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Lebanon. An Uncertain Future.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned and then he agreed to withhold his resignation. He has accused Tehran of interfering in Lebanese affairs. The role of Hezbollah, an ally of Shiite Iran. The games of the Saudis.

The war in Syria might be winding down; leaving the Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Asad in power, but another conflict may arise from its ashes. Saudi Arabia is one of the big losers in Syria, where it hoped to topple the Iranian supported regime. The Saudis, who have also been fighting Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen without much success, are looking for all possible ways to achieve a victory against the Ayatollahs in Tehran, which has emerged as one of the big winners in the Syria. It has showed its enemies, including the United States and Israel, that it is capable of conducting a successful war against guerrilla armies and that its allies can rely on it for support. This is why the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on November 4th has raised concerns about the fragile Lebanese government’s ability to survive and to avert another potential war.

Hariri resigned by surprise and on live television in Saudi Arabia; he explained his decision, claiming he feared falling victim to an assassination conspiracy such as the one that killed his father Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Hariri hinted that Hezbollah, an ally of Shiite Iran – Saudi Arabia’s enemy – was the group plotting his assassination, as he accused it and Tehran of interfering in Lebanese affairs. In equally odd circumstances, after passing for talks with French President Macron and Egyptian President al-Sisi in Egypt, Hariri has returned to Beirut, where he has expressed a willingness to resume his role as PM. This may have led some in Lebanon to believe that a crisis might yet be averted, but even if Hariri has returned home, the picture is not a pleasant one. President Michel Aoun had reason to believe that Hariri was being held hostage in Riyadh and fearing instability promptly put the army on alert. Indeed, there’s the sense that the Saudi royal family imposed the resignation on Hariri, whose family shares a longstanding friendship with the al-Saud dynasty.

Hariri Remains Ambiguous

Upon returning to Beirut, Hariri appears to have agreed to withhold his resignation – which Gen. Aoun insisted would only be accepted if delivered in person – in the interest of stability. But he must have known that the very idea of his resignation would have upset the fragile balance in Beirut. Still, on November 25, Hariri continued to indict Iran and Hezbollah of compromising Lebanon’s security, advancing a policy of what he called “disassociation”. In the Lebanese perspective, the term implies the pursuit of a policy that avoid being mixed up in regional conflicts. This is the very opposite of what Hezbollah has done, having played a key role in fighting ISIS in Syria, thus contributing a great deal to the survival of the Asad regime.

It is unclear for how long Hariri will remain as Lebanon’s prime minister. But, it seems clear that his concerns about Hezbollah are, in fact, Saudi Arabia’s concerns and its fears of Iran. Indeed, the very context, in which Hariri’s ‘resignation’ occurred, betray an internal Saudi power play aimed at strengthening the Crown Prince MbS’s authority. He has played a key role in the disastrous war in Yemen against (Shiite related and Iranian backed) Houthi rebels. Yet, the same MbS has also promoted more ‘progressive’ politics, easing restrictions on women – announcing an imminent plan to allow them to drive – and economic policies to secure the Kingdom’s prosperity in a post-oil era over the coming decades.

Such is the setting in the Kingdom when, on November 4, the hereditary prince ordered the arrests of eleven powerful and wealthy Saudi princes and several businessmen, including Alwaleed bin Talal. Another prince, Mansour Bin Muqrin and seven others were killed as their helicopter crashed just as MbS launched his royal ‘purge’. Local sources, (including New Khaleej) believe MbS ordered Muqrin’s aircraft to be shot down because he challenged his – growing – authority and succession to the throne. It was in these as yet unclear circumstances, MbS summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is also a Saudi citizen and whose sons attend Saudi schools and universities, to Riyadh, whereupon Hariri resigned his post. Hariri read what appeared to be a prepared statement in a way that political prisoners or hostages once read out their ‘confessions’.

The Saudis’ Iranian Obsession Grows

MbS has also emerged as the leading Saudi figure, fueling the antagonism with Iran, even openly pursuing an alliance with Israel to thwart Tehran’s influence. But, regional wars in the Middle East, particularly those that also involve Israel, have a history of playing out in Lebanon. Thus, Hariri’s resignation is but one of the latest moves as part of MbS’s new and foreign policy, who seems determined to adopt a much more aggressive stance against Iran.

The Saudis are concerned and they called for an urgent Arab League summit on November 26 to discuss Tehran’s alleged violations in the region – recall that the Saudis were the most vociferous in calls to banish Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council for its diplomatic overtures to the Islamic Republic. But, more than Qatar, the main topic of discussion will be Lebanon and its latest crisis. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have asked their respective citizens to leave Lebanon as that country’s delicate political structure suffered a blow. For this policy to come to its logical outcome of a Saudi-Iranian war, which would engage the entire region, MbS must succeed in subverting the current Lebanese political arrangement. So far, Hariri’s return to Beirut would suggest the Saudi crown prince’s plan has not worked.

Lebanon’s peace depends on managing a fragile balance between Christians, Shiites and Sunnis. Whereas, President Aoun has been far more enthusiastic partner of the Shiites than has the March 14 political coalition (led by Hariri’s ‘Future Movement’ party). Riyadh and Tel Aviv would prefer to see the Future Movement gain more power at the expense of Hezbollah But, that seems impossible now because Hezbollah’s big ally, Iran, has enjoyed significant military successes in Syria and Iraq. If the Israelis fear that Iran will supply Hezbollah with more and better weapons, they are also concerned that the Lebanese Shiite movement’s soldiers have gained even more battle experience becoming a formidable foe. In July-August 2006, Hezbollah gained much prestige throughout the Arab world, and not just in Shiite circles, after being able to thwart an Israeli onslaught that ended in a ‘draw’.

For the Time Being, Lebanon is Unlikely to Strike First

Israel proved unable to defeat Hezbollah and that’s enough to count as a victory for the Lebanese resistance group. As for the Saudis, Hezbollah’s strength reflects Iran’s rising power, thus it must be held in check. Thus, should Hezbollah gain too much power, it cannot be excluded that Saudi backed opponents would use force to try to contain it. The Hariri ‘resignation’ is clearly the first such effort as ISIS retreats and fragments. But, in Lebanon itself, nobody wants a war. The repercussions of the war in Syria aren’t clear yet, thus Asad’s ally Hezbollah will wait until a clearer post-war plan emerges in Damascus. Hezbollah is unlikely to launch missiles into Israel – however ‘artisanal’ – now as it did in 2006, provoking a response. In for Saudi Arabia, as MbS engaged his ‘purge of the princes’, a rocket landed near Riyadh, launched by Houthi rebels from Yemen. It was said to be of Iranian manufacture.
There have been some 11 years of peace between Lebanon and Israel, supported also by the presence of a UN peacekeeping contingent-UNIFIL, which monitors the peace. In case of an attack, UNIFIL would act to reach a ceasefire as quickly as possible. For now, the rhetoric from both sides has intensified, but between rhetoric and reality there is a big difference. There have been other moments of tension since 2006 and some could have sparked wars. In 2010, Lebanese and Israeli forces engaged in a firefight over the cutting of a tree and for a period of two years there was a political crisis during which Lebanon had no president. There were other occasions involving Syria.

The Israeli air force has launched several attacks of its own over the past few years, but not against ISIS; rather, against Syrian government buildings. These are provocations to which the Syrians – perhaps under Russian guidance – did not respond. Prince MbS may also have been signaling a provocation, destabilizing Lebanon’s regime, perhaps to prompt Israel to launch an aerial attack on the Lebanese side of the UNIFIL line. But, Israel also understands that now, Hezbollah would only gain in legitimacy if the Jewish State were to attack first. Legitimacy corresponds with popular support, thus the Israelis and Saudis would achieve the opposite effect they desire by attacking now. Rather, it’s more likely that if war should come to Lebanon again, it will be in response to a more direct Saudi-Iranian or American-Iranian spark/provocation.
The Saudi claims against Iran’s aid to the Houthis in Yemen could produce an ‘Archduke Ferdinand’ moment, as would an American withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, leading to an aerial attack on the latter country’s atomic research facilities. The Iranians would respond by closing the Strait of Hormuz, provoking a Saudi-American reprisal, which would in turn prompt Hezbollah to mobilize. But, for the time being, tensions will rise but neither Hezbollah or Iran have any interest in prompting another war.

Alessandro Bruno

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