By Shadi Bassil
On November 4, Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation as the prime minister of Lebanon from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His speech was broadcasted on Al-Arabiya, a Saudi owned and operated TV news network.
Up until that date, no prime minister in the history of Lebanon had ever resigned their position from a foreign country. And if that was not odd enough, the speech he gave contradicted the political circumstances of Lebanon at the time. Hariri himself seemed uncharacteristically gloomy and agitated. Naturally, news of the resignation echoed loudly throughout the Middle East, and that same news started a chain of events that sent Lebanon tumbling down into a state of disarray. In the grand scheme of things, this looked like another one of the Saudi crown prince’s attempts to consolidate power inside the kingdom and abroad.
The fact that the resignation occurred just days after dozens of Saudi businessmen and members of the royal family were arrested on charges of corruption and money laundering did not bode well for Hariri, a Saudi citizen himself who also conducts a lot of business in the kingdom. The combined circumstances surrounding Hariri’s resignation conveyed a precarious message of instability, and possibly even war, to the Lebanese people and their neighbors.
Hariri’s televised speech depicted him as an assassination target by none other than Iranian-backed Hezbollah. The speech then continued on to rebuke the immense political power that Hezbollah, with its members in Hariri’s government, exerts on other members of government by virtue of the group’s intimidating military power. As the speech went on, its ever-decreasing palpability became apparent, simply because it poorly reflected the political situation of Lebanon just days prior to Hariri’s announcement.
Additionally, as Hariri’s father was assassinated in 2005, the security apparatus in Lebanon takes Hariri’s fear for his life very seriously. Unfortunately for Hariri and the Saudis, the heads of Lebanon’s general security and military intelligence units both dismissed Hariri’s claims as “candidly un-factual.” So, what was going on?
At first, the overwhelming sentiment that dominated Lebanese public opinion was confusion. The Lebanese people just could not make sense of what had transpired on their TV screens. Politicians on both ends of the spectrum immediately came out with statements that demanded Hariri’s immediate return to Lebanon. President Michel Aoun announced that he would not accept Hariri’s resignation because it was unconstitutional for a sitting prime minister to resign from a foreign country.
Soon after, local and international chatter started fueling suspicions that Hariri was being held against his will in Saudi Arabia. This hypothesis was strengthened by Robert Fisk’s article in The Independent that chronicled Hariri’s arrival in the kingdom and his subsequent arrest.
Furthermore, Thamer al-Sabhan, the Saudi minister of Gulf Affairs, came out with a fiery statement of his own accusing Hezbollah and the Lebanese government of sponsoring terrorism, and declaring war against the kingdom through providing support for the Assad regime and the Yemeni rebels. It is important to keep in mind that this all happened within the span of a few days, thereby setting the Lebanese financial market into a frenzy.
What caused the Saudis to pour gasoline all over this already glowing ember in Lebanon? Why did Saudi officials pick this specific time to kick off the commotion? Prior to this situation unfolding, Lebanon had been more or less politically stable for the past year.
Hezbollah dictating a sizable chunk of Lebanon’s politics was something that was not new or different, especially not to the Saudis. Besides, the formation of Hariri’s government took place after the election of a new president last year, and it went ahead with Saudi blessing. Moreover, the government was preparing for an upcoming parliamentary election that was long overdue, since the Lebanese parliament had been unconstitutionally extending its own term for the past four years.
Was it the ascension of Mohamad bin Salman to his current position as crown prince? Or was it a Saudi last-ditch effort to curb Iranian influence in Lebanon? According to Lebanese journalist and political commentator, Salem Zahran, it’s neither.
In his many televised interviews broadcasted on Lebanese television following the resignation announcement, Zahran broke down three possible catalysts. The first one is Saudi Arabia’s vehement anti-Iran attitude, and its realization that no amount of political opposition in Lebanon can uproot Iranian influence in Beirut. Through their actions, the Saudis effectively started to cut all diplomatic ties to the Lebanese government. In turn, this signals Saudi approval, even encouragement, for an Israeli attack on Hezbollah.
The second catalyst is the Assad regime’s recent gains in the Syrian war, and Hezbollah’s role in the conflict. Yes, Saudi Arabia may have broken international law by keeping the Lebanese prime minister hostage, but they did it in an effort to put pressure on Hezbollah and force them to back out of Syria.
This was coupled by Israeli press asserting that Hezbollah’s role in Syria has made it combat ready for an upcoming military confrontation with Israel. Additionally, a well-known secret circulating in Israeli media and government circles is the growing alliance between Israel’s right-wing government and Saudi Arabia, brokered by the United States, who is an ally of both governments.
This alliance might sound outlandish at best and bordering on conspiracy theory at worst. However, so far, neither government has taken steps to publicly deny this marriage of interest. In fact, the IDF chief of staff, Lt. General Gadi Eisenkot, went as far as admitting to a flourishing relationship with certain Arab and Gulf states in preparation for an upcoming conflict with Iran.
This ill-anticipated conflict would either entail a direct military confrontation, or a confrontation with one of Iran’s proxy armies; enter Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s last military confrontation with Israel happened during the summer of 2006. The July War as it is known in Lebanon, the Second Lebanon War as it is known in Israel, was a 33-day conflict that caused extensive destruction and casualties on both sides.
It wrapped up after an unconvincing military campaign by the IDF, and an unceremonious retreat following mounting political pressure on then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Accordingly, while a direct confrontation with Iran seems unlikely, a campaign against Hezbollah might be imminent.
At the moment, Hezbollah is committing manpower and resources into the Syrian Civil War. And, according to Israeli military analysts, the conflict there will soon subside, and Hezbollah will no longer be needed to complement Syrian regime forces.
If Israel waits for Hezbollah to conclude its military campaign in Syria, then it will lose the tactical advantage of catching Hezbollah fighting on two fronts. Yet, Israel cannot allow Hezbollah to strike first, because that is when they are at their strongest and most ready. That being said, Israel fears that Hezbollah will utilize the military lessons they have learned in Syria, namely how to capture and hold territory, on Israeli soil.
Going back to Hariri’s Saudi sticky situation, recent developments may have temporarily pacified things. As of November 21, Hariri returned to Lebanon following international pressure on the Saudi government. Upon returning, Hariri mysteriously suspended his resignation, and has thus far remained tight lipped about his Saudi ordeal.
As far as Hezbollah is concerned, their political cogs have also remained remarkably calm during this entire storm. Curiously, the internal politics of Lebanon have taken a turn into cautious stability, with the Lebanese people and their representatives putting up a united front against external meddling.
The demon in the back of everyone’s mind, however, is the threat of war and destruction. The Lebanese all know that Israel cannot live with a strong and prepared Hezbollah, and Israel knows that Hezbollah is biding time until its role in Syria concludes, so it can resume being one of Israel’s most substantial security threats.
Right now, both sides are doing the bare minimum to stop this volcano from erupting, and it’s looking like another Pompeii is on the event horizon. Volcanoes are famously hard to predict, and the war machine waits for no one.