- REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
- Saudi Arabia may be working to set the scene for some sort of conflict in Lebanon.
- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s surprise resignation last weekend was reportedly pushed by the Saudis.
- By forcing Hariri’s resignation, Saudi Arabia could effectively rebrand Lebanon as an “Iranian outpost” dominated by Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia’s alleged push to remove Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri may spark a war in the Middle East.
“The Saudis appear to have decided that the best way to confront Iran is to start in Lebanon,” a European diplomat recently told Reuters.
Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister during a trip to Saudi Arabia last weekend and multiple reports, as well as public statements from leading Lebanese politicians, indicate that he is being held in the kingdom against his will.
The prime minister is politically supported by Saudi Arabia and is part of a joint government that includes Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group. He has not been seen back in his home country since his resignation.
Experts believe that by forcing Hariri’s resignation, Saudi Arabia could effectively rebrand Lebanon as an “Iranian outpost” dominated by Hezbollah. This may be the first move in a series of actions ending with armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah – and could curb Iran’s influence in the region.
“The removal of Hariri is, in effect, a kind of trap for Hizballah, daring it to fully reveal its power and dominance in Lebanon and take complete responsibility for the Lebanese state which, from a Saudi perspective, it effectively controls anyway,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, wrote in a recent column on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Lebanon.
“The next step would be for Hizballah and Lebanon itself to suffer the consequences of being completely identified with what is widely considered to be an international terrorist organization,” Ibish writes.
Saudi Arabia could provoke an ‘Israeli response’
The key to this strategy seems to be Israel. While Saudi Arabia cannot force Israeli military policy, there is reason to believe the kingdom is working to set the scene for some sort of conflict.
Israel and Hezbollah have a violent history, most recently fighting a devastating war in 2006. Now, Israel may want to push back on Hezbollah’s increased power and weaponry from its role in the Syrian war, or at least send a message to the group’s backer, Iran.
“For months now, [Israel] has been sounding alarm bells about Hezbollah’s and Iran’s growing footprint in Syria, and more particularly about the Lebanese movement’s soon-to-be-acquired capacity to indigenously produce precision-guided missiles – a development Israeli officials view as a potential game changer they must thwart,” Robert Malley, vice president for policy at Crisis Group, wrote in The Atlantic.
Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, told The Washington Post that by removing Hariri, Saudi Arabia could provoke an “Israeli response” and “bloody the nose of Hezbollah.”
“Hariri’s departure does strengthen the case that Hezbollah is in total domination in Lebanon,” Shapiro said. “By removing Hariri, it does make it a bit easier to treat Lebanon as an Iranian outpost.”
Shapiro further explained on Twitter that Israel may respond if the power vacuum created by Hariri’s resignation “sparks a move by Hezbollah.”
Both Israel and Hezbollah are working to delay war
Even though it looks like strings are being pulled to push these two Middle East powers into conflict, both sides seem to be working to delay war.
Hezbollah leader Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah explicitly called out Saudi Arabia on Friday, saying in a speech that “Saudi Arabia is inciting Israel to launch a war against Lebanon.”
Nasrallah, as well as other leading Lebanese figures, seem to be hedging on Hariri’s resignation, likely to give the impression of a united Lebanese government and not allow cause for conflict.
In his speech Friday, the Hezbollah leader said that Hariri’s resignation was “illegal and unconstitutional because it was made under coercion.” Likewise, Lebanese President Michel Aoun – who is backed by Hezbollah – will reportedly not accept the prime minister’s resignation until he returns to Lebanon, which he has so far not done.
In Israel, politicians seem to be delaying a confrontation they have long thought inevitable.
“We may have to confront Hezbollah sooner or later,” Ofer Shelah, a member of Israel’s parliament who serves on the the foreign affairs and defense committee, told Bloomberg. “But everyone wants to put off this confrontation.”