Can Saudis Brave Hezbollah? Can They Not?
The nature of the alliance between Saudi Arabia and its block in Lebanon has been different from that of Iran and its own in the tiny Middle Eastern country. The purpose of the partnership is distinct.
Saudis want a foothold of influence that allowed them to invest money and to prevent turning Lebanon into an Iranian county.
Iran wants a front in Lebanon. From which it can fight Israel and re-establish a Shi’ite Umma, a Shiite version of the Caliphate.
Thereby, Iran heavily armed its allies while Saudi Arabia funded an investment empire.
At one point, Lebanon had to decide between Havana and Honolulu, as the Lebanese politician Walid Jounblat put it. The country that was once called Switzerland of the Middle East could not have them both.
It seemed that Iran and its allies had already decided on behalf of the whole country.
With the 2005 assassination of the Saudis ally, Rafik Al-Hariri, just two years after falling of Iraq under the influence of Iran, an intact Iranian crescent was formed. Shiite Islamist forces ruled Tehran, Baghdad, and Beirut. Their staunch ally, Alawite secular yet sectarian regime, ruled Damascus.
Shiite militants went on to impose a siege on the Sunni Prime Minister that followed late Al-Hariri, Fouad Al-Siniora, for 18 months. Hezbollah physically surrounded the government headquarters. Throughout the same period, the Lebanese parliament was prevented from convening. Hezbollah showed all parties that it was the de facto ruler of Lebanon. No illusion was there as for why. It was more powerful than the Lebanese state itself. Its militia was stronger than the army. It controlled intelligence. It can physically neutralise its opponents without fear of judicial accountability.
Lately, Lebanon remained for two and a half years without a president, until Hezbollah had its staunch ally, Michael Aoun, in the post. Who outside Lebanon needs further proof of Hezbollah control? And Who inside Lebanon would risk angering Iran and aligning with the weaker side.
The Saudis were put between the rock and the hammer. Had they armed their allies they would’ve been blamed for escalating tensions and pushing towards another bloody civil war. The last one ended as recent as 1990, after 15 years of conflict, and with an agreement sponsored by Saudi Arabia and signed in its city of Ta’if.
On the other hand, inaction was not a meaningful choice. The last time Saudis had tried it they got nothing in return but more of Iranian expansion. Inaction encouraged other Iran sponsored militias, like the Houthis in Yemen, to take after Hezbollah. Let alone that it let Saudi allies inside Lebanon down to the point of despair and loss of faith.
Needless to say that Hezbollah is too strong militarily to be faced. Even Israel was not able to destroy its mighty Arsenal. Hezbollah has another massive weapon, a powerful media apparatus that provides a hub for radicals and leftists in addition to Hezbollah’s supporters. It’s a permanent, free-to-use, outlet for anti-American and anti-Israeli feelings in the region. It’s also a significant alternative source of income in a neighbourhood where media jobs are scarce. Even if you are not a Hezbollah sympathiser, you would think twice before criticising it. It’s often than not in harmony with the Muslim Brotherhood/Qatari media machine. (Except two years when Muslim Brotherhood disagreed with Tehran over Syria).
Hence, Saudis started the confrontation with Iran in the reverse order. The campaign in Yemen was the first step to cut Iran’s paws and claws. Then came the clash with Qatar, which is best seen in the context of Saudi insistence on taking the battle to Iran. And their grievance that Qatar has been a tool in Iran’s hands, grooming Hezbollah and other Iranian pockets in the Gulf that Saudis consider the principal national security threat.
The same day the Lebanese Prime minister Saad Al-Hariri announced his resignation, in a statement issued while he was in the Saudi capital, a rocket was fired by the Houthis in Yemen aiming at Riyadh. It was an unmistakable message from Tehran that Saudi Arabi was not beyond its reach. Hence, It is a warning of any action against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Inaction, as mentioned before, is not an option.
However, one should wonder, from this point on, what the Saudis options in Lebanon are.
I guess the starters menu would be a package of diplomatic and political measures. Let’s say the aim is to relocate the rock and hammer beneath and above Hezbollah, leaving it with two bitter options, either it answers to the international community’s requirements of disarmament or risks a military confrontation.
We’ve already witnessed Trump’s stance towards the Revolutionary Guards of Iran.
Al-Hariri’s resignation is a clear indication that the status quo in Lebanon is no longer acceptable, and a public testimony condemning Hezbollah’s behaviour. Withdrawal of the political coverage, as Al-Hariri did, left Hezbollah and its allies solely responsible for its actions. It worths noting that a previous public affirmation in the same direction was given in 2005 by Michael Aoun, now the president of Lebanon, and a turned ally of Hezbollah. It then led to the Security Council resolution 1559 that called for all militia in Lebanon to disarm.
I think the next step would be revisiting this resolution and announcing Hezbollah in breach of it. If not, it would be declared a terrorist organisation. When this has happened, the countdown should begin.
أهلا وسهلا برأيك