Syrian regime allies sharpen their knives for Druze leader Walid Jumblatt

When Syrian dictator Hafez Al Assad died in 2000, the who’s who of Lebanon’s political class bowed one by one in front of his coffin in Damascus – all except Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who walked briskly past.

Almost two decades later the Syrian regime, now led by Hafez's son Bashar and supported by Iran and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, is still trying to bow Mr Jumblatt’s head.

A member of a Druze dynasty, he is regarded as one of the shrewdest and most educated political figures in the Middle East.

The latest political crisis in Lebanon has Mr Jumblatt, 69, front and centre.

It had been brewing for months but erupted at the end of June after a shooting in the Druze mountain heartland near Beirut. Two bodyguards of a minor Lebanese minister, who is also Druze but supported by the Syrian regime, were killed.

The Lebanese Cabinet has not agreed to meet since the incident, which is being manipulated by pro-Hezbollah factions and exaggerated as an attempt to finish Mr Jumblatt off, his supporters say. In Lebanon, this does not just mean politically.

The leader of the Druze minority has accumulated a list of enemies, all allied with the Syrian regime.

They might be sensing in Hezbollah’s ascendancy the perfect chance to bring about Mr Jumblatt's downfall and tilt Lebanon's balance of power further towards Iran and the Syrian regime.

Mr Jumblatt was one of the first major figures to demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

He led the protest movement known as the Cedar Revolution, which helped to expel the Syrian regime forces in 2006 after a three-decade presence.

The Damascus regime later restored its influence in Beirut through Hezbollah and other proxies.

Mr Jumblatt has been a thorn in Hezbollah’s side, disputing that it needs to remain armed despite Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, although he has had periods of accommodation with the group.

He supported the uprising in Syria in 2011 because it appeared to be capable of bringing down a regime he regarded as detrimental to Lebanon.

A proponent of non-violent political discourse since the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, he has consistently stood up against increasingly racist language directed at Syrian refugees, most notably from Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, an ally of Hezbollah.

Mr Jumblatt's rivals carry personal and political envy against one of the few figures in the country who has maintained a status consistent with being from political nobility.

Veteran Lebanese analyst Rashid Hasan notes the son of the late statesman Kamal Jumblatt has a sharp political radar and the ability to switch alliances to preserve the Druze community.

At least two Syrian intelligence agents have been nominally wanted by Lebanon’s toothless justice system for decades for the 1977 assassination of Kamal Jumblatt.

He was a monumental figure who championed the Palestinian cause and had no regard for Hafez Al Assad, who had built up proxies to undermine Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

For many Druze, a political demise of Mr Jumblatt would mean that their community, one of Lebanon’s smallest, could no longer punch above its weight, and endanger the delicate arrangements that ended the civil war.

At stake is the fate of fading resistance to the dominance of the Iranian and Syrian regime proxies in Lebanon.

In May, Mr Jumblatt broke a political taboo by challenging one of Hezbollah’s main justifications for keeping its weapons.

He said the Shebaa Farms, disputed territory occupied by Israel, was Syrian not Lebanese as Hezbollah claims.

This contributed to Hezbollah’s allies sharpening their knives.

Mr Jumblatt's challenge, with support from Sunni leaders, against the legality of Hezbollah’s private telecoms network in 2008, and other manifestations of the group’s status, prompted a partial takeover of Beirut by the militias.

The group was preparing to attack the Druze heartland before a deal averted a possible return to civil war.

At the time, Hezbollah TV station Al Manar was issuing threats of outright annihilation against “the enemies of the resistance”.

This time, its language is more subdued but the group and its allies control most of the "sovereign" state organisations. Crucially, they have the Justice Ministry in their hands.

A confidant said Mr Jumblatt believed the crisis was being inflamed by the Syrian regime, which he blamed for the failure of his attempt to calm tension by handing over two Druze suspects involved in the recent killing.

Hezbollah’s allies want the case to go to a special judicial council where they would dictate the proceedings, leading to the possibility of a show trial.

Attempts to paint the shooting as an assassination attempt are a “childish jumping to conclusions”, Mr Jumblatt said.

“I repeat that we are not bandits but it seems some do not understand,” he wrote on Facebook.

Mr Jumblatt harks from a period in Lebanon when rivals had grudging respect for each other, some even during the civil war.

Lebanon is no longer the primary regional chessboard for “each outside power to checkmate the other”, in the words of one Lebanese banker.

But the Assad regime could be intent on pursuing Mr Jumblatt to the end, deepening the political crisis and bringing more violence.

Mr Jumblatt has indicated through his latest responses that he will only go out fighting.

He is no stranger to operating in extreme survival mode.

In 2000, he supported demands led by the Maronite clergy by calling for the withdrawal of Mr Al Assad’s forces from Lebanon.

Assem Qanso, an Assad ally in the Lebanese Parliament at that time, said that the “rifles of the residence” would reach Mr Jumblatt, who he described as an enemy agent.

Afterwards, Mr Jumblatt remained mostly at his ancestral palace in the town of Al Moukhtara, in the Chouf mountains.

Leaning against the wall behind the desk in his study were two AK-47s. A cocked pistol lay on the desk, pointing to the door and ready to fire at any intruder.