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March 2, 2021

Mideast turmoil: Lebanon

For well over a week now, the Mideast has been once again at boiling point. The spark that prompted this new explosive episode was Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation announcement.

Of course, the Mideast has its current hotspots, which give it the statute of highly volatile region from the standpoint of security. Syria, to mention just one of the hotspots, and the best-known, has been since 2011 the scene of a civil war in which almost all the great powers of the world are involved one way or another, and the developments there (cumulated with the ones in neighbouring Iraq) meant that the Islamic caliphate (ISIS) is considered one of the top global security threats.

With the defeat of ISIS offshoots in Syria, the organisation is looking for new territorial outlets (Libya, Niger etc.), not to mention the operatives it sent to the European West for new terrorist actions. But the civil war continues in Syria, the maintenance of Bashar Assad in power and the opposition to this situation being just one of the reasons for this inertia of bloody confrontations in that country.

Similarly, the presence of the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria, as Iran’s proxy, is assessed as a sign of instability, in a context in which Kurdish aspirations to independence tend to grow in scale and complicate an already burdened dossier. On the other hand, in Yemen the situation is speeding toward a generalised civil war, the factions backed by Iran being targeted by an assertive Saudi Arabia that is also worried about a Shiite (Iranian) spill-over. Iran’s actions in the region, hence the involvement in Syria and the support offered to the Houthi minority in Yemen, as well as the setting up of favourable political-military factions in other areas, are understood as Tehran’s path to regional hegemony, to gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea and establishing a Shiite “Crescent” all the way to the Gulf.

The picture of the boiling Mideast is far from being completed in just a few brushstrokes as above, because the actions taking place in the Sinai Peninsula, the presence of Hamas in Gaza, Iran’s support for various groups that target the existence of Israel and ISIS’s or Al Qaeda’s attempts to reactivate in or destabilise various locations in the Mideast or North Africa outline the profile of an extremely unstable region in which war is on the order of the day and ready to spread at any moment.

In fact, Saad Hariri’s recent resignation is frequently interpreted in this key too, that of the possibility of the war spreading in the region. The circumstances in which this resignation was announced have fuelled such speculations, since its announcement was made in the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, where he was paying a visit on Saturday, 4 November 2017. What fuelled the plethora of conspiracy theories concerning the reasons and consequences of this resignation was both this – its announcement in the capital of a foreign state – and especially the fact that it coincided with the Saudi Arabian authorities launch of an ample anti-corruption action that resulted in the detaining of a great number of ruling class members, many holding important offices in the state and security apparatus.

As known, Saudi Arabia was and is a supporter of the Sunni community of Lebanon, a state which features a fine balance between the high-level state offices held by its constituent communities. Now, the presidency is held by the political representative of the Christian (Maronite) community, the Premier is the representative of the Sunni community (Saad Hariri succeeds his father Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, the consequence of that event being the withdrawal, several months later, of the Syrian armed forces that had been present in Lebanon for around 30 years), the Shiite community is represented in the Government and in Parliament, especially following its marked visibility since 2006, after Hezbollah’s war with the forces of Israel.

In this context, Saad Hariri’s resignation has special significance in relation to the balance of powers in Lebanon. It can be, and it is thus interpreted as Saudi Arabia’s attempt to force the collapse of the Lebanese Government in which Hezbollah holds an important role, and, this way, to force an internal conflict in which the protector of that organisation – namely Iran – would definitely be involved.

In the case of a deterioration of the situation in its own country, Hezbollah, which is now involved in the fighting in Syria as an important backer of the Assad regime, will be forced to focus there instead, a direct instability link being thus made between the two countries. In these circumstances, in Israel the thesis that Saudi Arabia is trying “to create the context for a different means of contesting Iran in Lebanon: an Israeli-Hezbollah war” is gaining arguments ever more.

The calculus being that “with Assad clearly having survived the challenge posed by Saudi-backed rebels, the Saudi leadership may hope to move its confrontation with Iran from Syria to Lebanon” (Haaretz, 7 November 2007). Israeli Premier B. Netanyahu stated that “the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri and his statements are a wake-up call for the international community to act against Iranian aggression,” adding that Iran “is trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon.”

Britain’s The Independent points out in a recent editorial (November 7) that the situation generated by Hariri announcing his resignation in Riyadh – hence probably pressured or constrained – is considered “a national insult” in Lebanon and an upward trend opposing Saudi Arabia’s interference in domestic affairs has started in the Lebanese public opinion. But, similarly, the newspaper emphasises that certain actions on the part of Hezbollah – such as speeches with presidential undertones delivered by the head of that organisation – have created domestic animosity, hence running contrary to the very fine domestic political balance.

However, what is currently visible is ample international mobilisation – from the French President to his American counterpart, and to the Maronite Patriarch of Lebanon visiting the capital of Saudi Arabia – meant to remove the danger of a new war in the region.

Will it succeed?

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