by Constantin Wiegand
Saudi Arabia’s regional standoff with Iran escalated last Saturday, as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned. He did so in a televised broadcast from Saudi Arabia, blaming Iran and Hezbollah for his decision and alluding that his life was in danger. His resignation ended a political deal that had led to the election of Michel Aoun as president after more than two years of a political vacuum in Lebanon.
Only 11 months ago, in December 2016, the Lebanese parliament swore in a new cabinet headed by Sunni Prime Minister Hariri, but dominated by the Shia, Iran-backed political party and militia Hezbollah. While it is not the first time a Lebanese government has collapsed in recent times (it happened in 2005, 2011 and 2013) and definitely not the first time that regional powers have strongly interfered in Lebanese internal affairs and sowed divisions among its population, the country might once again become the battleground for other peoples’ wars.
Lebanon’s political fate has been up for grabs since the end of the civil war in 1990, with Iran and Saudi Arabia joining Syria, the US and France in trying to shape affairs. The West, mainly through the US and France, was especially present until the early 2000s and continues to make its voice heard when a serious crisis develops, including during the current one. French President Emmanuel Macron paid an unscheduled visit to Saudi-Arabia on Thursday, where he emphasised “the importance of Lebanese stability and integrity”. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, warned other countries against using Lebanon for “proxy conflicts”.
It was Syria, however, which was de facto pulling the strings in Beirut until the Arab Spring reached its shores – political assassinations, puppet presidents, control of Lebanon’s military and security forces and strong links with several political parties guaranteed that Damascus was dominating Lebanon’s political agenda. Since Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad had to brutally suppress a democratic upheaval in 2011 and has been fighting a bloody war in his country ever since, the main protagonists in Beirut have been Riyadh and Tehran, with the latter using Hezbollah to out-muscle the Saudis.
While Saudi-Arabia’s Sunni allies in Lebanon have not been able to capitalize on Riyadh’s financial patronage, Iran’s Shia proxy Hezbollah has consolidated its position since a brief war with Israel in 2006. It has grown stronger since the formation of Hariri’s “national union” government, which comprises all major political parties. As a key pillar of this government, Hezbollah has made no efforts to overcome the political and institutional stalemate which has been festering in Lebanon. Moreover, Hezbollah’s participation in the Lebanese government as a political party has allowed its militia to be deployed on the battlegrounds in Syria, winning Al-Assad’s war for him, together with Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Russian bombers and advisers in support of Assad’s troops. Iran has also been able to significantly expand its influence in Iraq, thus contributing to establish the “Shia crescent” of Iranian influence, which Jordan’s King Abdullah II had already publicly warned about in 2004.
Hariri’s resignation, while coming as a surprise to everyone, reflects this pattern of recent regional developments. Unsurprisingly, Hariri’s statement was followed by an unprecedented round of anti-Iran rhetoric from Riyadh, which (rightly, but opportunistically) accused Hezbollah of dominating life in Lebanon and subverting the political system. Thamer al-Sabhan, the Saudi minister for Gulf affairs, said on Monday in an interview with Al Arabiya 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. “The Lebanese must choose between peace or aligning with Hezbollah,” he added. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, said on Friday that Saudi Arabia had declared war on Lebanon and his group, accusing Riyadh of detaining Hariri and forcing him to resign as Lebanon’s prime minister to destabilize the country. All of this demonstrates that Saudi Arabia is now actively using its means of influence in Lebanon to more openly counter Iran’s regional offensive agenda.
Of course no Lebanese crisis is complete without some sort of actual or perceived Israeli involvement. The emergence of a reported memo sent to Israeli missions around the world from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tel Aviv, asking Israeli diplomats to repeat talking points almost identical to remarks made by Saudi leaders after Hariri’s resignation, led to allegations of a pact, at least on a de facto level, between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This would be in line with Israel’s recent encouragement of the Trump administration to take a tougher stance on Iran and on statements by senior Israeli politicians in recent months that a war with Hezbollah may be inevitable. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even warned his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during a meeting in August that Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria or any other Iranian threat.
Saudi Arabia’s sudden political offensive in Lebanon is driven by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and is part of his strategy of trying to curb Iran’s influence in the region in many (rather unsuccessful) ways, including through the blockade of Qatar, the war in Yemen and Saudi support for Sunni groups in the Syrian war. Political analysts are however surprised by the extent of this Saudi show of force towards Iran and Hezbollah and suspect Israeli and US blessing behind it. It is not unreasonable to see a link between MBS’ new foreign policy offensives and Jared Kushner’s – Trump’s son in law and his special envoy – unannounced visits to Riyadh in recent weeks, including one end of October, just a few days before all of this unfolded. In fact, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, seems to believe that Kushner’s personal visit to Saudi Arabia led to its destabilising actions towards Lebanon. But while it seems increasingly clear that the Saudis are trying to drag Hezbollah into some kind of conflict, the group has not responded in this direction, and Israel did not appear ready to pick a fight now either. It might just end up being another impatient and therefore unsuccessful move from MBS that lacked strategic planning.
Meanwhile, inside Lebanon, people are asked to take sides or at least support the (Hezbollah) government narrative, that the Saudis are “holding Hariri hostage”. What all Lebanese can agree on, however, is that Hariri must return to Beirut and all political parties must come together to overcome this crisis – notwithstanding the voices from outside that are trying to draw the Lebanese into a conflict.
We don’t know the details of what happened and we don’t know where this is going. Nonetheless, to me, two major conclusions can be drawn.
First of all, Lebanon would not be in the politically disastrous state it is in now if Hezbollah’s armed wing did not de facto hold the state hostage. How can liberal democracy and a healthy political system develop and thrive if an armed militia, stronger than the country’s army, labelled a terrorist group by a vast majority of the international community and accused of carrying out political assassinations, uses its military might to dominate the political sphere? The Taif Agreement, which was signed and ratified by the Lebanese parliament in 1989 and ended the decades-long Lebanese Civil War, provided, among other things, for the disarmament of all national and non-national militias. Hezbollah was allowed to stay armed in its capacity as a “resistance force” rather than a militia, fighting Israel in the south. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, but Hezbollah did not dismantle thereafter and is now more armed than ever. As long as the “Party of God” benefits from unwavering financial and material support from Iran, which allows it to cater for the Shia community in Lebanon and win it over through providing social services that the Lebanese state fails to provide, it will continue feeling above any law. Yet aggressive Saudi-Arabian interference or half-hearted warnings from the international community are not the answer to the predicament Lebanon currently finds itself in – because clearly, this is not “business as usual” anymore.
Change must come from within – and it must tackle all facets of Lebanese political life. Since the summer of 2015, issues like the lack of public services and the fight against corruption have played an increasingly important role in discussions among Lebanese citizens of all communities and social backgrounds. The 2015 waste crisis and the 2016 municipal elections enforced this trend. Yet November 2017 reminded everyone that divisions along the lines of regional alliances and foreign interference in Lebanese politics are something that Lebanon will never be able to prevent from continuing, in the absence of a broad internal common understanding about the pillars for the country’s peace, stability and prosperity. The question of Hezbollah’s weapons will always lead to interference, in one way or another, by the US, the Israelis or the Saudis.
The newly-born civil movements must therefore understand that a strong, coherent and non-sectarian response to each and every problem in the country is needed, including to the risks faced by Lebanon as a result of Hezbollah’s role and weapons. This response must reject anything that gives certain citizens or groups extra-legal rights and it must not accept any action that contravenes the fundamental rules of law. I understand that it is naive to think that this response can be implemented overnight, especially in such a deeply sectarian country as Lebanon. But there clearly is an opportunity for new independent parties and civil society groups to embody much-awaited change, and their success will depend on the proposals they make on all issues that affect the Lebanese – including the most delicate ones.
Constantin Wiegand works as a strategic communications consultant in Berlin. He is German-Lebanese and he grew up in Brussels. He holds a Bachelor in Politics and International Relations from the University of Bath and did a Master in Global Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His regional areas of expertise include the Middle East, Eastern Europe & Russia and Latin America.