Hezbollah allies intensify hunt for main critic of Syrian regime

Campaign against Druze leader reminiscent of tactics used in Tehran and Damascus to silence opponents

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a leading voice against the Syrian regime, is under mounting pressure by the Iranian-backed militia cum political party Hezbollah to toe lines set by Tehran and Damascus. AFP
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Hezbollah’s Lebanese allies have escalated a violence-laced political campaign against Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, accusing him this week of liaising with foreign powers in connection with a shootout that deepened the country’s fissures.

The charges against Mr Jumblatt, one of the most well-connected politicians in Lebanon, echo tactics by Iran and the Damascus regime of using the international standing of prominent dissidents to brand them traitors and make their persecution more appealing to jingoistic constituencies at home.

Lebanon has been in a political crisis that had prevented its divided cabinet from convening since two bodyguards of a junior Druze minister allied with Hezbollah were killed in a shootout in June this year in the Chouf Mountains, the heartland of the Druze sect. The shootout became known as the Basateen incident.

Mr Jumblatt, an outspoken opponent of Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, is the most prominent Druze figure. The country’s Druze community accounts for 5.2 per cent of Lebanon’s’ estimated population of 6.1 million.

Many in the community view Druze survival as tied to the hereditary leadership of the Jumblatt dynasty and the subtle management Mr Jumblatt and his late father Kamal Jumblatt exercised on the community for decades.

Since a Hezbollah ally, Michel Aoun, became Lebanon’s president in 2016, he has sought to undermine Mr Jumblatt by diluting his Druze followers in state organisations and remaining silent as Hezbollah backed incursions by Druze factions allied with Hezbollah into Chouf areas traditionally supportive of the Jumblatt family.

The Basateen incident was the second deadly such incursion. A Jumblatt supporter was killed in a similar incident last year by a pro-Hezbollah Druze gunman, who fled to Syria.

Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, enters a hall to meet with his senior party officials to announce his candidacy for the Lebanese presidency, in Maarab east Beirut, Lebanon, Friday April 4, 2014. The former Lebanese warlord who now leads a Christian right-wing party has announced he will run for president in the tiny Arab country's elections later this spring. According to Lebanon's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Christian leader Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces party, came out in support of Jumblatt, having been the only Lebanese civil war figure to stand trial for war crimes. AP

In a failed bid to calm the latest tensions, Mr Jumblatt played a major role in handing two of his supporters, suspected of involvement in the Basateen shooting, to the authorities, and demanded that the other side do the same.

The prime minister, Saad Hariri, has refused to put the Basateen shooting on the cabinet agenda because Hezbollah allies had hinted that Mr Jumblatt is culpable and wanted the case to go to a special tribunal, called the Judicial Council, where they would control the proceeding. Having failed, they have been trying to have the case go to a military tribunal, also under their control.

As a result, the cabinet has not convened since the Basateen incident on June 30.

Mr Hariri is battling time to bring in foreign funding to shore up public finances, especially after Moody’s in January further downgraded Lebanese bonds further into the lower ends of junk status. No significant amount of $11 billion (Dh40.4bn) pledged at a donor conference in Paris last year reached Lebanon because the government failed to comply with extensive reform demands that cut across the breadth of state organisations.

Mr Hariri’s father was assassinated in a massive car bomb that killed 21 others in Beirut in 2005. Hezbollah has refused to hand four of its operatives suspected of involvement in the assassination to an international tribunal in The Hague, saying the group had been framed. The assassination triggered a withdrawal of Syrian regime forces from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.

Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper quoted on Monday ministerial sources close to Mr Aoun as saying that Mr Jumblatt, who usually meets foreign dignitaries, had met European ambassadors and asked for "protection".

Mr Jumblatt, the sources said, prodded the ambassadors “to interfere in a purely internal affair that is being handled by relevant judicial and security institutions”, adding triumphantly that the “era of weakness and submission” to Mr Jumblatt is over.

There was no immediate comment from Mr Jumblatt, who said on Twitter last week that the judiciary has been turning into a system resembling martial law. A former foe in the civil war came to his defence last week, saying Hezbollah is trying to “break” Mr Jumblatt.

Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, told Lebanon’s private-owned MTV broadcaster that finishing off Mr Jumblatt would please Christians still bitter at their defeat at the hands of Mr Jumblatt in the 1975-1990 civil war and bring votes to pro-Hezbollah candidates. Mr Geagea was alluding to the presidential ambitions of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a Hezbollah ally and son-in-law of the current president.

Among Lebanon’s civil war figures, Mr Geagea had spent 11 years in jail for political assassinations during the war, after a 1994 show trial, convened when the Damascus regime had 35,000 troops in Lebanon.

A source in Lebanon’s Druze community close to Mr Jumblatt said: “I think we have been seeing rallying around Jumblatt because if he is brought down none of the anti-Hezbollah camp will be safe.”

While Lebanon has not turned into a mere proxy of Tehran or the Damascus regime to the degree the country was once, the Beirut government has intensified this year a crackdown on journalists and activists critical of Hezbollah, Iran, or Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

They have not been veteran figures or of the stature of Mr Jumblatt, but the deepening influence of Hezbollah and its allies on state institutions has made the position of independent politicians like Mr Jumblatt precarious.

“We might not see the Geagea trial repeated but Hezbollah’s end game is to blackmail Jumblatt to submission,” the Druze source said.

“I don’t think they have the utter control of Lebanon to do that, but, since the Hariri assassination, Hezbollah has been playing with the foundations of the civil peace and getting away with it.”