BEIRUT, (AP) – One of Syria’s harshest critics in Lebanon has now said his earlier statements were “improper” and called for a new page in relations between the two countries.
A reconciliation between Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect, and Damascus could boost Syria’s role in Lebanese politics years after its troops were forced out of the country.
For five years following the truck bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Jumblatt was a stern critic of Syria. In recent months, however, he has broken with his former Western-backed allies.
His comments come as Syria is emerging from its isolation and is improving relations with Arab and Western states.
Jumblatt’s harshest verbal attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad came on Feb. 14, 2007 in a speech marking Hariri’s assassination. He told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters that Assad was a “snake” and a “tyrant” and called for revenge against him.
Many Lebanese blame Syria for the assassination, a charge Syria denies.
“These comments were improper, unfamiliar and unsuited to political ethics,” Jumblatt said in a live interview with Al-Jazeera satellite channel late Saturday. “I said, at a moment of anger, what is improper and illogical against President Bashar Assad. It was a moment of ultimate internal tension and division in Lebanon.”
“Is it possible for them to overcome this moment and open a new page?” he added.
There was no comment from Damascus but Syrian state-run newspapers, Al-Thawra, Tishrin and Al-Baath published Jumblatt’s comments on their front pages Sunday.
The comments might well results in a Syrian invitation to visit Damascus.
A shrewd politician known for his shifting loyalties, Jumblatt walked out from the Western-backed coalition last year and said he will take a neutral stance in Lebanese politics.
Also in 2009, Jumblatt reconciled with Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, one of Syria’s strongest allies in Lebanon. Nasrallah is said to be working for reconciliation between Jumblatt and Syria.
Jumblatt, 60, was the main force behind the creation of a Western-backed alliance that led massive street protests to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon following Hariri’s assassination.
The Syrians pulled their army out of Lebanon in April 2005 ending nearly three decades of domination of their smaller neighbor.
A longtime leftist and a one-time close Syrian ally, Jumblatt shifted after Hariri’s assassination to the Western-backed camp after being a main beneficiary of Syrian goodwill when Damascus had the final say in Lebanese affairs for close to 30 years.
Since the 2005 break with Damascus, however, he became a staunch critic of Syria in Lebanon, calling for the overthrow of Assad’s regime and blaming Syria for the 1977 killing of his father.
Tensions between Jumblatt’s Druse followers and his allies on one side and Nasrallah’s Shiite militants erupted in street fighting in Beirut in May 2008, killing 81 people and nearly plunging Lebanon into another civil war.
Since the clashes, Jumblatt has moderated his anti-Syrian rhetoric.