Syria turns up the heat on Samir Geagea


There was a revealing moment last Saturday in the interview conducted by Al-Jazeera’s Ghassan bin Jiddu with Walid Jumblatt, which may explain to some extent what Syria will expect of the Druze leader now that President Bashar Assad has agreed to receive him.

The interview with Bin Jiddu was one of the two conditions imposed on Jumblatt by Syria some months ago, so that he could earn his Damascus invitation (the first being an apology to the Syrian people for a statement he made to the American journalist David Ignatius, to whom he had asked why Washington had not supported the majority in Syria as it did in Iraq). Jumblatt claimed at the time that he was reluctant to sit for the interview, because Bin Jiddu, who is openly sympathetic to Hizbullah and Syria, might corner him with his questions. More likely, the Druze leader preferred to negotiate beforehand what he would say, probably through the Turks and Qataris. Bin Jiddu, visibly elated by the red carpet treatment he received in Mukhtara, was easily neutralized by Jumblatt.

However, the journalist posed a question that signaled he had a good grasp of why Syria selected him to interrogate Jumblatt. In talking to the Druze leader about his relationship with his former allies in March 14, Bin Jiddu pointedly asked him to describe how things were going with the Lebanese Forces. In recent months, the Syrians and their local allies have sought to isolate Samir Geagea and break his alliance with Saad Hariri. Bin Jiddu knew that Jumblatt, to improve his bona fides with Syria, might jump on the occasion to denounce the Lebanese Forces leader.

In fact Jumblatt avoided a negative answer, forcing Bin Jiddu to clarify that he did not want to focus solely on the Lebanese Forces. But the message relayed by the Al-Jazeera correspondent was clear enough: In the future Walid Jumblatt might have to do better than that when mentioning Geagea, at least if he wants to enjoy Syria’s favors.

A longstanding pillar of Syrian policy in Lebanon has been the political containment of the Sunni community. In the eyes of the Alawite-led regime in Damascus, any Lebanese Sunni affirmation threatens to extend to Syria, where it might mobilize the Sunni majority there. A byproduct of this strategy has been the prevention of a solid Sunni-Christian alliance in Lebanon, with Christians traditionally those most hostile to the Syrian presence. When Geagea got too close to Rafik Hariri in the early 1990s, he was rewarded with a prison cell, just as when the Sunni mufti, Sheikh Hassan Khaled, threatened to stray off the Syrian reservation during Michel Aoun’s “war of liberation” against Syria in 1989, he was killed in a car-bomb attack not far from his offices at Dar al-Fatwa.

Last year, Syria’s Lebanese allies began vowing that Geagea would be their next target. However, in the build-up toward the formation of the government there were no apparent signs of a concerted campaign in this direction. Unconfirmed reports suggested that Saudi Arabia was protecting Geagea from Syria, though this perhaps meant only that the Lebanese Forces leader would be spared assassination. In recent weeks, however, there have been new leaks indicating that Syria is annoyed with the Hariri-Geagea bond, and has complained to the Saudis about it.

Why is Damascus so wary of Geagea? There are several reasons, beyond Syrian discomfort with a Sunni-Christian axis. For starters, Geagea has been gaining ground in his community. His organizational skills are doubted by none, and he is the person most likely to inherit a Christian plurality, even a majority, after the demise of the 75-year-old Michel Aoun, who is unlikely to leave behind an effective movement. There are Christians who will never embrace Geagea, but there are also signs that many of those who once disliked him and his party are increasingly in agreement with Geagea for having remained politically consistent.

A second reason is that Geagea has managed to build up ties outside Lebanon that in some ways protect him against Syria. The Saudis will be forever uneasy with the Lebanese Forces leader, given his wartime record, but they may yet think twice before depriving Saad Hariri of a valuable Christian counterpart. Geagea can also depend to an extent on the backing of the United States. This may not have saved him from imprisonment, but now that the Syrians are gone militarily, Geagea can use such ties (bolstered by the close connection he has maintained with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, someone much appreciated in Washington) to increase his leverage at key moments.

Geagea is also bothersome because he survived everything that Syria threw at him, and it’s not easy to eliminate him any more. He was never co-opted by the Assad regime, so that even if he decides to mend fences with Damascus, he will be able to do so from a position of relative autonomy and strength. The Syrians have nothing on him, and must be aware of a potential paradox: the more they try to cut Geagea off, the more they risk pushing ambivalent Christians to his side.

Despite this, the Syrians see advantages in pressing ahead against the Lebanese Forces leader. For one thing, the Saudis have given Syria a wide berth in Lebanon, and may eventually decide that Geagea’s affiliation with Hariri is becoming too serious a snag in the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement. If so, this could undermine the Lebanese Forces patronage networks. The Syrians also know that Geagea’s partial reliance on Sfeir for his communal legitimacy will one day end. But most important, Syria has succeeded in keeping the Christians divided, and with Aoun and President Michel Sleiman also vying for Christian validation, Geagea is vulnerable.

It will be interesting to see whether Jumblatt, after his Syria trip, continues to avoid criticism of Geagea, or whether he will be start participating in the marginalization of the Lebanese Forces leader. Jumblatt, with a sizeable Christian population under his authority in the mountains, many of them Geagea supporters, will hesitate. But with improved Syrian ties a priority, how long can he stay on the fence? The question is not academic. If Jumblatt turns against Geagea, that spells the end of the Christian-Druze-Sunni alliance that made March 14 possible.

Michel Aoun declared on Tuesday that March 14 was going to pieces. The general has become adept at anticipating Syria’s mood and his statement was, alas, not entirely wrong. He knows that once Jumblatt visits Bashar Assad, the majority might not endure as a majority. Watch Walid Jumblatt to see if Aoun’s confidence is justified.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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