Lebanese Druze leader fears civil war in Syria

BEIRUT Wed Jan 18, 2012 9:33am EST

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria risks plunging deeper into violence and even civil war because President Bashar al-Assad "listens to nobody" inside or outside the country calling for change, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said.

A veteran politician whose ties with Damascus have ebbed and flowed over decades of shifting alliances, Jumblatt said he had no contact with the Syrian leader since meeting him in Damascus seven months ago in the early weeks of Syria's uprising.

The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown on protests. Armed insurgents are increasingly fighting back. Syria says foreign-backed "terrorists" have killed 2,000 soldiers and police.

"I am more and more concerned about the possibility that Syria will plunge into more violence and...maybe civil war," Jumblatt told Reuters in an interview at his Beirut home.

The longer the violence rages, the greater the threat of rifts between Syria's Sunni Muslim majority and Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, he added, citing reports of sectarian killings in Homs, a mixed city which is also a stronghold of protesters and insurgents.

Syria also has Druze, Christian and Kurdish minorities.

Jumblatt said that from the start of the crisis in March Assad had ignored calls from the United States, China, Russia and his former ally Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to defuse the revolt by swiftly enacting political reform.

Instead, Assad blamed a "conspiracy" against Syria and attempted to crush the popular uprising by force.

"There was a very close political and family relationship between Bashar and Erdogan. But...he listens to nobody," Jumblatt said. "Up till now he has refused to listen to the rightful demands of the Syrian people for a new Syria."

An Arab League initiative, which calls for Assad to withdraw troops from protest centers, free detainees and start talks with the opposition, offered the only hope of a solution, Jumblatt said, but prospects were bleak "unless a miracle happens."

There is a "slow but sure decaying of the Syrian situation. It's fatal," he added.

SAVING LEBANON

The turmoil in Syria has fuelled tensions in neighboring Lebanon where Syria has many allies, including the powerful Shi'ite group Hezbollah, as well as foes who resent the nearly three decades of Syrian military presence which ended in 2005.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has defended Assad and said he should be given the chance to implement political reform, while anti-Syrian Sunni former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has openly called for the Syrian leader's downfall.

"We have to insist on trying to isolate Lebanon from the Syrian problem," Jumblatt said. "There is a need for the Lebanese to talk to each other and mainly the leaders of the main ... Shi'ite and Sunni communities."

Criticizing his former ally Hariri for rejecting political dialogue unless Hezbollah hands its weapons to the state, as other Lebanese armed groups did after Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, Jumblatt said Hariri's stance "leads nowhere."

Hezbollah says it must retain its arms to confront Israel.

"Although we have a different point of view on Syria, I'm against polarizing internal policy (in Lebanon)," Jumblatt said.

He also said he had called on Syria's Druze community, which numbers around 400,000 of a population of 23 million, to distance itself from the crackdown on protests if possible.

Around 100 Druze soldiers and police have been killed "repressing the people," he said. "What can they do? Am I appealing to them to desert? No. To stay at home, if they can."

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