SYRIA: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt seeks to build friendship with man he once vilified, President Bashar Assad
It may have been fashionable in 2007 to call the president of Syria "a snake, a butcher, a liar ... and a criminal," but it could make things awkward when you're sitting across from him three years later.
Then again, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's meeting with Bashar al Assad on Wednesday – the first in six years – was really more of a reunion. The notoriously mercurial Jumblatt was a staunch ally of Syria before he rode the wave of anti-Syrian sentiment to the forefront of Lebanese politics, and then switched sides again when he felt the wind shift.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if privately Bashar was like ‘well played’ to Jumblatt," said Harvard researcher and Lebanon expert Elias Muhanna. Jumblatt "always gets out ahead of everyone else, and I think [Assad] understands that, so it could very well be a frank and candid conversation."
The meeting was the culmination of a two-year campaign by Jumblatt to get back in Assad's good graces with the help of Syria's ally in Lebanon, the militant Shiite group Hezbollah.
Earlier this month, Jumblatt, a former darling of neoconservatives in Washington, publicly apologized for his incendiary comments about the Syrian president, claiming he got swept up in the passion of the so-called Cedar Revolution that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
The meeting produced the compulsory sound bites about Lebanon and Syria's "historical" and "brotherly" relations, but analysts say it shows more about the cyclical nature of dynastic politics in this corner of the world.
After 2005, Jumblatt accused Syrian intelligence of being behind his father's 1977 assassination. Now that he is preparing his son, Taymour, to take over, he may be returning to Damascus to smooth things over.
"Jumblatt wants to make sure that his son is received in Damascus and receives the benefits of that relationship," Muhanna said.
From Syria's perspective, Jumblatt's visit is an affirmation of Assad's power, as well as an opportunity to shore up support for Hezbollah in case members of the group are implicated in the investigation into Hariri's killing, said Muhanna.
"Jumblatt knows that the image of him going back to Damascus is something Syria wants, for Bashar to show his own people that even his most virulent critics have come back and paid homage," Muhanna said.
Jumblatt began realigning himself after the events of May 7, 2008, when Hezbollah fighters took over most of Beirut and the Druze stronghold of Aley. Soon after, he effectively withdrew from the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. Since then, even Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain prime minister and leader of the March 14 movement, have paid their respects in Damascus.
Jumblatt's meeting with Assad coincided with another meeting in Lebanon between Saad Hariri and U.S. Sen. John Kerry. The former presidential candidate and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee emphasized U.S. support for a "free and independent" Lebanon before heading to Damascus late Wednesday to hold talks with Assad in an effort to secure Syria's cooperation in peace talks.
-- Meris Lutz in Beirut
Top photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency
Bottom Photo: Walid Jumblatt meets with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Saad Hariri's headquarters in Beirut after the Doha Accord ended fighting in Lebanon. Credit: Dalati & Nohra / NNA