Hariri’s resignation sign of more trouble for Lebanon and the region
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
The resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week has serious implications for Lebanon, the region, and beyond.
Hariri’s withdrawal from political office was shocking in form and substance. The televised resignation speech was delivered in Riyadh, not in Beirut. The threat descended on Lebanon like a tornado. It must have been a Saudi-imposed decision.
The message was toxic, delivering harsh rhetoric toward Iran and Hezbollah. Abruptly, the Sunnite leader declared that it is no longer sensible for him to share a government with the armed resistance movement Hezbollah.Hezbollah billboards in Lebanon celebrate Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah and the righteous war against Israeli extremism and fanaticism. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Hariri’s recorded speech accused Iran of “meddling in the region”, and blamed Hezbollah for taking Lebanon “hostage”. With unusual boldness the address informed the world that the hands which mess up with Lebanon and the region “will be cut off”.
Hariri must have been pressured by his Saudi patrons to speak with anger and act boldly. His resignation surprised his closest advisers; it came a day after he received a delegation to Beirut from Iran, which congratulated him on contributing to “Lebanese unity”. The Lebanese are asking for the immediate return of their Prime Minister to Beirut to better understand his case. Is he under house arrest?
Hariri’s sharing of power with Hezbollah during the past year has saved Lebanon the agony of having to choose sides between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in a regrettable regional power struggle. With a weak government and a small army Lebanon has always been in need of the acquiescence of its most powerful neighbors.
Iran has for several decades helped the Shiite Lebanese community by funding social and political empowerment projects. Designated aid and generous supply of arms have strengthened the Shiite community, but simultaneously alienated it from the rest of Lebanese society. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has offered the Sunnite community pan-Arab solidarity and has provided the general Lebanese population lucrative business opportunities. When the Saudis are angry with Beirut the Lebanese worry about their economy, and when Iran is displeased they worry about security.
The Saudis are also are infuriated with Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s Christian President, for his (electoral) alliance with Hezbollah. President Aoun’s closeness to Hezbollah is pragmatic rather than ideological. Aoun realizes that Hezbollah is a grassroots resistance movement that was born during the civil war period of the 1980s, in response to Israel’s 22- year occupation of south Lebanon. Many Lebanese, like Aoun are aware that Hezbollah’s future can best be shaped by the Shiite community itself, not by external force.
Some Lebanese resent the idea that Hezbollah’s name is Party of God (in Arabic); they are suspicious of Hezbollah’s symbiotic loyalty to Iran, and do not trust any party which either befriends or fights Israel; in the latter case giving Tel-Aviv a pretext to counter attack with disproportionate force. That said, the majority of the Lebanese do not want to disarm Hezbollah by pressure of sanctions or military force. Like other countries in the region, the Lebanese state does not have the full and exclusive loyalty of its people; Lebanon should not be punished for its weak sovereignty.
Regardless of how aggressive Iran has been in the region, Hariri’s resignation message sounds strange and irrational. Who is going to “cut the hands” of Iran and Hezbollah? The US is not about to start a new war in the Middle East. Speculation: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman may have counseled Hariri that an imminent Israeli assault on Hezbollah is due any time; he had better get out of the Lebanese government immediately.
The Crown Prince is not thinking far ahead. If he supports Israel in a future war on an Arab state-or even Iran- the Saudi regime could face a revolution at home. Saudi Arabia is already overloaded with risky and unrealistic projects: a catastrophic war in Yemen, an unsuccessful campaign against Qatar, a political assault on Lebanon’s government, an impulsive anti-corruption campaign, a theoretical plan of social, economic and political reforms, and lastly, a triumphal confrontation with Iran, one of the strongest states in the region. Any of the above projects could derail and expose the Royal Kingdom to extreme danger.
Whether voluntary or forced, Hariri’s resignation has far reaching impact on the domestic and regional level. Domestically, the resignation has brought back to the surface Lebanon’s refractory political problems: a sectarian regime which perpetuates the dominance of religion in politics; the presence of half a million Palestinian refugees, as well as 1.5 million recent Syrian war migrants; the daunting prospects of disarming Hezbollah; and Israel’s recurring air strikes and threats to curb Hezbollah’s ascending power. The resignation of Hariri may gradually revive the dynamics of civil war in Lebanon.
Regionally, Hariri’s withdrawal from the political scene of Lebanon ushers in a new level of hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Bin Salman is no longer willing to ignore Hezbollah’s participation in the Lebanese power structure; nor is he willing to continue to tolerate Hezbollah as Iran’s proxy in the region. There is strong evidence that Saudi Arabia has deepened its covert relations with Israel in a joint campaign to limit Iranian power.
The chances of war involving Israel and Iran or Hezbollah are real after Hariri’s departure from power. There is no way of guessing who will attack whom, or when war would take place. It is also hard to determine if Saudi Arabia is luring Israel to hit Hezbollah and its backers, or the other way: Israel encouraging Saudi Arabia to escalate confrontation with Iran and its proxies. But there is ample evidence that previous wars between Israel and Hezbollah or Palestinian Hamas have periodically ignited without planning, simply sparked by acts of miscalculation from both sides.