DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt on Wednesday, the official Syrian news agency said, sealing reconciliation with one of his fiercest former critics in Lebanon.
The meeting consolidates Syria’s political gains in Lebanon as it restores influence lost when it withdrew troops from its neighbour five years ago under international pressure. It also opens channels with Lebanese politicians who have been firmly in the U.S.-backed camp.
“The meeting discussed the importance of role of the resistance as a guarantee against Israeli plans,” the news agency said, in reference to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which mediated the meeting.
Jumblatt turned fiercely anti-Syrian after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and blamed Assad for the killing. But he has since said good ties with Syria were crucial to preventing Lebanon descending into chaos and to preserve his minority Druze community.
Thabet Salem, a leading Syrian journalist and commentator, said the meeting could help internal cohesion in Lebanon, after United Nations investigators sought to question six Hezbollah members about the killing of the Sunni billionaire politician. “There might be strong pressure coming on Hezbollah relating to the Hariri affair, and consolidating the internal front is crucial to deal with any problem,” Salem said.
A special international court set up in The Hague has yet to indict anyone for Hariri’s killing, in which Damascus and Hezbollah have denied any role. Jumblatt had warned that the aftermath of the Hariri assassination could ignite sectarian bloodshed between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Lebanon.
In an interview with al-Jazeera television earlier this month, Jumblatt said that critical comments he had made about Assad were inappropriate.
Although other anti-Syrian politicians have already started changing their tone toward Damascus, Jumblatt’s overtures to Assad left him with critics in Lebanon.
Ghassan Tueini, owner of a top Arab publishing house, said the Hariri killing in 2005 “brought out the human being in Jumblatt” but his rapprochement with Syria “returned him to being a (mere) politician”.
After the Hariri killing, Jumblatt spearheaded the strategy of the U.S. and Saudi-backed “March 14” alliance, which accused Syria of the killing. He was also one of the strongest critics of Syrian and Iranian backed Hezbollah, and its operations outside the control of the sectarian-based Lebanese state.
Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies fought Jumblatt’s followers in a 2008 conflict that brought Lebanon to the brink of renewed civil war, but their relations have since improved. The Hariri killing sparked international criticism that forced an end to Syria’s 29 year military presence in Lebanon.
Syria has been regaining influence in Lebanon since then, helped by its emergence from Western isolation and a subtler approach to Lebanese politics and ties with Beirut.