190712 Saleh Al Gharib
Saleh Al Gharib, state minister for refugee affairs, whose two bodyguards were killed Image Credit: Reuters

Things are not well in the once fortified and impenetrable Druze community of Lebanon. Recently, one of its notables, Refugee Affairs Minister Saleh Ghareeb, barely survived an assassination attempt while driving through the Druze town of Aley in Mount Lebanon. Two of his bodyguards were killed, raising red flags throughout the area that has witnessed fierce Druze-Christian fighting during the country’s civil war 30-years ago. Memories of death, assassination and anguish are still heavily imprinted in the collective psyche of Mount Lebanon residents, all of which were suddenly re-awakened by the sound of wild gunfire ripping through the skies of Aley recently.

Ghareeb is a member of the Democratic Party, headed by veteran Druze leader Emir Talal Arslan, a close ally of the Syrians, Iran, and Hezbollah. Fuming at a press conference, Arslan barked: “This will not pass!” He threatened to take up arms to protect his followers, in total disregard to the Lebanese state, saying: “If the state doesn’t protect people, then they know how to protect themselves!”

He blamed the attack on his chief rival, veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who is famed for being highly critical of Iran and Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. He has also been particularly critical of Saleh Ghreeb, who raised eyebrows last February by carrying out an official visit to Damascus, aimed at returning Syrian refugees to their country, despite Jumblatt’s insistence that no Lebanese official should re-engage with Damascus before UN resolutions are implemented, agreed upon by the international community. Jumblatt rebuffed all accusations that he was behind the assassination attempt, writing them off as “boyish.” He called for an official investigation into what happened.

The two Druze heavyweights, Jumblatt and Arslan, are scions of leading Druze families whose fathers helped wrestle the country from French occupation back in 1943. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in confronting the Israeli occupation of 1982, and once again, in fighting Christian militias of the Lebanese Forces throughout the 1980s. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri, however, they have been at daggers-end over Arslan’s embrace of Syria and Hezbollah, a dispute aggravated by the ongoing Syrian conflict since 2011.

Druze residents of Mount Lebanon say that the timing of the assassination could not have been worse for Walid Jumblatt, who is presently grooming his son to take over leadership of the Social Progressive Party, which was founded by Walid’s father, Kamal Jumblatt, back in 1949. The political transition that he has been eying for years can neither be smooth nor can it be peaceful if rival camps in the Druze community are taking up arms against each other.

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Until last week, Walid Jumblatt was more focused on another battle, not against Arslan, but targeting his friend, Foreign Minister Gibran Basil, the powerful son-in-law of President Michel Aoun. In light of Aoun’s advanced age and deteriorating health, Basil has been positioning himself as a “shadow president” at Baabda Palace, exerted unprecedented powers that far exceed his government post or the political bloc that he represents, hoping to succeed his father-in-law if he parts the scene or is incapacitated. The assassination attempt played out nicely in Basil’s favour, serving almost as a blessing in disguise. He was planning to visit Aley with Saleh Ghareeb and now claims that the assassination was aimed at him personally and that the gunmen thought that it was him in the entourage, not Ghareeb.

Lebanese heavyweights are now expected to try and defuse the snowballing crisis, regardless of where they stand on the Arslan-Jumblatt feud. Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri, a long-time ally of Jumblatt, called off a cabinet meeting, to avoid any confrontation between his Druze ministers. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is also trying to mediate, given his longtime friendship with Walid Jumblatt and firm alliance to the coalition that unites Arslan, Ghareeb, and Gibran Basil.

Despite his public position on the Syrian conflict, Jumblatt maintains cordial relations with Hezbollah, regardless of its embrace of Talal Arslan. And in the complex world of Lebanese politics, although it is parliamentary allied to Gibran Basil, Hezbollah thinks very poorly of him, writing him off an opportunist and unreliable ally. They remain firmly committed to his father-in-law, whom they helped bring to power three years ago, but cannot forgive Basil for hammering out an independent alliance with Saad Al Hariri during the 2018 parliamentary elections, or for recently drawing parallels between the French exodus of 1943 and that of the Syrians in 2005, describing both as “occupations.”

All of the above are trying to minimise damage and close the case as quickly as possible. All, except for Gibran Basil. An open conflict in the Druze community can turn very nasty, since clearly, both camps are armed to the teeth, and it can be very difficult to control them if a blood feud emerges in feudal society. In previous battles, the Druze camp stood united against all foreign threats, but this time, the threat lies from within, and the last thing Lebanon needs is to see Druze citizens shooting at Druze citizens, like what happened in Aley.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.