L ebanese politics has long been more than a purely domestic affair. Throughout its history, regional and international powers have attempted to shape the fortunes of the Mediterranean country, backing opposing factions in Lebanon’s notoriously complex sectarian system. However, even by these standards Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation came as a shock to many.
For starters, Mr. Hariri announced that he was stepping down during a trip to Saudi Arabia, citing threats to his own life. In a statement read out on Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television, he strongly criticised Iran, Riyadh’s main regional rival, which he said had a “strong desire to destroy the Arab world”. He also lashed out at Hezbollah, a powerful political and military player which was part of Mr. Hariri’s government, stating that the Iranian-backed force had turned its weapons against “our Syrian and Yemeni brothers, and even the Lebanese people”.
“Iran’s hands in the region will be cut off,” Mr. Hariri pronounced.
Mr. Hariri, a Lebanese-Saudi dual national, is the son of Rafiq Hariri, the late Lebanese premier who died in a massive truck explosion in central Beirut in 2005. His family’s close political and business ties to the kingdom reach back decades. After taking over in the wake of his father’s assassination, the young Hariri became Saudi Arabia’s man in Beirut, his constituency mainly consisting of Sunni Arabs.
Many saw the resignation as intimately linked to regional events. Riyadh, after “years of failed strategies in Syria and Yemen, and after months of pressuring Qatar into capitulation proving unsuccessful, is turning more attention towards Lebanon,” says Giorgio Cafiero, co-founder of Gulf State Analytics.
The resignation on November 4 coincided with two other major events in Saudi Arabia that have raised the spectre of prolonged political turmoil and an armed confrontation in the Middle East.
Lebanon as the next battleground?
Hours after the Lebanese prime minister resigned, Saudi authorities detained over a dozen princes and businessmen on corruption charges, seen as some of the most dramatic purges in the ultra-conservative kingdom’s history. The arrests, cheered by many Saudis, came on the orders of a newly created anti-corruption committee headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS. Later that day Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile targeting an airport in the Saudi capital. The Saudi defence ministry said the missile was intercepted.
The incident significantly raised tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. “Iran’s role and its direct command of its Houthi proxy in this matter constitutes a clear act of aggression,” the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen said in a statement, adding that the attack could be considered as “an act of war” against Saudi Arabia. Tehran denied providing the Houthis with ballistic missiles to attack the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a regional proxy war, with both sides backing different sides in places such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Hezbollah has extremely close ties to Tehran and is widely seen as Iran’s most powerful proxy force. The Shia group has been key in securing President Bashar al-Assad’s position in Syria, where the government has with the support of Russia and Iran won back swathes of territory from rebel groups and Islamic State. Any prospect of removing Mr. Assad from power by force has been squashed despite Saudi, Turkisn and Western backing for various rebel groups.
Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation is “well linked to the latest escalation of the ongoing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” says Imad Salamey, a veteran observer of Lebanese politics. He sees the end of Mr. Hariri’s coalition government as “marking a new front in the regional confrontation” between Riyadh and Tehran.
Iran views Mr. Hariri’s resignation “as completely regional,” says Ali Hashem, a Lebanese columnist for Al Monitor. “It's mainly about pressuring Hezbollah,” he told The World Weekly from Tehran. The Saudis, Mr. Cafiero adds, want to play “a more influential role in Lebanon and change the country’s political realities by weakening Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran’s influence in the Levant”.
An adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed the resignation was “done with planning by [US President] Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman.”
Mr. Hashem saw Lebanon as “the arena for any forthcoming Saudi-Iranian clash. Hezbollah is the next target I believe.” Many fear a prolonged period of uncertainty in Lebanon. The Hariri resignation “will negatively impact Lebanon’s political and economic stability”, Professor Salamey told TWW. “The struggle over Lebanon will be fought over a long period of time where each side seeks new and improved terms for a political arrangement,” he adds. Memories of a political instability are fresh in Lebanon, where Michel Aoun became president in October 2016 after more than two years of political vacuum.
The Gulf states, Israel, and the United States do not want Iran to reap the benefits of a victory in Syria. If ever they seek to rebalance the regional relationship with Tehran in the Levant, the only place to do so would be Lebanon, despite the many risks that would accompany such an effort.”
Two days after Mr. Hariri’s resignation, a senior Saudi official said the Lebanese government would be dealt with “as a government declaring war” on Saudi Arabia because of what he described as aggression by Hezbollah. The kingdom advised its citizens on Thursday to leave Lebanon "as soon as possible". However, there are doubts whether increased pressure on Lebanon would have the effect Riyadh desires. Hezbollah could emerge stronger from such a situation, if large parts of the population rally behind the group in the face of aggression.
Another Israel-Hezbollah war?
“Hariri’s resignation clearly strengthens Hezbollah and Iran,” says Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel.
As the war in large parts of Syria is winding down, the prospect of another deadly confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah has become more real. Since the war erupted in 2011 Israel has on numerous occasions struck what it said were Iranian and Hezbollah targets within Syria.
Saudi Arabia and Israel share a common interest in countering Iran’s expanding power in the region. Hezbollah would be a prime target. Daniel B. Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, argued that the Saudis might be laying the groundwork for another Israel-Hezbollah war. “By pulling Hariri out of his office, they may hope to ensure that Hezbollah gets stuck with the blame and responsibility for Lebanon’s challenges,” he wrote in Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily. This in turn, could lead Hezbollah to “seek an accelerated confrontation with Israel” to unify Lebanese support.
Dr. Karmon had a different take. “Hezbollah will provoke a war with Israel only if the strategic interests of Iran in Syria and Lebanon will be seriously threatened, for instance by combined US, Saudi and Israeli military moves in the region without a counter-reaction by Russia,” he told TWW.
He did not foresee an all-out offensive by the Israeli army against Hezbollah at this stage, only “pinpointed operations”. Signs of significant Hezbollah deployments in southern Lebanon or on the Syrian Golan Heights as well as Iranian troops near the Golan “could lead to a preventative operation”, the Israeli scholar adds. However, this could “degenerate into an all-out war”.
Commenting on the possibility of Riyadh implementing economic sanctions against Lebanon, Mr. Hashem said it would be the Lebanese people who would end up being targeted as Hezbollah’s economic cycle functioned outside the official realm due to US sanctions.
Throughout the week, Saudi authorities continued their crackdown, reportedly rounding up more corruption suspects. “The crown prince’s further consolidation of power and his more aggressive approach to countering Iranian influence throughout the region go hand-in-hand,” says Mr. Cafiero.
Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince has already shaken up Middle Eastern politics in his short time in power. But as Riyadh remains bogged down in a deadly war in Yemen, Lebanon could end up paying the price as the Saudi-Iranian rivalry enters its next phase.