Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has been politically agile for decades, and his latest moves reveals his grave doubts about the future of Syria's Al Assad regime
Lebanon's political bellwether turns away from Syria
It is often said that where Walid Jumblatt goes, Lebanon follows. More accurately, where Lebanon is going, Mr Jumblatt goes first, his powers of anticipation having kept the leader of the country's Druze community politically onside and relevant for almost four decades.
This is worth recalling as Mr Jumblatt has begun to realign once again to prepare for the probable collapse of the Assad regime in Syria. For many weeks now the Druze leader has quietly written off the survival of the Syrian leadership, arguing that the real question is under what conditions President Bashar Al Assad will leave office - by way of a peaceful transition or following a civil war.
Last weekend, in a speech in the district of Rashayya, Mr Jumblatt went further than ever before in condemning the crackdown in Syria. Simultaneously, Lebanon's pre-eminent political acrobat harked back to the Syrian revolt against French imperialism in 1925, which spread to Rashayya and in which many Druze lost their lives; he declared that those who had committed crimes in the ongoing Syria revolt be held accountable, that prisoners be released and that a new Syrian constitution be drafted. And he lamented that while Mr Al Assad had promised reform, there were those around him opposed to this.
In a phrase rife with meaning in the Arab context, Mr Jumblatt proclaimed: "Only a free people can free persecuted and oppressed peoples, and the theory of a resistance system has no value." His dismissal of a "resistance system" was effectively a denunciation of states and organisations - principally Syria, Iran and Hizbollah - that have taken pride in forming a unified front to combat what they deem to be Israeli and western dictates.
Mr Jumblatt may be agile, but even by his standards the past two years have imposed substantial gymnastics. After the assassination in February 2005 of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the Druze leader became a principal figure in the March 14 coalition hostile to Syria, which was blamed for the crime, and Hizbollah. Under threat of assassination, Mr Jumblatt spent four years as a prisoner in his home, watching Syria reassert its power in Beirut.
Then, in February 2009, something changed. At an Arab economic summit in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah initiated a reconciliation with Mr Al Assad. The Saudis and Syrians had been bitterly divided over Lebanon, and the Saudis concluded they had lost more than Syria in that bruising encounter. Mr Jumblatt realised that it was a matter of time before King Abdullah compelled his protégé Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son and Lebanon's pre-eminent Sunni representative, to reconcile with Mr Al Assad. Once that happened, the Druze leader knew, he would be left hanging, ripe for elimination.
So Mr Jumblatt drifted away from his March 14 allies, hoping to settle his differences with Syria before Mr Hariri did, thus preserving his political sway by placing himself advantageously in a revitalised, Saudi-blessed, Syrian-led arrangement for Lebanon. The gambit failed as Mr Al Assad ignored his advances. Once Mr Hariri visited Syria in December 2009, understandings between Syria and its other ex-Lebanese enemies became possible. Mr Jumblatt endured Syrian-imposed humiliations to be received in Damascus in April 2010 - weak, mortified, but still alive. I saw him on the night of his return and we actually walked to a local restaurant, something unthinkable weeks earlier.
Mr Jumblatt's strategy has been to employ manoeuvrability to compensate for his minority status and the fact that even among Lebanon's minorities his rural community is demographically negligible.He has made his share of mistakes, issued an infinite number of apologies to comrades forsaken then reunited with after his myriad reversals. However, since 1977 when he inherited power from his father Kamal, who was murdered by the Syrian regime, Mr Jumblatt has remained at the centre of Lebanon's political stage, his pragmatism, indeed his cynicism, always a mortal weapon.
It has become a cliché that Mr Jumblatt is a paradox in being a traditional, autocratic, sectarian mountain patriarch as well as the head of the Progressive Socialist Party. For him contradiction is no vice in protecting his Druze community, and his paramount authority over the community. This helps explain Mr Jumblatt's calculations when it comes to Syria, where some 300,000 Druze reside.
The Assad regime never took kindly to Mr Jumblatt's influence among his Syrian coreligionists. The Druze leader always avoided challenging this Syrian red line, but with Mr Al Assad's rule sliding he has sought to ensure that Syria's Druze are not viewed as being on the regime's side, therefore open to retaliation in a post-revolution Syria. That is why Mr Jumblatt called for reform from the early days of the uprising, even as he implied that Mr Al Assad must lead it. His doublespeak has irritated Syrian officials, at times forcing Mr Jumblatt to backtrack. His latest remarks, the strongest yet, indicate that the Druze leader senses the Assads are on their last legs.
It is a source of merriment in Beirut that Mr Jumblatt, who jumped through countless rings back into the Syrian fold, now finds himself frantically reversing himself with regard to Damascus. His former March 14 allies, like his untrusting new partners in the Hizbollah-led majority, will observe that the man has betrayed one time too many and is politically finished. But Mr Jumblatt is a master of reinvention and has a gift for creating spaces and provoking crises to make himself indispensable. Only the naive readily write him off.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle