November 9, 2017

Hariri Resignation Signals Intensified Saudi-Iranian Rivalry in Lebanon

Saudi King Salman, right, meets with outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 6. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri almost certainly signals the determination of Saudi Arabia and its allies to intensify their regional confrontation with Iran and its clients in Lebanon and beyond. It’s not just that Hariri is a long-standing and loyal ally of Saudi Arabia, and, indeed, a dual citizen of the two countries. In case there was any doubt about its regional meaning, his resignation was made on video from Saudi Arabia, which he was and still is visiting, and amounted to a tirade against Iranian interference in Lebanese and Arab affairs.

Allegations in Hizballah-controlled and sympathetic media that Hariri is a prisoner or “hostage” of the Saudis seem highly exaggerated. He has traveled to the United Arab Emirates and there’s no reason or evidence that Saudi Arabia would want to detain him, though the Saudis may be encouraging him to stay in the Gulf region for the time being. In fact, all prominent Lebanese political actors serve both a domestic constituency and, simultaneously and incongruously, foreign patrons to whom they are beholden. In Hariri’s case, he is a client of Riyadh, while Hizballah serves the interests of Tehran. Therefore, what’s really significant is that his resignation had “Made in Saudi Arabia” stamped all over it and is a function, primarily, of Saudi foreign policy.

The proximate cause for this development is not directly connected to the other dramatic events involving Riyadh in recent days, including the mass arrests on corruption charges of numerous prominent Saudis or the Houthi missile launched at the Riyadh international airport. Instead it is almost certainly inspired by extremely dramatic and underappreciated developments in northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria in recent weeks. In the aftermath of the ill-fated Kurdish independence referendum and the last phases of the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, pro-Iranian forces in these areas, especially along the Syrian-Iraqi border, have made major gains that could prove a strategic game changer in the Middle East.

In the past month, Iraqi forces – including government troops, pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces and other militias aligned with or controlled by Tehran, and Iranian Quds Brigade expeditionary troops themselves – have gained control of key areas in north and western Iraq formerly held by Kurdish peshmerga forces or ISIL fighters. Simultaneously, forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hizballah have taken significant advantage of the dislocation of ISIL forces in eastern Syria since the fall of Raqqa and have seized control of Deir al-Zour and the border regions. Indeed, a recent video convincingly purports to show the comradely meeting of what are, in effect, Iraqi Hizballah forces with pro-Assad and Lebanese Hizballah forces in the no-man’s land along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

This means that Iran and its clients in the Arab world are on the brink of establishing a land bridge between Tehran and Beirut on the Mediterranean coast. This, in turn, could signal the emergence of the Iranian-dominated “Shia crescent,” the prospect of which has, for so long, haunted much of the Sunni-majority Arab world. This has, in short, all the makings of a disaster for Saudi Arabia and its allies and is a colossal triumph for Iran and Hizballah, and their partners. Yet, particularly with the United States essentially standing aside and not opposing these strategically vital, and potentially transformational, Iranian gains, there was little, if anything, Riyadh could do to prevent them from occurring.

The Hariri resignation is, in effect, the first phase of the Saudi response to these momentous events in remote areas far from the Saudis’ influence. They would not, after all, partner with al-Qaeda, let alone ISIL, to prevent these major strategic victories for Tehran, and Washington did nothing practical to prevent them either. Riyadh, therefore, is responding where it can, and preparing what seems set to be an all-out political campaign to challenge Iran where it is strongest, and where it first began to exercise its influence in the Arab world: Lebanon. Saudi Arabia will now seek to undermine Hizballah’s control of the Lebanese state by political means, as a military challenge against Hizballah is beyond the kingdom’s means or those of its allies.

However, isolating, sanctioning, and otherwise pressuring and destabilizing the Lebanese state is certainly possible. This requires the absence of Hariri or a similarly credible Lebanese Sunni leader so that the Lebanese state is firmly identified with Hizballah and its allies alone. All that is a project Saudi Arabia and its allies could successfully undertake and appear to be preparing. This would certainly bedevil not only Hizballah but also its Iranian patrons. 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. 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.

The resignation of Hariri in effect removes the fig leaf from Hizballah’s de facto control of the Lebanese government. How far Riyadh can succeed in pressuring Hizballah – and by extension, Iran – will depend on many factors beyond Saudi control, including the U.S. and European reaction to such a campaign, as well as the position various other Arab countries take. Perhaps one of the biggest wildcards, however, is the response of Israel. The Israelis are extremely uncomfortable with how powerful, experienced, connected, and battle hardened Hizballah has become as a result of its involvement in the Syrian war.

Indeed, in the post-Aleppo environment, Hizballah has emerged as a regional military vanguard of the pro-Iranian militia and substate actors’ network throughout the Middle East; it is no longer primarily a Lebanese organization, but a transnational entity. It is not only active in Syria, but also Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and beyond. It is arguably the most militarily capable nonstate actor in history. As such, Hizballah now poses a new kind of threat not, only to the Sunni Arab states that are at odds with their Iranian patrons, but also potentially to Israel.

Israel is capable of direct military action against Hizballah in a manner that Saudi Arabia and its allies are not. However, as Hizballah’s leaders keep stressing, the cost to Israel could be much higher than in previous conflicts. Given its recent gains in Syria and Iraq, however, Hizballah would be loath to be dragged into unavoidable conflict with Israel under the current circumstances. Hizballah’s energies, and those of its allies, will be primarily centered on consolidating the tenuous and fragile control of these key areas of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria that make the land bridge suddenly a potential reality.

Therefore, Hizballah is likely to be willing to absorb some substantial Israeli hits with bluster and rage but without retaliating or doing anything to facilitate the escalation of a conflict that could draw it away from that project of consolidation and potentially lead to a bruising battle with Israel that ultimately degrades its capabilities. Alternatively, the Israelis could unleash a barrage of aerial attacks against Hizballah assets and forces in Syria, rather than Lebanon, and try to cut the organization down to size in that manner. This would allow Hizballah leaders to retaliate nominally, or even not at all, if they wish to preserve their remaining strength for other battles.

All of this is, however, beyond the ability of Riyadh to dictate, or even significantly influence. Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly proceed with the campaign to politically undermine Hizballah no matter what Israel decides to do. Riyadh will also continue to push back against Iranian influence in Iraq, increasing outreach to both Sunni and Shia Iraqi Arab leaders, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, and many others.

For now, Riyadh’s approach to Lebanon appears to be relying almost entirely on sticks. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia will have to deploy mainly incentivizing carrots to promote its agenda, including support, aid, and patronage for old and new allies and partners. It can also continue to try to promote Iraqi nationalism – and the fact that even Iraqi Shias with strong links to Iran are Iraqis and not Iranians, and Arabs rather than Persians – to encourage Baghdad to develop and maintain a degree of strategic and diplomatic equidistance between Riyadh and Tehran. How far this can go remains to be seen, however, and much of the heavy lifting will probably have to wait until after the Iraqi elections in 2018.

However, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is only intensifying, and, along with other battlegrounds like Yemen and Bahrain, this rivalry is most likely to play out in coming years in Lebanon and Iraq. The Hariri resignation suggests it is now “game on” in Lebanon.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.