Saudi Arabia's new adventure in Lebanon: Success or failure?

#LebanonViolence

The most important question is: Are the Saudis willing to commit to a long and exhausting war in Lebanon?

Basheer Nafi's picture
Friday 10 November 2017 18:20 UTC
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Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri has taken his supporters and opponents by surprise when he announced his resignation on 4 November from Riyadh. This, however, was not Hariri’s first surprising move.

 All Lebanese political forces are captives to the desires of their foreign allies

Last year, Hariri made another surprising move by changing his political positions thus allowing for the election of General Michel Aoun as president of the republic. Reportedly, Hariri's support for Aoun was based on a deal that involved his appointment as prime minister.

Hariri's decisions

The explanation for some of Hariri’s surprising decisions is that they mostly emanate not from particular political shifts, nor from the desire to accomplish some tactical gains in the never-ending interplay for power and influence in the country. Rather, they are related to the fact that the Lebanese leader is captive to the will of his regional or international allies.

Yet, Hariri does not represent a Lebanese exception in this regard. All Lebanese political forces are captives to the desires of their foreign allies. As a result, the stability of the state in Lebanon has always been conditional.

Before Hariri announced his resignation, there was no indication that he was about to take such a decision. Hariri had just met Ali Akbar Velayeti, the Iranian supreme leader’s advisor for foreign affairs.

Hariri would not have taken such a step unless he knew - with absolute certainty - that his Saudi allies had indeed decided to embark on a confrontation with Iran in Lebanon

The meeting was reported to be amicable or at least normal. Despite the difficulty of running a government of national coalition in a country of multiple sects, interests and whims, Hariri was committed to maintaining the required level of cohesion among the various parties in his government.

The claim that Hariri discovered an attempt on his life just days earlier, and that such a discovery prompted him to leave the country and then announce his resignation, just does not sound logical.

Had he known about the assassination attempt, of which the Sunni Lebanese leader seems to implicate Hezbollah and the Iranians, why did he then receive Velayeti and announced his plan to travel to the Egyptian city of Sharm al-Sheikh to participate in an international youth conference?

Instead, Hariri left suddenly for the Saudi capital wherefrom, rather than from his cabinet office, he delivered a fuming speech to the Lebanese people announcing his resignation.

It is more likely, of course, that Hariri was summoned by the Saudis on the evening of 3 November, and that it was his Saudi allies who forced him to resign. So, what did Hariri's step mean?



President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and King Salman of Saudi Arabia celebrate deal (AFP)

A message to friends and foes

Lebanon sits in the heart of a number of overlapping crises. Yet, Hariri did not conceal, in his brief statement, that the main reason behind his resignation was the increasing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its domination over Lebanese decision-making, on the one hand, and the Iranian expansionist policy in the Arab neighbourhood, including in Lebanon and Syria, on the other.

In other words, Hariri sought to send a message through his resignation, to his friends and foes alike, that he was determined to align himself with the anti-Iranian forces in the region.

However, Hariri would not have taken such a step unless he knew - with absolute certainty - that his Saudi allies had indeed decided to embark on a confrontation with Iran in Lebanon. And this is the crux of the matter.

A year ago, Saudi Arabia's regional standing was not at its best. This explains why Hariri accepted a power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon with Aoun. On the one hand, the Saudis had completely lost hope that the US, under the Obama administration, would play a more active role in confronting Iranian expansionism.

No matter how supportive of Saudi Arabia the Trump administration happens to be, the Americans do not seems to be preparing for a war with Iran

On the other hand, it had become obvious that the war in Yemen had failed to accomplish its main goals. Both Egypt and Pakistan refused to provide any tangible assistance to their Saudi ally.

Today, it would seem that the Saudis are more confident about the US role, especially after Washington set in motion a series of measures to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. Additionally, the US president has been speaking against the nuclear deal with Iran and the Congress has voted to impose a package of sanctions on Iran.

Furthermore, and despite Saudi denial, there are indications that a Saudi-Israeli agreement has been reached to confront Iran and its allies in the neighbourhood.

Surely incited by the Americans, the Saudis took steps over the past few months to build better ties with the Iraq on the assumption that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abbadi, might emerge as a nationalist leader and work to push back Iranian influence in Iraq.

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Saad Hariri's Saudi problem: Desperate needs, desperate deeds

Similar signals have also been sent to Moscow and Damascus, promising that Riyadh would be prepared to adopt a different policy vis-à-vis the  Syrian government once Iran and the militias affiliated with it pull out of Syria.

Yet, none of this means that after Saudi Arabia's failure in Yemen, it will achieve better results in Lebanon. It is rather difficult to imagine the success of the Saudi adventure in Lebanon without meeting certain conditions.



File photo of Hezbollah rally in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam, 13 August 2017 (Reuters)

New political alignment?

Will Lebanon, for instance, witness a different political alignment from the current one? Will Maronite forces, together with the majority of the Druze and the Sunnis, join the Saudi camp? And will the Gulf states and Egypt, in particular, stand by Saudi Arabia?

In Yemen, the United Arab Emirates adopted a policy that served its own interests, and it did the same throughout the Syrian crisis. In spite of declaring public support for Saudi Arabia, the UAE maintained normal relations with Iran.

While Egypt’s Sisi refused to take part in the war in Yemen, he exerted every possible effort in order to keep the Assad regime in power. In the meantime, Sisi opened lines of communications with the Iranians.

Ultimately, the most important question has to do with the extent to which the Saudis are willing to commit to a long and exhausting war in Lebanon, and how prepared they are to bear the financial and human cost of such a war. Since the mid-1980s, Iran has invested tens of billions of dollars in reinforcing Hezbollah and building its popular base and military capabilities.

If the current Saudi leadership thinks it can rely on Israel, what is certain is that the Arab public opinion, and particularly the Sunni Muslim one, will not support an Israeli war in Lebanon

No matter how supportive of Saudi Arabia the Trump administration happens to be, the Americans do not seem to be preparing for a war with Iran. The maximum Washington might be willing to do would be to support Iran’s rivals should they decide to confront it.

But if the current Saudi leadership thinks it can rely on Israel, what is certain is that Arab public opinion, and particularly the Sunni Muslim one, will not support an Israeli war in Lebanon, which is likely to result in the death of hundreds, or even thousands, and the destruction of Lebanese towns and infrastructure.

Furthermore, an Israeli war will not succeed in bringing down Hezbollah or eroding its role and influence.

In other words, Hariri’s resignation may indeed be the prelude to igniting another Saudi confrontation with Iran. However, it is clear so far that no proper assessment has been made for this confrontation and its repercussions. 

- Basheer Nafi is a historian of Islam and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Saad Hariri poses for a selfie with journalists at the presidential palace after being declared prime minister on Thursday (Reuters)