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The Murdered Fathers Club

Washington's allies in Beirut are now bowing to Damascus.

9:00 PM, Dec 19, 2009 • By DAVID SCHENKER
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At the same 2007 talk, Jumblatt discussed his own very personal and tragic relationship with the Asad regime. "I know the Syrian regime quite well and I have the experience of history. My father, after all, opposed Syrian interference in Lebanon. That is why he was killed." After Kemal Jumblatt was murdered in 1977, Walid was compelled to make amends with Damascus. As he later said, "When my father was killed by the Syrians, I was obliged to fix up a cynical compromise because I needed allies so, of course, I shook Assad's hand. I knew that he killed my father, but I tried to forget for some time."

In the aftermath of the 2005 Hariri assassination and the Cedar Revolution, Jumblatt had a falling out with Damascus. Lately, however, Jumblatt--who for decades has demonstrated an uncanny ability to anticipate shifting political winds--has started to distance himself from his March 14 coalition allies, and to signal his desire for a rapprochement with the Asad regime.

Jumblatt's about face coincides with a Syrian resurgence in Lebanon and a perceived reduction of Washington's commitment to March 14. Jumblatt's shift also reflects his recognition of the increasingly precarious position of the Druze, a community that worldwide numbers only about 200,000. In May 2008--when the Shiite militia invaded Beirut--the Druze were the only faction to resist Hizballah's military aggression, fighting and killing a dozen or so Hizballahis as they tried to enter the Shouf Mountains. But the Shouf today is surrounded by Hizballah-controlled Shiite villages, and Jumblatt likely calculates that decreased tensions with the Shiite militia and Syria are required to protect his community.

To this end, last June, following elections, Jumblatt met with Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. He also started to publicly discuss a possible visit to Damascus. For Jumblatt, it's not a matter of if, but of when. The only caveat is that he will not be first. To not unduly antagonize Lebanon's Sunni community (led by Hariri), Jumblatt says he "will only visit Syria after Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri goes."

So Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the leaders of the Cedar Revolution, whose fathers were all but certainly killed by Syria, are paying homage to Damascus. For Jumblatt, it was a pragmatic decision. For Hariri, it's a decision taken under extreme pressure, and one fraught with political ramifications. Not only will the visit be seen as a humiliation by Hariri's Lebanese Sunni supporters, it will likely be understood as Hariri absolving Damascus of responsibility for the murder of his father, a perception that could undermine support for the International Tribunal. Hariri is trying to mitigate the negative consequences of his trip by visiting Riyadh and Cairo prior to Damascus, but this will not blunt the impact.

Given Syrian resilience, perhaps this development was to be expected. After all, despite no perceptible change in Syrian behavior, and its ongoing violation of UN Security Council resolutions on Lebanon, Europe has made great efforts to improve relations with Damascus. In November 2009, the EU offered Syria an Economic Association agreement, essentially removing all human rights clauses from the pact to sweeten the deal for the authoritarian state.

Washington's increased diplomatic and military engagement with Damascus also appears to have had an effect, decreasing March 14 confidence in its most ardent supporter. Perhaps the leading factor in March 14 leadership's decision to return to Damascus, however, appears to be Saudi Arabia's equivocating. Riyadh had been a leading force in trying to dissuade Damascus from playing its traditionally pernicious role in Lebanon. Recently, however, Saudi appears to have made a concession on Lebanon in order to improve relations with Syria.

It's not exactly clear why Riyadh cut the deal with Damascus, but it appears that the decision was driven by concerns over Iran. To mitigate the threat posed by Tehran, Saudi Arabia is attempting to pry Syria away from its 30-year strategic ally, and the first Saudi down-payment in this ill-advised gambit has been its Lebanese allies. At least in part, this dramatic change in policy vis-à-vis Syria is related to the perceived U.S. weakness on Iran. Absent Saudi confidence that Washington will prevent a nuclear Iran, Riyadh is hedging.