Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

November 2, 2009

Beirut: the Sunni shift (and Jumblatt)

Filed under: Arab attitudes,Helena's travels,Lebanon — Helena Cobban @ 9:24 pm

Today, we had good meetings with a pair of young diplomats in the US Embassy here in Lebanon, with Free Patriotic Movement head Michael Aoun, with PM-designate Saad al-Hariri, Druze/socialist leader Walid Jumblatt, and caretaker PM Fouad Siniora. My goodness, it felt like a lot of meetings.  Tomorrow we’re meeting President Michel Suleiman fairly early, then proceeding to Damascus.

One of my main takeaways from today’s meetings is the degree to which attitudes among leaders of Lebanon’s Sunni community have changed over the past year or so.  This time last year, you could still regularly see some pretty strongly anti-Syrian statements coming from many Lebanese Sunni leaders.  Today, both Saad al-Hariri and Fouad Siniora made a point of saying that Lebanon needs to find a way to work constructively with Syria.

Both also laid huge stress in what they told us on the great importance to Lebanon of the US securing a speedy resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Siniora, who talked at greater length, also argued for working with Hizbullah rather than against it, and warned that any US or Israeli attack against Iran would be catastrophic for the whole region.

These are two Lebanese Sunni figures, remember, who were at the heart of the “moderate, pro-US Sunni” project that the Bush administration, the neocons, and the pro-AIPAC crowd hyped so loudly during the years 2005-08.  Within that frame, the Bushists and their supporters tried to argue that the “moderate Sunnis” in Lebanon and elsewhere throughout the Arab world were “fed up with the Palestinians, Hizbullah, and the Iranians”; that they feared the rise of “Shiite power”; and that they were actively rooting for the US or Israel to “take out” Iranian power before it submerged the whole region.

So what’s changed in the past year?

I’d say, three things:

  1. The Israeli assault on Gaza;
  2. The near-complete dashing of the hopes many Arabs earlier had that Pres. Obama would effect real change in the US’s policy on Palestinian- and Arab-Israeli issues; and
  3. The Saudi-Syrian reconciliation that was epitomized by King Abdullah ibn Abdul-Aziz’s recent visit to Damascus.

The change in position that I found from these two was fascinating, and almost certainly represented a shift in the thinking of many other Sunni Arab leaders who are– as these two are– very strongly pro-American.

Our meeting with Walid Jumblatt was also fascinating. Walid is an extremely mercurial political figure.  In October 2007, he was actually urging participants in the annual conference organized by the strongly pro-Israeli US think-tank WINEP to consider sending “car-bombs to Damascus” and saying “It was not a mistake in the absolute to remove Saddam Hussein… ”

Then, about three months ago he shifted very abruptly away from the neocons’ anti-Iranian, anti-Syrian position, at about the same time that he started bad-mouthing his allies in Lebanon’s US-backed “March 14” movement.

Today, he told us,

We in Lebanon need the weapons of Hizbullah, for our own protection– not least because we continually fear another Israeli attack and the US Congress won’t let the Lebanese army have the arms it needs to defend the country.

He also said,

I used to be among the hawks against Syria. Thank God the Bush administration didn’t listen to me! It would have been a complete disaster, like Iraq…  The alliance I had with the Falangists and Hariri [that is, March 14] against Syria was ‘against history’.

Anyway, more later. Sorry we still have no pics up…



  1. and saying “It was not a mistake in the absolute to remove Saddam Hussein… “

    Sadly this is the stupid politics, when Saddam through Iraqi millions to hypocrites from around he though he gained their support, but he can’t understand very fundamental fact that if a regime lost its credibility from its own nation, the regime day short to be live sooner or latter with any blow winds from the West or East.

    here very interesting talk what ME and other places for the new geography!

    Of all the geographically illogical states in the Fertile Crescent, none is more so than Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, by far the worst in the Arab world, was itself geographically determined: Every Iraqi dictator going back to the first military coup in 1958 had to be more repressive than the previous one just to hold together a country with no natural borders that seethes with ethnic and sectarian consciousness. The mountains that separate Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq, and the division of the Mesopotamian plain between Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south, may prove more pivotal to Iraq’s stability than the yearning after the ideal of democracy. If democracy doesn’t in fairly short order establish sturdy institutional roots, Iraq’s geography will likely lead it back to tyranny or anarchy again.

    But for all the recent focus on Iraq, geography and history tell us that Syria might be at the real heart of future turbulence in the Arab world. Aleppo in northern Syria is a bazaar city with greater historical links to Mosul, Baghdad, and Anatolia than to Damascus. Whenever Damascus’s fortunes declined with the rise of Baghdad to the east, Aleppo recovered its greatness. Wandering through the souks of Aleppo, it is striking how distant and irrelevant Damascus seems: The bazaars are dominated by Kurds, Turks, Circassians, Arab Christians, Armenians, and others, unlike the Damascus souk, which is more a world of Sunni Arabs. As in Pakistan and the former Yugoslavia, each sect and religion in Syria has a specific location. Between Aleppo and Damascus is the increasingly Islamist Sunni heartland. Between Damascus and the Jordanian border are the Druse, and in the mountain stronghold contiguous with Lebanon are the Alawites—both remnants of a wave of Shiism from Persia and Mesopotamia that swept over Syria a thousand years ago.

    The Revenge of Geography
    By Robert D. Kaplan

    Comment by Salah — November 3, 2009 @ 4:08 am | Reply

  2. Helena, when you ask what has changed, you left out the most important change of all.

    In 2008, the Lebanese government declared Hezbollah’s communications network illegal. Hezbollah responded by turning its weapons (supposedly intended for use against Israel) on its fellow Lebanese, attacking the government in Beirut and Jumblatt’s Druze in the Chouf Mountains. Neither the west nor the Arabs did anything to stand up for the Lebanese government (or for the Druze). Lebanon’s sectarian politicians got the message.

    The Doha Agreement ended the fighting, but Hezbollah’s resort to violence had won it various concessions. In addition, Jumblatt (and others) sharply scaled back their anti-Hezbollah/anti-Syria rhetoric and became much more cautious. The reason for this is obvious: Jumblatt (and others) has survived this long because he shelters in the shadow of the most dangerous, threatening power around.

    But I can guarantee, with 100% certainty, that when he is talking to his personal friends, Jumblatt does not say that he needs Hezbollah weapons to protect him against the Israelis. That statement would be funny if it weren’t tragic.

    Jumblatt can be charming, and will tell you what he thinks you want to hear. I’m sure you wore your sympathies on your sleeve.

    Jumblatt is also a “political animal,” and it’s a sensitive time right now. I’m surprised that you didn’t mention that either. They’re trying to put together a cabinet. Jumblatt, and Lebanon, are walking a political tightrope.

    Comment by Howard — November 3, 2009 @ 12:12 pm | Reply

    • As I understand the agreements that ended the 2006 Israeli aggression against Lebanon, Hezbollah never agreed to shut down its network.

      The Lebanese political system does not give Shiites their full share of power, and a large part of the Lebanese Shiite population is in Southern Lebanon and directly threatened by the Zionist state, which ethnically cleansed the Palestinian Shiite population and drove them in Lebanon in 1947-8.

      Until Lebanese Shiites have their full share of power and the Lebanese army can protect the Shiite population from Zionist aggression, Hezbollah is certainly completely rational in refusing to dismantle its communications network.

      The Western-backed cabinet order was an effort by a tiny minority of quislings to get on a US aid gravy-train at the expense of the vast majority of the Lebanese population.

      By refusing to kowtow, Hezbollah thwarted Neocon-Zionist plans and helped discredit Bushite-Neocon-Zionist policies.

      The whole world (including patriotic Americans opposed to Zionist subversion) should be grateful for Hezbollah’s steadfastness.

      Comment by Joachim Martillo — November 3, 2009 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

  3. Howard, leave the re-writing of history fo future generations. And let them, if they wish, show that Hezbollah acted with anything other than enormous, exemplary, restraint in 2008. And that it is other than determinedly defensive in its posture, although surrounded by far more powerful, foreign sponsored powers such as the Israeli Forces, its allies the Falange, the Hariri sectarians, supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States, and, of course, the Welch club itself.
    As Joachim points out the shia of Lebanon have been cheated of the power that their numbers justify and which they have won at the ballot box; the laws of nature leave them no alternative but to insist on their right to self defence.
    The role that the west has played in Lebanese politics, these past ten years, has been despicable. So has been the treachery of those who have sought to sell off their fellow countrymen for private or sectarian advantage. One of whom is Walid Jumblatt.
    As to the political tightrope that Lebanese politicians are walking: their determination to form a government in which 55% of the electorate is not given a veto to protect its constituency id hradly one worthy of sympathy from those who call themselves democrats.

    Comment by bevin — November 3, 2009 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

  4. What surprises me in your post is the statement “near-complete dashing of the hopes many Arabs earlier had that Pres. Obama would effect real change in the US’s policy on Palestinian- and Arab-Israeli issues”. Arabs live in some of the most lethargic authoritian regimes, so backwards and behind the times that in some of them not only can’t women vote but they can’t even drive. Yet they’re disappointed that 8 months after taking office some huge change hasn’t taken place in some of the most basic levels of US policy.

    Comment by David — November 4, 2009 @ 5:46 pm | Reply

  5. It’s so good to see Walid Jumblatt, Fouad Siniora and Saad al-Hariri being so warmly embraced at last. It seems CNI is having a significant calming effect. Are you all going off to Israel next?

    Comment by bb — November 5, 2009 @ 8:18 am | Reply

  6. Beirut is back… and it’s beautiful/i>

    How the Lebanese capital went from warzone to 2010’s most glamorous tourist destination
    By Carole Cadwalladr, The Observer, Sunday 8 November 2009

    Comment by Salah — November 11, 2009 @ 7:23 am | Reply

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