Lebanon becoming a battleground in regional feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran
More than a week after his shocking resignation announcement, Lebanese leader Saad Hariri gave a much-anticipated interview Sunday night in which he vowed to return to his home country while leaving the door open to resuming his duties as prime minister.
In an appearance on a network associated with his “Future Movement” political party, Hariri said he planned to confirm his intent to step down from within Lebanon, in accordance with the constitution, before qualifying that he could rescind his decision if Hizbullah—the military and political power in the country—agrees to stay out of regional disputes.
The Iranian-backed Shiite group, which is at the center of the current Lebanese crisis, remains enmeshed in the Syrian conflict in support of President Bashar al-Assad and also has fighters in both Yemen and Iraq, where Riyadh-Tehran tensions continue to play out in proxy wars and corresponding diplomatic battles for political influence.
Hariri’s original November 4 declaration from the Saudi capital triggered a major crisis in Lebanon and gave rise to rumors that he was coerced into quitting and being held under house arrest. According to reports, upon his arrival to Saudi Arabia, there were no officials awaiting Hariri, whose belongings were subsequently confiscated. He purportedly was taken to an undisclosed location, where he waited for hours before being presented with his resignation speech to read live on a television broadcast. Although he met with multiple foreign ambassadors thereafter, Hariri remained out of the public eye, leading some to believe his freedom of movement was restricted.
The turmoil has left Lebanon in a renewed state of chaos, raising memories of the country’s devastating civil war from 1975-1990, as well as a dark history of foreign interference in its political sphere—most notably the 2005 assassination of Saad’s father, former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, allegedly by Hizbullah operatives at the directive of the Syrian regime.
The situation, according to Lebanese parliamentarian Imad Alhout, therefore calls for a deep examination of all the contributing factors, foremost Iran’s involvement in the government. “Hizbullah [which is an Iranian proxy] broke all the agreements and is using its position as a platform to compete [in the affairs] of other countries,” he told The Media Line.
On the flip side, Alhout stressed that Hariri may have jeopardized his longtime standing as a crucial power broker in Lebanon. “The prime minister should have resigned from Beirut and not Riyadh,” as doing so would have mitigated questions about who, in fact, he answers to.
Michelle Abi Rashed, a Lebanese activist, agrees that “Hariri’s announcement was a mistake that shows the Saudis placed pressure on him.” She nevertheless expressed doubt to The Media Line that the House of Saud is holding the leader against his will. “I’m sure they are preparing something against Hizbullah and Iran, as more than one official traveled to Saudi Arabia [to inquire about Hariri’s status].”
By contrast, Qasem Qaseem, a prominent Lebanese political analyst, believes that Riyadh is indeed pushing to replace Hariri with his older brother Bahaa, who in the past has taken a harder line against Hizbullah and might thus be more amenable to implementing the kingdom’s agenda in Lebanon. “Saudi Arabia wanted to replace Saad and even sent a private jet to bring members of his family to Riyadh, however they refused to go,” he revealed to The Media Line.
“All available information proves that Hariri was not planning to resign and confirmed as much to his team. Only when he was called to Saudi Arabia did he make the move from there.”
Many analysts submit that the happenings in Lebanon are intricately connected to the broader Saudi-Iranian regional conflict. In this respect, Hariri’s resignation immediately followed the recent targeting of an airport in Riyadh with a ballistic missile fired from Yemen. In response, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister called the attack “an act of war” and claimed that the rocket had been manufactured in Iran and possibly launched by Hizbullah fighters from territory controlled by Shiite Houthi rebels, whom Tehran supports militarily.
A Saudi-led coalition of states intervened militarily in Yemen in March 2015, following the takeover of the capital Sanaa by the Houthis, who subsequently overthrew the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
And, of course, there is the Syrian conflict, which has long pitted Sunni-backed fighters against the Iranian-supported Assad regime, which today has regained control over much of the country with the help of Russia.
For its part, Tehran denied any involvement in the ballistic missile launch and subsequently accused the kingdom of forcing Hariri from power—which the Islamic Republic similarly described as a declaration of war—in order to sow further strife across the region.
“It seems like Lebanon is stuck in the middle and will always be subject to external interventions,” Tammy Qazhya, a Lebanese rights promoter, conceded to The Media Line. “The country doesn’t learn from its mistakes or history. Until now we have never had control over our own sovereignty. The idea that Lebanon is an independent state is a lie,” she stressed.
Imad Al-Ghadene, an engineer, likewise contended that Hariri’s resignation proves that the country lacks political independence. “Saudi Arabia is clearly trying to end Iranian hegemonic ambitions and has taken the fight to Lebanon,” he told The Media Line, while warning that that such maneuvering risks thrusting Beirut “into the unknown.”
For the average Lebanese citizen, then, the unfolding drama has evoked sentiments of confusion and anger. Student Mustafa Mahmoud echoed to The Media Line the many questions people in Lebanon are currently asking themselves: “I’m wondering how weak we are? Do we control our own internal situation? Is Saudi Arabia in control? If not, why did Hariri resign from Riyadh? And what about Iran?
“Everything that has happened,” he added, “has created an atmosphere of disappointment, as we had high hopes for the new government.”
Tammy Qazya concurred while noting that Beirut recently struggled through two years without a president, this too the result of a power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran over who to appoint.
As regards their intensifying Sunni-Shiite feud, she concluded, “May God be with and help the Lebanese people.”