The beik has a way with words. In years past, he has called Bashar "a snake, a butcher," "an Israeli product," and urged Washington to send car bombs to Damascus. He lamented in 2003 that then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had survived a rocket attack in Baghdad, describing the hawkish U.S. official as "a virus." The media broadsides, however, are not gratuitous: They bolster Jumblatt's public profile far beyond his political weight, and can disguise his efforts to balance the interests of rival powers.
So while Jumblatt has blasted Assad as "a tyrant who suffers from megalomania" this time around, there is one weapon he refuses to deploy against the Syrian president: His ability to bring down the pro-Syrian government in Beirut. Lebanon's ruling coalition, which is dominated by Hezbollah and its allies, relies on Jumblatt's support to remain in power. But "nothing," he says, could convince him to leave the government and support a coalition made up of anti-Syrian parties.
So it is that in this country of paradoxes, Lebanon's political balance of power has once again tipped against Assad -- but the levers of power remain in the hands of the pro-Syrian parties.
"Walid Jumblatt is trying to say: ‘I am part of this government because this government could ensure stability, and I'm staying in this government not because I feel it's a productive government, not because I share the thoughts of all my allies in this government -- no, I'm staying because I think in doing so I'm preserving stability,'" says Ziad Baroud, a former Lebanese interior minister and politician.
It's a logic that appeals to leaders like Baroud, who have tried to remain independent from the major pro- and anti-Syrian alliances. His goal is to insulate Lebanon from the upheaval next door: "What is happening in Syria is very unfortunate, but at the same time we cannot take the country to something similar," he says. "We had our share -- for years. And we know what civil war is about."
Jumblatt's realpolitik may have its own unassailable logic, but it has resulted in some typically tangled alliances. The thorniest is with Hezbollah, with whom the Druze leader says he maintains good ties.
Jumblatt says his ties with Hezbollah remain strong, even as the two forces back rival sides in Syria. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has lauded the Syrian government as "a regime of resistance" -- a reference to Israel -- and rumors that the Shiite militant group's fighters are supporting Assad militarily were bolstered this week upon the death of Hezbollah operative Ali Hussein Nassif, who the party said lost his life "doing his jihadist duties." A Lebanese security official said that Nassif was killed fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime.
Jumblatt, however, doesn't want to dwell on Hezbollah's role in Syria. It is their shared anti-Israel stance -- perhaps the only constant in his decades-long political career -- that cements the alliance.
"We have not to forget the almost daily, daily declarations of the crazy guys of Israel, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak, willing to attack Hezbollah, willing to attack Iran," he says. "In case the Israelis commit this foolish adventure, of course they will attack Lebanon, and we will have to defend ourselves. With all available means."
It all quickly veers into the absurd. The man whose fighters rained artillery down on U.S. Marines during the Lebanese civil war -- and who speaks bitterly about U.S. foreign-policy crimes to this day -- maintains that he "would have preferred to be a garbage man in [New York City] than a zaim [feudal leader] in Lebanon." The man who is now supporting the Syrian uprising had visited Assad only a year prior to the revolt, after offering his apologies for his earlier "indecent comments."
So who, at the end of the day, is Walid Jumblatt? He might have put it best in a 1984 interview with Playboy, of all magazines -- Bo Derek in a cowboy outfit graced the cover. The scene was a Geneva hotel, where the feudal chieftain was struggling fruitlessly to negotiate an end to the country's ruinous civil war. "We are all warlords in Lebanon," he said. "[L]ike feudal lords or godfathers, something like that...We are just surrogates for somebody, puppets for somebody. Everybody is a puppet."
It is a worldview that can appear, at first glance, fatalistic -- the Playboy interviewer asked if Jumblatt's bombastic statements were his way of saying "What the hell?" to his impossible position. "Not ‘what the hell?' when it comes to the interests of my community," he retorted. "That I care about. My aims are very limited. It's better to have limited aims."
The aim is to protect the Druze -- to guide his stadiums-full of supporters through the upheavals that seize his corner of the Middle East. And it is a role Jumblatt must take on again, with the Assad regime tottering and powers bigger than himself planning to remake the region in its wake. He has been playing this game longer than anyone else: The men who tried to control him when he first took the reins in Mukhtara are all dead, physically or politically. But Walid Beik is still there, in the mountains.