Assad to Wahhab: Russia Will not Backtrack
By: Bassam Alkantar
Published Thursday, February 2, 2012
It was not the first meeting between Syrian President Bashar Assad and former Lebanese minister Wiam Wahhab. But it was their first to be televised and publicized.
This was done, not by the Syrian news agency SANA, but by the information department of the Arab Unification Party. Wahhab set up this party a few years ago in what was seen as a challenge to the traditional Druze leadership represented by the Jumblatt and Arslan families.
After returning to Beirut, Wahhab said that Assad assured him of Syria’s commitment to Lebanon’s stability as it benefits Syria’s own stability, and to preserving the existence of the Druze sect in the Arab Levant. He praised the patriotic role played by the community past and present, saying history bears witness to its achievements. He also stressed that Syria embraces all her people, without discrimination or exception.
Although Wahhab would not divulge the full details of his three-hour encounter with Assad, he shared some of them with Al-Akhbar.
Most significantly, the Syrian president told him that the situation in the country has “reached the decisive stage,” as he put it. “In the final analysis, anarchy is far costlier than decisive action,” Assad had explained, while stressing that “decisive action will not delay reform.”
Wahhab said he found Assad to be relaxed and self-assured. Assad predicted that “Syria’s steadfastness will bring about a qualitative transformation in the struggle over the region.” He was also confident that Russia would stick to its position over Syria, saying it was based on strategic considerations rather than immediate or short-term concerns.
Asked to comment on the timing and main purpose of his visit, Wahhab remarked that although “some people” were under the impression that he had never met with the Syrian leader before, he had in fact done so several times, albeit privately.
“I make no secret of the fact that I persevered in requesting this visit,” he said. “The fact that there is no photograph of me alongside Assad had left a mistaken impression, not just among my political adversaries, but even within internal party circles.”
So did they discuss Walid Jumblatt’s stance over Syria?
”The name of Walid Jumblatt was not mentioned in the meeting, neither by Assad nor by myself,” Wahhab insisted.” He added: “I sensed Assad’s commitment to the Druze, regardless of details.”
Jumblatt has directed repeated appeals to Druze members of the Syria army and security forces, most recently last week, urging them to disobey orders to open fire on their compatriots or participate in security crackdowns. He also spoke concerning the tens of Druze soldiers that had been killed fighting their fellow citizens in different parts of the country.
Damascus has kept remarkably cool about Jumblatt’s outbursts. It did not press for the launch of a campaign of denunciation against him, as it did in 2005 after he made his historic break with Syria following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon.
Yet while Syria may be publicly ignoring Jumblatt, he has been busy discussing Syria’s future. He has held several meetings recently, in no particular official capacity, in Ankara, Doha, and Moscow, three capitals that are playing major roles in the process of determining the country’s near- and long-term political prospects.
Rival Lebanese Druze leader MP Talal Arslan recently met with Assad, as the head of large delegation Druze religious elders.
But the unprecedented campaign being waged against Wahhab by Syrian opposition media would appear to confirm that he is playing a distinct role among Syrian Druze.
Indeed, Wahhab is the only Lebanese politician who has, for years, been allowed to operate openly within Syria. His party has offices in Syria, distributes thousands of copies of its magazine there, and is a regular guest at the mobilization meetings held by the ruling Baath party in the provinces.
The Syrian opposition accuses Wahhab of working to arm the Druze in Syria. This charge was directed at him by Muntaha al-Atrash, spokeswoman of the Syrian Organization for Human Rights. No evidence was provided in support of the accusation. It might have gone un-noticed had it not been made by the daughter of Sultan al-Atrash, renowned leader of the Syrian anti-colonial revolution. Syrians and Arabs hold him in exceptionally high esteem. His picture can be seen hanging in virtually every Druze home in Suweida province.
As for that long-sought picture of Assad greeting Wahhab, it turns out, from the Arab Unification Party’s website, that there are in fact two photographs, not just the one.
The first shows Assad and Wahhab. In the second, they are joined by Wahhab’s oldest son.
“Hadi [the son of Wahhab] did not attend the meeting,” he explains. “He only accompanied me on the trip. But he asked to have his photo taken with Assad, and that’s what happened.”
This is unlikely to dispel speculation about Wahhab’s motives for involving his son Hadi in politics at an early age, while setting up a youth organization called “the Arab Unification Party Youth.”
It rather leaves the impression that “fighting inheritance in Druze political society” – the slogan Wahhab raised when he broke with Arslan to chart his own political course – has become a debatable proposition.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.