The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution hosted Lebanese Member of Parliament and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to discuss the prospects and challenges for wholesale political reform and state re-building in Lebanon. The talk was chaired by Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center.
Jumblatt began his presentation by responding to a Washington Post article that had cited the numerous insults that he had hurled over the years at U.S. officials. Although he did not regret making these remarks, he cited these comments as the reason it took so long for him to come to the United States and ask for U.S. assistance against Syria. Jumblatt said that his trip to the United States was aimed primarily at rallying U.S. and international support for the independence of Lebanon against pressure from Syria and in opposition to President of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, who is pro-Syrian. According to Jumblatt, his attitude towards the United States was altered in part by Washington’s own changed Middle East policy which no longer supports Arab dictators and stability at the expense of democracy promotion.
Jumblatt also talked about the issues of the armed Shi’ah Lebanese militia, Hizballah, which is listed by the United States as a terrorist group, and the territorial dispute over the Sheba’a Farms (territory controlled by Israel but claimed by Lebanon and Syria). Jumblatt began by arguing that there is no inconsistency between the Ta’if Accord of 1989, which ended the Lebanese civil war and called for the deconfessionalization of Lebanese politics, and United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559 (2004), which called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and the disarmament of militias. He claimed that the Ta’if Accord complements UNSCR 1559 (2004) on issues such as the Lebanese Army’s deployment in the south of the country along its border with Israel, respect for the Israeli-Lebanese ceasefire agreement of 1949, and the Lebanese state’s monopoly over the use of armed force. On the disputed ownership of the Sheba’a Farms, Jumblatt claimed that they are not part of Lebanon. If Syria disagrees, then the Syrian government must provide sufficient evidence that this area is in fact Lebanese. Jumblatt refused to accept a possible deal under which the Sheba’a Farms are deemed to be part of Syria in return for a tentative Syrian commitment to allow Lahoud to be removed as president of Lebanon.
Regarding Hizbollah, Jumblatt credited the Shi’ah group for armed action that had ended the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. However, he maintained that Hizbollah no longer needs to be armed to wrest the Sheba’a Farms from Israeli control as this is not a Lebanese-Israeli issue. Jumblatt stressed that the Sheba’a Farms are not Lebanese, but are considered to be Syrian by the United Nations. As for whether Hizbollah would heed calls to disarm, Jumblatt said he hoped that political and public pressure would convince the group of the need to give up its weapons, especially as the issue is finally being discussed in the context of the Lebanese “National Dialogue.” Jumblatt was very clear that he does not support military action against Hizbollah and that disarmament should come through dialogue. It was in this context that Jumblatt said the United States could be helpful, by assisting the Lebanese Army to consolidate its position so that it could be deployed to southern Lebanon along the border with Israel to replace Hizbollah’s presence there.
Jumblatt stressed the need to elect a new Lebanese president who can negotiate with the Syrians on Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty. He blamed the failure to oust the current president, Emile Lahoud, on certain Lebanese leaders whom he would not name. According to Jumblatt, Lahoud should have been removed from office at the time of the massive March 14, 2005 demonstration held a month after assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Jumblatt called this a historic missed opportunity because the anti-Syrian bloc in the Lebanese parliament now faces considerable obstacles to winning the necessary votes to constitutionally force Lahoud out of office. Indeed, Jumblatt said that “March 14 coalition”, to which he belongs, is facing a considerable challenge in that its democratic aspirations are confronted with threats from Syria.
Jumblatt accused Syria of continuing to interfere in Lebanese domestic affairs and charged that Damascus is sending weapons and terrorists into Lebanon. However, Jumblatt made it clear that he wants a change in the behavior of the Syrian regime and not regime change. Any change of administration in Syria, he believes, is a matter for the Syrian opposition. Jumblatt admitted meeting the exiled former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam in Paris on his way to Washington, and he spoke of a possible transitional role that Khaddam could play in Syrian politics. Jumblatt said that the demise of the Syrian regime would not cause chaos in Syria or the region. He commended the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt for their role in attempting to settle the Syrian-Lebanese dispute, but he called on Arab governments to exert more pressure on Syria.
Speaking about regional issues, Jumblatt urged the United States to promote change in the Middle East by applying pressure on some Arab leaders so that they alter their behavior. He noted that change has already started, though with mixed results, in places such as Iraq, Egypt, and the Palestinian Territories. For example, Jumblatt said that the war in Iraq had started off well, but that the United States committed an error by disbanding the secular Ba’th party, thereby enabling the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups. Jumblatt also spoke hopefully about Hamas changing its anti-Israel policy once it assumes power.
Jumblatt concluded by stressing that the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon, which forced Syria to withdraw its troops, is an asset to U.S. policy of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. He warned that the failure of Lebanese democracy will diminish the ability of the United States to spread reform in the region. He added that while the Lebanese civil war was over, Lebanon and its democratic aspirations remain at great risk.