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:
- The Israeli assault on Gaza;
- 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
- 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…