The Druze and the sectarian realpolitik in the Levant

THE Druze sect is a secretive offshoot of Shia sect that spread in the Levant a millennium ago during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph Hakim. Though comprising barely ten per cent of both Syria and Lebanon populations, they have played a critical role in the modern history of these countries.

By Matein Khalid (At Home)

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Published: Mon 21 Jul 2008, 12:18 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:21 PM

Sultan al-Atrash, a Druze, led the Arab nationalist revolt against colonial France in Syrian mandate in 1920's. The Lebanese Druze hereditary chieftain Kemal Jumblatt, allied with the Palestinian guerillas in West Beirut to challenge the dominance of the Maronite Christians. It lead to Civil War in Lebanon in 1975. The Druze are the only Arabs allowed to serve in Israel's IDF and have their own "special units" that have fought the Palestinians on the West Bank and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Fiercely monotheistic, the Druze call themselves the muwahidun (those who believe in the unity of God) and are said to be descendants of ancient Persian migrants who settled in the Jabal Druze in Syria.

The Jumblatt clan has dominated Druze politics in Lebanon for two centuries, with challenge from rival Yazbaki Arsalan clan. The clan is led by the charismatic AUB graduate and feudal lord Walid Jumblatt. His father Kemal, a winner of the Lenin Prize, founded the leftist Progressive Socialist Party militia that played a decisive role in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. Syrian agents assassinated Sheikh Kemal when he opposed their deployment to prevent a PLO victory against the Phalange in 1976 and his son and heir Walid was forced to accept the Baathist diktat for two decades as Syria was the defacto occupying power in Lebanon. When Walid Jumblatt broke with Syria after the death of President Hafez Assad in 2000, a new coalition was born in Lebanon.

Walid Jumblatt's claim as the leader of Lebanon's Druze came after the Israeli invasion in 1982. He had contacted the IDF to preserve the control of the Druze heartland in the Chouf Mountains after the siege of West Beirut and the evacuation of Yasser Arafat's PLO under an America-brokered ceasefire. However, the Israelis were suspicious about his father's alliance with the Palestinians during the initial phase of the Lebanese civil war. Ariel Sharon, then Israeli foreign minister, preferred to cede control of the Chouf to Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and his murdered brother Bashir's Phalangist militia. Yet when the Phalangists gunmen entered the Chouf, Jumblatt's Druze PSF militia overran Maronite villages and forced 50,000 Christian refugees to flee. The Druze also fought the Israelis, the Shia Amal militia and the Lebanese Army's Eighth Brigade for control of their positions in West Beirut and the hill pass of Souk Al Gharb. The "war of the mountains" between the Maronites and the Druze was savage and the mass slaughter was rampant. As Jumblatt allied with the Syrians to fight the pro-American Gemayel regime in Beirut, Hezbollah launched the suicide attacks against the US Marine and French Legionnaire peacekeepers. As President Reagan withdrew US troops from Lebanon, Jumblatt became a vassal of the Baathist regime in Damascus, whose political supremacy in Lebanon was endorsed by the Taif Accords in 1991. Hafez Al Assad had chosen to join the Americans and the Saudis against Saddam Hussein during Operation Desert Storm and Lebanon was allowed by Washington to go under Syrian tutelage.

A member of successive Lebanese cabinets in the 1990's under Prime Ministers Salim Hoss, Omar Karami, Riad Solh and Rafik Hariri, Jumblatt's influence waned with the rise of Bashir al-Assad and his brother-in-law Brigadier Assaf Shawkat just before Hafez Al Assad's death in summer 2000. The new generation in Damascus purged Vice-President Khaddam and Army chief of staff Hikmat Shahabi, Jumblatt's strongest patrons in Damascus. As President, Bashir al-Assad distrusted Lebanon's traditional warlords and preferred to deal with the pro-Syrian General Lahoud and the heads of intelligence agencies like the Surete General and Deuxième Bureau. It forced Jumblatt to turn against Syria and reinvent himself as a fierce nationalist and ally with his former foes in the Phalange and the Maronite Lebanese forces.

The assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the Saudi Arabian rupture with the Baathist Syria, the Cedar Revolution on the streets of Beirut and the US invasion of Baathist Iraq turn Jumblatt into the most anti-Syrian, pro-Washington politician in Lebanon. The sectarian interests of the Druze necessitated the Jumblatt clan's tactical alliance with the Palestinians in the 1970's, Syria in the 1980's and 1990's, with the United States in 2003 and with the Sunni and Maronite politicians in the Siniora government after 2005. Yet it is just possible that Walid Jumblatt has miscalculated the new political realities of Lebanon and the Middle East. Hezbollah humiliated the IDF in 2006 and humiliated the Lebanese state when its gunmen easily overran the Sunni militias in West Beirut and the Druze villages in Mount Lebanon. Recently, Hasan Nasrallah ordered Hezbollah troops into the Druze heartland to humiliate Jumblatt by branding him a Zionist agent and negotiated a ceasefire with Emir Talal Arsalan, the pro-Syrian sheikh of the Druze.

The Druze, who believe in reincarnation, do not hesitate to shift allies and, as the war of the mountains in the 1983 proved. A PSF militia confrontation with Hezbollah could easily resurrect the sectarian demons of the Lebanese civil war. An old Levantine proverb goes "eat with the Druze. But sleep with the Christians", testament to Jumblatt's reputation as the fierce, ruthless "political weathervane" of Arab politics for his subtle understanding of regional power shifts. His relations with Hezbollah will determine the future of Lebanon.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst

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