Saudi Arabia comes for Hezbollah
Lebanon was stunned on Nov. 4 when its prime minister, Saad Hariri, speaking from Saudi Arabia, delivered a halting resignation speech. Mr. Hariri said he left Beirut because he feared assassination. He placed the blamed for his long-distance resignation on Iran and its main ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
In the days since, Saudi Arabia has accused Hezbollah of plotting against the kingdom and ordered Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon. Threats from top Saudi officials are causing new turmoil in a tiny country with complicated sectarian politics, failed power-sharing arrangements and a long history of foreign meddling.
Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Lebanon has largely avoided the conflicts sweeping the Middle East. Even the war that is raging in Syria, Lebanon’s much larger neighbor, has generally left the country unscathed. That calm is now threatened as the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies set their sights on Hezbollah and its patron, Iran.
Why would Saudi leaders risk a new conflagration? They see a way to make common cause with Washington by targeting Hezbollah, one of Iran’s most effective allies. President Trump has consistently singled out Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other groups that Washington considers terrorist organizations.
But Saudi Arabia is already overstretched. Its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen drags on, and the diplomatic dispute with Qatar remains in a stalemate, too. If Saudi leaders think they can score an easy victory in Lebanon against Hezbollah, it will be another misjudgment that adds to a dangerous and combustible moment in the Middle East.
Hezbollah was part of Lebanon’s national unity government formed in late 2016 with Mr. Hariri as the prime minister. Iran and Saudi Arabia — which views itself as the protector of Lebanon’s Sunni community — blessed the power-sharing agreement.
Hezbollah agreed to the deal because it wanted to avoid conflict in Lebanon and to direct its energy toward the Syrian war, where it fights alongside the government of President Bashar al-Assad. As a leader with strong ties to both the Sunni Arab states and the West, Mr. Hariri provided Hezbollah with political cover as it continued to dominate Lebanon.
The militia’s important role in the fighting in Syria has made it more powerful than ever. But Mr. Hariri’s resignation exposes Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government to harsher United States sanctions, a potential war with Israel or even an economic blockade led by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies, similar to the one imposed on Qatar.
Hezbollah, which was founded in the 1980s during a civil war and an Israeli invasion, is now the country’s dominant political and military force. It is unrealistic of Saudi leaders and the Trump administration to expect that it can be supplanted by a popular Lebanese groundswell against it or removed by a foreign military force without causing catastrophic damage to Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia’s new ruler, King Salman, and his son and designated heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are pursuing a far more aggressive foreign policy than previous Saudi rulers. They have been bolstered in this by Mr. Trump’s support for the kingdom in its conflict with Iran. Now that Iran’s ally, Mr. Assad, has essentially won the civil war in Syria, Saudi Arabia is looking to contain Iranian influence elsewhere. Lebanon is a tempting target.
The Saudis have also been emboldened by their recent outreach to Shiite factions in Iraq, especially the nationalist cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who visited the kingdom in July and met with Prince Mohammed. The Saudis are hoping to cultivate Mr. Sadr and other Shiite leaders who can be a counterweight to Iranian influence in Iraq, especially ahead of parliamentary elections next year.
But the Saudis won’t be able to find a Sadr in Lebanon, a political figure who can offer a serious alternative to Hezbollah and Iranian influence in the Shiite community.
Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, Hezbollah has entrenched itself in the largely Shiite areas of southern Beirut and southern Lebanon. With Iranian support, it opened schools and hospitals, provided business loans and fielded candidates for parliamentary elections. It also extended its military capability, deploying thousands of missiles along the border with Israel.
In February 2005, Rafik Hariri, a billionaire construction tycoon and Lebanon’s former prime minister, was assassinated in a bombing in Beirut. His death deprived Lebanon of its most prominent Sunni leader — and Saudi Arabia lost its most important Lebanese ally. After Mr. Hariri’s death, his son Saad took over his father’s Saudi-based construction empire and the Sunni political mantle in Lebanon.
In the summer of 2006, Hezbollah fought a month-long war with Israel, which ended in a draw and increased the militia’s popularity across the Muslim world. But by early 2011, Hezbollah’s standing began to wane after a United Nations tribunal indicted several of its members for Mr. Hariri’s assassination.
If Mr. Hariri’s killing was a first salvo of the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon, subsequent battles also did not go Riyadh’s way.
In May 2008, Hezbollah broke a post-civil-war vow not to turn its weapons against other Lebanese factions. At the time, Lebanon was mired in a political stalemate between a United States- and Saudi-backed government — which included Sunni, Christian and Druze parties — and Hezbollah and its allies.
Hezbollah was infuriated by a government decision that outlawed its underground fiber-optic communication network, which was critical to its success during its 2006 war with Israel. Hezbollah’s leaders sent hundreds of fighters into largely Sunni neighborhoods of West Beirut. They overpowered Sunni militiamen and seized the offices and media outlets of political rivals, including Mr. Hariri.
Hezbollah’s success so alarmed the Sunni Arab states that Saudi Arabia toyed with the idea of sending an Arab military force to intervene in Lebanon. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister at the time, asked a visiting American diplomat whether the United States and NATO could provide equipment, logistics and “naval and air cover” to assist such an army, according to a classified American diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks. Prince Faisal warned Washington that Hezbollah’s actions would lead to an “Iranian takeover of all Lebanon”.
Years later, Saudi leaders organized a similar force to wage their war in Yemen, against Houthi rebels allied with Iran. A day after Mr. Hariri’s resignation, the front page of a Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper declared, “Hariri departs Hezbollah’s republic.” The subtext was clear: Without its most prominent Sunni leader, Lebanon is under Hezbollah’s full control — and it will be fair game in the latest battle with Iran.
Mohamad Bazzi (@bazziNYU), an associate professor of journalism at New York University and the former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, is writing a book about the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Iran taking Saudi rhetoric, actions seriously
TEHRAN, Iran — The unprecedented and curious resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri while he was in the Saudi capital Riyadh has become the center of speculations regarding the possible impacts on the Iranian-Saudi struggle over influence in the region. It’s not a secret that the whole story is a piece of a bigger puzzle. Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s close Lebanese ally, headed a coalition government that has Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese partner, in it. This coalition came to life Dec. 18, 2016, and the process was seen then as an outcome to an unwritten agreement between the two main regional powers to keep Lebanon away from the region’s turmoil.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting proxy political and military wars in several areas around the Middle East. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has so far failed to defeat Iran’s allies, Ansar Allah, known also as the Houthis, despite 2½ years of daily bombing that has left thousands of people dead. Riyadh is backing President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in his attempt to retake power, yet the main objectives of this effort were hurdled due to the differences among the coalition because of the fierce resistance Tehran’s allies are showing. On Nov. 4, the Houthis targeted an airport in Saudi Arabia’s capital with a ballistic missile. According to Saudi Ministry of Defense, the missile was intercepted.
This prompted Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to accuse Iran of “direct military aggression” by supplying missiles to the Houthis. “The involvement of the Iranian regime in supplying its Houthi militias with missiles is considered a direct military aggression by the Iranian regime,” Mohammed said on Nov. 7. This came after Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan threatened that Lebanon’s government would “be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia” because of what he described as “acts of aggression” committed by Hezbollah. This wasn’t the first warning.
On Oct. 30, Sabhan promised the Lebanese that “the coming developments will definitely be astonishing.” He added, “It is not strange for the terrorist militia party to declare and take part in the war against the kingdom at the instructions of the masters of global terrorism. … But what’s strange is the silence of the government and people over this!” This was a clear indication that Riyadh was dismayed with the Lebanese government, and specifically with Hariri for not standing firm to Hezbollah. This, however, wasn’t the first indication Saudi Arabia was planning to punish the group as part of a wider strategy to confront Iran and its allies. The Saudi move came in accordance with US measures in this regard, mainly US President Donald Trump’s Iran strategy that was announced on Oct. 15 and warnings in Washington of a potential threat by Hezbollah to the US homeland. On Oct. 8, Sabhan called for an international coalition to be formed against Hezbollah. He wrote on his Twitter account, “US sanctions against the terrorist militia in Lebanon would be good, but the solution is to form a strict international coalition to confront it and those who work with it, in order to achieve regional security and peace.”
“An international coalition against Hezbollah means a war, and a war on Hezbollah while it’s inside the Lebanese government means a war on Lebanon,” a Lebanese official source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. He added, “Therefore, Saudi Arabia is pushing to get Hezbollah outside the government at any price to be able to initiate such a move.” According to the official source, “The Saudi-Iranian standoff is threatening the stability of the country, but there’s no chance that we distance our country from this struggle. If it’s not a war, it might be harsh economic measures, maybe similar to the ones that were taken against Qatar.”
On Nov. 9, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United States called on their nationals in Lebanon to leave the country. According to Saudi Arabia’s national news agency, the kingdom asked Saudis who intend to visit Lebanon from any destination not to do that. Bahrain reminded its nationals of its previous warning to leave Lebanon. On Nov. 10, Saudi charge d’affaires Walid al-Bukhari visited Lebanese President Michel Aoun to discuss the issue of Hariri’s resignation. According to Lebanese media, Bukhari told the Lebanese president that “Hariri is a Saudi national and Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister.” This came after Hariri’s Future Movement convened Nov. 9 and stressed the necessity that Hariri should return. Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, when asked whether Hariri’s brother Bahaa could replace him, told reporters, “We are not a flock of sheep. … In Lebanon, politics is governed through elections and not by pledging allegiances,” in what was seen as a rare message of dismay to Saudi Arabia.
Given that Hariri’s resignation came on the same day several Saudi princes and former officials were arrested, people tried to link both events. In this regard, a Saudi diplomat who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said, “All that’s taking place is normal. The Saudi political rhetoric toward Lebanon has been clearly changing during the last month.” According to the diplomat, “All the analyses linking the resignation to the corruption file are baseless.”
Hariri’s resignation came only 72 hours after meeting Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, in Beirut on Nov. 1. Hariri flew back to Riyadh on Nov. 3, and on Nov. 4 he was reading his resignation on Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya channel. He clearly blamed Iran and Hezbollah for his decision to step down, vowing that Lebanon would “rise as it had done in the past” and “cut off the hands that wickedly extend into it.”
To Iran the whole scene is part of an “adventure that’s been going on in Saudi Arabia since the war on Yemen,” a diplomatic source told Al-Monitor. The Iranian diplomat refrained from giving any further comments. In a country where dozens of stances are given on a daily basis by politicians, military commanders and officials, it was strange that only a few commented on this crisis. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded firmly during the Cabinet meeting on Nov. 8 to Prince Mohammed’s threats: “You know the might and position of the Islamic Republic. People more powerful than you have been unable to do anything against the Iranian people.” Iran is clearly taking the Saudi threats seriously, yet not independent from the US and Israeli threats.
Now that the scene has become ready for the next step in Lebanon, the Saudis continue to make threats, the Iranians continue to anticipate the coming action and the Lebanese understand very well that they are once again in the middle of a storm that is certainly going to shake the whole region.
Ali Hashem is a journalist with a focus on Iran. He is the former Tehran bureau chief for the Arab news network Al Mayadeen, and a former reporter for Al Jazeera and the BBC. He writes extensively on Iran for Al-Monitor and Al Mayadeen.
After Hariri’s resignation, what’s next for Lebanon?
For those who entertain the dark allure of Arab conspiracy theories, Nov. 4 was a red-letter day. In the space of a few hours, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was the convergence point of three significant developments. One was that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation. The second was that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cracked down on rivals in the ruling family. The third was that a long-range ballistic missile was aimed at the Saudi capital by Yemen’s Houthis.
Nothing about Hariri’s most recent travel plans or political views hinted that a resignation was imminent; this opened the door for speculation that he either had survived an assassination attempt in Beirut or was under house arrest in Riyadh…
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