the Israelis when they invaded in 1982.
Jumblatt's Druze fiefdom is located in the Chouf Mountains, just south of Beirut. The Middle East's mountains are filled with minority groups who have fled from persecution from whatever majority existed in the political framework (be it pre- or post-Ottoman, colonial or post-colonial) of the time. Jumblatt's base of about 200,000 Druze is surrounded by Shia communities allied to Syria, and whereas US policy towards Syria may oscillate, Syria will always be Lebanon's neighbor with a myriad of interconnections between the two states.
What is more, a series of crucial events occurred during the Hezbollah takeover of the Beirut streets last year. While media attention focused on what was happening in the capital, brutal fighting was going on in Chouf between Hezbollah and Jumblatt's Druze PSP forces. Following the killing and mutilation of two Hezbollah supporters by the PSP, a convoy of Hezbollah vehicles hellbent on exacting revenge ran into a prepared ambush on the outskirts of Shuwfat.
In the battle that followed, anti-aircraft guns and RPGs were used and dozens were killed on both sides, leading the combatants' respective leaders into an emergency dialogue to prevent a battle escalating into a war.
Ultimately, the incident exposed Jumblatt and the Druze's vulnerability. While the Hariri killing highlighted that even the most protected individuals can be targeted, the prospect of taking on Lebanon's dominant military force (Hezbollah) in open conflict was a bridge too far when combined with the changing winds of international policy.
In his history of modern Lebanon, Fawwaz Traboulsi observed that "the Lebanese entity was to be periodically reproduced by means of a compromise between the dominant regional and international powers." It would appear that Jumblatt's change of direction is a symptom of the new compromise of the Obama era towards Syria. What this means for the future of Lebanon will become clearer once its tortuous cabinet negotiations are finally resolved.