Walid Joumblatt is not in the finest form. The Lebanese political system is blocked, Bashar al-Assad remains in power, and the region is going through major transformations. With a new U.S. administration coming to office next year, the Druze leader sat down with Diwan to share his thoughts about Lebanon, the region, and the Syrian conflict. It was revealing that he had taken refuge in his Moukhtara palace because of threats against his life, allegedly by the Islamic State but more likely from someone closer. As his guests left, he said, with some irony: “Come and visit me again in my gilded cage.”
Michael Young (MY): Within a few months we’re going to have a new American president. What is your judgment of the Obama administration’s legacy in the Middle East, and what would you like to see in the region under a new administration?
Walid Joumblatt (WJ): Well, if we read carefully the so-called Obama Doctrine, it was clear that from the beginning that he was not willing to intervene militarily in the Middle East. At the same time he addressed the people of the region in his famous Cairo speech saying that they needed a kind of cultural revolution. And here I do support this idea, because we always ask the Americans to intervene, but when they do so we insult them and attack them. We need a cultural revolution, similar to what Europe went through during the Middle Ages. And when Obama went to Tel Aviv and addressed the young people of Israel, he said that one day they would have to accept a settlement with their neighbours. It is a must, you cannot stay in this continuous state of war. Well these two points, from an intellectual point of view, were very interesting, and very debatable at the same time.
But in practical terms, in Syria Obama could have altered the balance of power from the beginning, when he said Assad “must step aside.” At that time [in 2011] he had the opportunity to help the Free Syrian Army adequately. This he didn’t do. And when I say adequately, he failed, or he refused, to give the Free Syrian Army the required weapons. By this I mean the famous Stinger [anti-aircraft missiles] that at one time the Americans gave to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, allowing them to defeat the Soviet Union. This is a dreadful weapon, and for many unknown reasons Obama refused to give it to the Free Syrian Army.
MY: But the Americans would argue that had such a weapon fallen into the hands of the Islamic State, this could have been used by the group in destructive ways.
WJ: I’m speaking of 2011-2012, at the peak of the battle of Homs. At that time there was no Islamic State, no Nusra Front, nothing. There was a Free Syrian Army and other rebels, but at that time there were no extremists.
MY: And what would you like to see in a new U.S. administration? More intervention, more concern with the region?
WJ: Of course more concern for the region, yes. More intervention, yes. We need to go back to the basic issue in the region about which we cannot avoid speaking and that has been totally forgotten because of the events in Iraq, Syria and Libya, namely Palestine. Yes, the Arab- Israeli conflict. But I wonder if the new administration will be concerned with it.
MY: Is it the end of the American era in the Middle East?
WJ: Not the end, but a kind of power sharing between them and the other powers, new emerging powers: Iran and Russia. Of course the Russians were always here, but the policy of Vladimir Putin, the aggressive policy of Putin from Ukraine to Crimea to Syria, is putting in place a new order, new boundaries, shared with the Americans, power-sharing with the Americans.
MY: You’ve been very critical of the Russians in Syria, but at the same time what you are describing here is Russia’s successful effort to reinsert itself into the region and impose, as you said, power-sharing on the Americans
WJ: To the detriment of the Syrian people, to the detriment of Syrian cities, at the price of Syria’s destruction. Because they have supported Bashar, fully, directly, and indirectly from the beginning with weapons and ammunition, as well as politically. And when Bashar was about to fail because his army was being eroded by losses, they intervened alongside the Iranians. Their support was decisive.
MY: To the detriment of the Syrian people, yes, but hasn’t Putin succeeded nonetheless in his cynical strategy?
WJ: Succeeded, yes, because he discovered that the American will, the American presence, was weak, or that the Americans did not care. Looking back, when Obama threatened to intervene in 2013 after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, I don’t think he was really willing to intervene. But at the same time the best excuse not to intervene was given to him by the Russians when they proposed a deal to remove Assad’s chemical arsenal under United Nations supervision. This was a pretext for Obama not to do anything. Putin saved Obama from an intervention. So this is his cynical way. But you can see, entire cities were destroyed, the mass deportation, or the ethnic cleansing, of people was carried out thanks to the Russians and the Iranians, and the apathy of the Americans—most recently in Darayya.
MY: The Russian intervention was indeed decisive. Does that mean that Bashar al-Assad will survive politically?
WJ: Yes, unfortunately, and cynically, and immorally, yes. Thanks to the Russians, to the apathy of the Americans, Obama precisely, and to Iran of course. And lately we can discern some new signs of a Turkish shift that is quite alarming. They say there might be a meeting between Bashar al-Assad and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Moscow. To the Turks, the main concern is the Kurdish threat, and they are now dealing with the Kurds, forgetting about the plight of the Syrian people. What a terrible destiny is that of the Syrian people, abandoned in this huge power game, left to be destroyed and deported in this cynical power game.
MY: With Assad’s survival, what will this mean for Syria first of all? Can he rule as he once ruled? And what will it mean for the neighbours?
WJ: He’s ruling through blood and fire. What does it mean practically on the ground when you see the destroyed areas of Homs? There, the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis took place, mostly Sunnis. In Damascus it is starting with Darayya and Moadamiyeh. And so most of the deportations are now targeting the Sunnis, even in Aleppo. And this trend will continue. We are only at the beginning of a major demographic change in Syria, at the expense of the Sunnis being expelled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe. And the rest may be confined inside Syria—but according to Bashar’s plans, which seeks to limit the influence of the Sunnis.
MY: Do you see the presence of Syrian refugee populations in the Arab countries and Turkey as a permanent feature, or not?
WJ: I think that what we’re seeing in Syria is worse than what happened to the Palestinians in 1948. I think it is similar. But let's say you have to compare between the suffering of the Palestinians in 1948 and the suffering of the Syrians today, well, relatively speaking, the suffering of the Palestinians was lesser than what the Syrians are experiencing.
MY: And what would this mean for Lebanon, and for you in particular?
WJ: For me? What do you mean for me?
MY: For all those who have opposed the Assad regime.
WJ: I will stick to my political and moral opposition [to the actions of the Syrian regime]. But what does it mean? I feel terribly distressed because after five years Assad is still there, the regime is still there, because it has profited from diabolical and shifting alliances, and lately from the United Nations. The recent scandal surrounding its aid to Syria contradicted its claim that it is there to protect human rights. It gave millions of dollars to help Syria, but the sum was delivered to the Assad family, and mainly Bashar al-Assad’s wife. The UN has acknowledged this, saying it was trying to save people, but it was just a boost to the regime and the ruling family. So this is a moral disaster, a disgrace for the United Nations.
MY: Ultimately the war will end in Syria. How do you see it ending?
WJ: When it ends I will tell you. Now I don’t see it ending.
MY: But the logic of dynamics of the conflict suggest we’re headed towards a military endgame.
WJ: A military endgame to the advantage of the regime, to the disadvantage of the Syrian people, one that will mean the destruction of the old Syria that we once knew. No one can predict what the new Syria will be like. But I can see inside this new Syria. It will always be called Syria, but with major demographic changes and the displacement of people—a process that is not yet finished.
MY: Let’s look at the wider region, where we can also see major realignments with the rise of Iran, the relative weakness of the Gulf states, and the United States playing a much more passive role than before. Where are these dynamics leading? How might a new American administration manage them, bearing in mind it may have a different approach to Iran.
WJ: This is the end-result of the nuclear negotiations between the Americans, the West, and Iran. Now here you have two approaches. One course of action supported at that time by some Arabs was for the Americans to strike Iran. This would have led nowhere except to disaster and destruction, and would only have delayed the nuclear issue. But the peaceful negotiations have also led to a delay of the nuclear issue because in some years to come, maybe ten years, maybe twelve, the Iranians will have the technical ability to produce an atom bomb. From the beginning this was, and still is, their desire, to join the nuclear club, like Japan, like Germany, to have the technical know-how allowing them in a short period of time to produce a nuclear weapon. So now it has just been delayed because Obama is leaving and we will have a new administration. But nevertheless I think they have the technical know-how, it’s enough. As for the Arabs, they have never had any unified plan, never. And now they are caught in the quagmire of the war of Yemen, which is not ending and will not end soon. And when I say the Arabs I mean Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The big player is the Persians, the Iranians
MY: You’ve been involved in Middle East politics for a long time, four decades next year. The Arab state system seems to have collapsed. Do you see in any way that it can be revive or resurrected in some fashion?
WJ: What was the Arab state system? It was a collection of despots, some of them republican despots, others monarchical despots. Some of them have fallen and others are still there. Up until now the only successful popular revolution took place in Tunisia. In Egypt, well it is so sad to see the revolution being crushed again by this arrogant military, after the semi-coup d’état of July 3, 2013—I say semi-coup d’état because it was both a popular and a military coup—following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. So sad. The old Middle East is over. The old Middle East inherited from the Sykes-Picot era is over. I don’t see a change of borders for the time being, but a change of boundaries maybe within Iraq and Syria
MY: So we have to look back with nostalgia on the post Sykes-Picot period?
WJ: When you reach a certain age you prefer not to expect a lot from the future. I prefer, how should I say, to have some romanticism, I go back to some old romantic epoch or moments of the past, a certain past. It’s more reassuring. You get physically and intellectually tired.
MY: Turning to Lebanon, what is the future for someone like you in a country that is, for the foreseeable future, dominated by Hezbollah?
WJ: I have no future, my only purpose, and hopefully I have delivered this message to my son, is to survive. I mean when you belong to a small community, your only goal is to defend your small community and survive. To survive means to have good relations with all the components in the country, above all Hezbollah. That’s it. That’s the safest way for the Druze to survive and retain what they still have politically and demographically.
MY: But the community is getting smaller and smaller.
WJ: Yes, yes that is a fact we have to accept. The community is getting smaller and smaller. We have to accept this demographic reality, while other communities are getting bigger and bigger. I mean the Christians of Lebanon are not better than us.
MY: But they are more optimistic.
WJ: [Laughing] Lucky them. The old dreams of my father Kamal Joumblatt of changing the regime, of having a secular non-confessional regime, the old dreams of pan-Arabism, the old dreams of the joint fight in which we and the Palestinians would free Palestine. All our dreams have collapsed.
MY: But in a sense hadn’t they already collapsed 40 years ago when you began your political career?
WJ: Yes, they started to collapse after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
MY: So you began your political career with the dreams having collapsed?
WJ: At that time they were not collapsing. We thought we could endure, that we could fight. Even during the civil war, at one time during the civil war, we thought we could achieve something. Then came the Syrian diktat telling us, well, to cool down, that everyone had to play according to Syria’s rules. Then you remember the first big setback when [Yasser] Arafat was obliged to leave Lebanon. It was a dreadful day. I was one of the people weeping because of the departure of the Palestinians, because it was the dream, the joint fight uniting us and the Palestinians. Arafat left. He had another dream that disintegrated. He thought that through [the] Oslo [accords] he could reach independence. He failed because he failed to negotiate from the start the final stage of the so-called Oslo administration, he failed to negotiate the settlements, he delayed it, he fell into the trap. But from the beginning he was caught between the Arab hammer, mainly the Syrian hammer but also other hammers, and the Israeli anvil. He thought that maybe the anvil would be softer. It wasn’t. It was a big tragedy, because I don’t think any Arab regime wanted—maybe, emotionally, Nasser was an exception—to have an independent Palestinian entity. I don’t think any Arab regime wanted an independent Palestine, I don’t think so.
MY: But even Nasser seemed amenable to the Rogers Plan, which could have led to peace settlements between the Arabs and Israelis.
WJ: And he was considered by the rejectionist regimes in Syria and Iraq and some Palestinian groups to be a traitor. And before the Rogers Plan remember that [Tunisian President Habib] Bourghiba came up with a proposal in 1965 for a solution to the Palestinian problem. Nasser did not dare say so himself. Bourguiba at that time said let's accept a compromise with Israel and make demands of our own. He was betrayed of course. And at the time it could have been much easier to demand something from the Israelis, or squeeze them politically. This was before 1967, and there were no settlements in the West Bank.
MY: To bring you back a little bit to Lebanon, briefly. In 2005 you were part of the March 14 coalition that helped push the Syrians out of Lebanon. And then you were the first to leave it in 2009. What remains of all this?
WJ: It was a nice dream this coalition but without any political program except to get the Syrians out. The Syrians, Bashar maybe for the first time in his history, and maybe the last time, was afraid and withdrew his troops in April 2005. We were stuck later on, the country was divided because we were stuck with dreams that we could weaken the allies of Bashar in Lebanon, meaning Hezbollah. But we hoped that the so-called international community—this notion is also a big fallacy, a big lie—could do something to weaken the Syrian regime. But they did nothing at that time and they are doing nothing now. In March 2008, there were clashes in Beirut and the mountains [between Hezbollah and its allies on the one hand, and pro-March 14 groups on the other]. For the sake of my community’s survival I decided to leave March 14. There are priorities and I could not rely on anybody or anything except the wisdom of the people, of my community. I convinced them, and it took me some years, that a military confrontation would be suicidal for the Druze. And I will continue on this course.
MY: Even your strongest ally, Saad Hariri, today seems to be facing major difficulties of his own.
WJ: Unfortunately, I don’t know what the reasons are, but my strongest ally is getting weaker and weaker. It’s sad, very sad.
MY: Lebanon hasn’t had a president in over two years, will it have one? And under what conditions?
WJ: I don’t see it, not in the near future. I mean of course the ones who could deliver a president are the regional powers, the Iranians and Syrians. Don’t underestimate the power of Bashar and his ability to act as a spoiler. Their aim is to subdue rebel-controlled areas in Syria because once they do it, and they are doing it gradually but at a terrible price, then they can impose on Lebanon a new diktat, maybe with new terms. This is where some Christians or some leaders in the Maronite community are not seeing that there is a possibility that the constitution will be amended to their disadvantage. Maybe some are willing to accept this, such as Michel Aoun. But this depends on the military gains of the Syrian army and its allies.
MY: And you believe there is the two-thirds majority in parliament that would be necessary to amend the constitution? Even if an amendment is indeed the intention, it would still be very difficult.
WJ: We are blocked, this is a war of attrition. In this war of attrition they are more powerful and more resilient than we are. We are not unified; economically the country is losing, is losing terribly, and is very vulnerable. In a year’s time who knows? For now we are able to sustain ourselves, but in a year’s time who knows? And the other side doesn’t care, they have a free hand inside entire communities. I mean don’t tell me that they don’t profit from Christian divisions. They do. And even among the Sunnis they have their own militias and influence. And among the Druze.
MY: You have always been a very realistic political leader. Sooner or later will you have to make your peace with Bashar al-Assad, if he survives?
WJ: No, I will not do it. It will mean my political end. I prefer to commit suicide on my own terms but not go to Syria and check in with Bashar.
MY: How difficult is retiring, not that you have really retired?
WJ: I did not retire. [My son] Taymour has taken the bulk of the work, and I have some free time to travel to see part of this world before departing. I would like to travel more, but I can’t do it anymore, physically I can’t do it. But I get some satisfaction in that I can see him getting better and better, and I hope that he will be able to protect this community and survive. It’s my own wish and my own will. Of course the circumstances today are much more difficult than the circumstance that I faced.