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Lebanon Crisis: What Future for The Levant? Answers from Joseph Bahout.

BLOG - 28 November 2017

On November 4th, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s Prime Minister was accusing the Hezbollah and Iran of controlling Lebanon and therefore publically announced his resignation. This event was followed by a long silent period during which all sorts of rumors and theories spread among people. This silence was broken on November 12th. Yet ten days after Hariri’s sudden resignation, uncertainties remain

Joseph Bahout, visiting scholar in Carnegie's Middle-East Program and associate researcher at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Brandeis, wrote the days following Hariri’s resignation. Another updated article will be published to ensure a follow-up of the current situation in Lebanon. 

How do you explain the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri?

According to Saad Hariri’s statement, read from Riyadh on November 4th, his resignation should be considered as a sign of protest against Hezbollah’s misconduct. He accused the Shiite party of disturbing the government action and of preventing it from moving ahead, betraying the pact passed in the wake of President Michel Aoun’s election, which was meant to put Lebanon away from its neighbors’ rivalries.

In his speech, he launches a diatribe against Iran, accusing the country of evil actions and perturbations, both in Lebanon and abroad. With this statement, he perfectly embraces the rhetoric of his Saudi bosses, announcing that “Iran’s hands have to be cut off from Lebanon”. This formula refers quite explicitly to the Saudis’ wish to isolate Hezbollah on the Lebanese stage, using Saad Hariri for this purpose. Saudis may have had provoked a government change, followed by a political crisis, in order to lead to a direct confrontation between Iran and Lebanon. Whether Saad Hariri approved this tactic or was forced into it is still up for clarification.

Another possible explanation, more linked to Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs, is that the resignation was announced on the same day as the beginning of the purge decided by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Hariri is not in the good graces of the royal heir and has close ties with some of the people who have been arrested. We should also underline that Saad Hariri is personally involved in financial scandals taking place in Saudi Arabia. His company, Saudi Oger LTD, has been contracting debts in the kingdom and there is talks about funds misappropriation.

Thus, his resignation can be interpreted as the dismissal, by the Saudis, of their “Lebanon Chief Executive”. What remains unclear is the way they will choose to treat him once his political functions are removed. That being said, I don’t think that a simple matter of Saudi politics could be the actual reason for his resignation.

The third hypothesis, which does not exclude the first one, is that Hariri, anticipating disastrous elections next spring, chose to avoid the debacle. Indeed, his compromises with Hezbollah have raised the ire of Sunni voters and his credibility amongst the Lebanese suffered from it.

In my opinion, the most accurate explanation is the first one. However, it brings up new questions about Lebanon’s stability. If we admit that Saudi Arabia wants to cross swords with Iran on Lebanese territory, we can legitimately ask ourselves if they have the means to do it. If that is the case, what would be the consequences of this strategy? Would they go as far as setting the country on fire? What is next for Lebanon in the midst of this confrontation without opening a war? These are critical questions.

How does this announcement align with the current context of Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen and the latest wave of arrests in Saudi Arabia?

When the Saudis and the Emiratis, which are now forming a real couple, look into the region, their primary concern is with Iran. They see the country expanding its influence at a high rate with nothing to stop them. Yet, in this new “cold war” that we see emerging against the Islamic Republic, every field that has been engaged ended in failure (in Iraq, in Syria).

Similarly, in the “hot” war currently taking place in Yemen, the Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates duo has been unable to really step forward so far and is now getting stuck into the conflict. Lebanon is therefore perceived as a new opportunity to curb Iranian expansion. The country could be used as a leverage to regain a foothold in the Levant.

However, we can wonder what would be the tools used to this purpose. Saudi Arabia and its allies should be aware that any military action, such as the ones launched in Yemen and Iraq, would undoubtedly end up in a disaster. This is when the United States and Israel step in: could they have encouraged Saudi Arabia and the UAE to intervene in Lebanon while giving them insurances of their support in case things went wrong? Let’s recall that the kingdom has a history of over-interpreting U.S. signals, even when it means making perilous choices.e witnessed this just recently in the Qatar crisis, still at a standstill. 

How will Hezbollah and Israel react to this announcement?

It is unlikely that a confrontation with Hezbollah does not propagate into a regional conflict. But do Saudis have the means to achieve this delicate balance? We can think that they are acting this way with M. Hariri after having been told about a major Israeli-American coup coming up in the region against Iranian interests…

It seems therefore likely that the next conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is set. What is absolutely certain, is that the current situation has nothing to do with the traditional dynamic occurring between the two. Iran, having become the dominant power in the Levant, is opening a new page on the region’s balances. Israel can’t allow itself to see this “monster” growing up day after day at its doors. If Iran represents a cancerous cell for Israeli interests, it is high time to start the treatment…

But how should they do it? Hezbollah is well-aware that Israel knows the war could not be circumcised to South Lebanon this time. Iran will step into the game and would probably hit the Gulf in case of any aggression from Israel towards Hezbollah. This represents a concrete force of dissuasion against any attack targeting the Shiite party. Israel probably does not have the appetite for a regional war. However, some voices could bring up the fact that now is a good time to strike, since Hezbollah’s forces are divided on several fronts and seem more vulnerable.

The question is now about which of Israel or Hezbollah will scare the other the most? Which side is about to surprise its adversary? We cannot anticipate it. Hezbollah has massively recruited new forces recently, but how deep is the Israeli understanding of this?

A new player also needs to be included in our analysis and could potentially prevent a war from happening - that is Russia, which has become the inescapable power of the region. The Russians play a balancing role between forces at stake and know that if Israel goes into war, their entire strategy in the Middle East, mostly built upon Syria, could fall apart. Russia could then enter the game to ease the tensions, especially to avoid a scenario in which Israel, pushed by a secret U.S. alliance, would decide to bomb Syrian army positions.

The Russians’ influence could nevertheless be strongly jeopardized in the eventuality of a major regional coup between the United States, Israel and the Gulf states. This looks a lot like a conspiracy theory but is actually quite realistic.

To conclude, there is every reason to believe that we will soon be facing a direct confrontation. The dynamic constructed by the Saudis and the Emiratis could not be more eloquent. Things are getting heated up: the missile crisis, the Lebanon crisis… What is certain is that it will be very difficult for Mr. Hariri to step back without losing face or damaging the Saudis. As for the hopes of de-escalating tensions, they are vanishing a little further day after day. The ambiguous role played by the United States can only worsen the situation.
 

 

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