American Herald Tribune | Robert Carter: In December 2016, Lebanon’s parliament overwhelmingly approves a national unity cabinet headed by the Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri was asked to form the new government, after winning the support of a majority of MPs, including the influential Shia parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, who was initially vehemently opposed to Hariri’s candidacy, as well as, the candidacy of the current Christian president, Michel Aoun. Now, less than a year since the government was formed, Hariri has shocked the world with his bombshell resignation essentially collapsing the Lebanese government. In an unprecedented style, he announcing his resignation while in a foreign country, something no other politician has ever done in history. In his televised resignation speech aired from Saudi Arabia; Hariri blamed Iran and an alleged assassination attempt for his hurried decision to abandon his duty. An assassination attempt which “western intelligence” informed him of but no one, including the Lebanese security services nor Hariri’s close allies, knew anything about it.
This is not the first time a Lebanese government has collapsed. The same happened in 2005, 2011 and again in 2013, the country’s constitution dictates that the government must be run in a power-sharing agreement between a Christian President, a Sunni Prime Minister and a Shia Parliamentary Speaker. Hariri’s resignation has not yet been accepted by Aoun but until the issue is resolved the country’s political class have been rendered motionless turning the once functioning parliament into the dreaded ‘care-taker government’.
The last 48 hours have been rather eventful for both Lebanon & Saudi Arabia. Hariri visited Saudi Arabia twice within a five-day period last week, meeting the Saudi King, Crown Prince and several other high profile diplomats, including, Saudi’s minister of state for Persian Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sahban – a man who is well known in Baghdad as the Former-Saudi ambassador to Iraq – sacked by Baghdad for his sectarian anti-Shia propaganda rhetoric against the Hashd al-Shaabi.
Thamer was described by the Lebanese Sunni PM Hariri as his “buddy” on October 31st via twitter. At the time I commented on the post, criticizing Hariri for openly promoting his association to a renowned sectarian and hater of the Shia while he was currently in office as the leading Sunni figure of a (so-called) “unity government” made up of Sunni, Shia and Christians. Thamer lived up to his reputation the following day as an interview was published in which he described the Shia Hezbollah (Party of God) as the “Party of Satan”. The Saudi Minister told MTVthat Hezbollah (a party in Lebanon’s government) should be toppled likewise promising that Lebanon will see “astonishing developments” soon. Little did I know at the time that for once Saudi’s threats to escalate were going to turn out genuine.
Saad Hariri, like his late-father Rafik, is considered to be Saudi Arabia’s man in Lebanese politics but his inclusion as PM in the unity government of 2016-17, which sees Hariri & the Hezbollah both in the same government, was not considered an accomplishment for Saudi Arabian influence in Lebanon, rather a victory for the pro-Iran Shia political camp led by Hezbollah. It was Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah political ally, not Hariri’s presidential candidate who won the 2-year long political standoff to become the current President of Lebanon. Aoun was the winner, thanks to Hezbollah and Iran’s backing and since taking office Aoun has defended Hezbollah on several occasions and even seems ready to allow Lebanon to officially recognize Assad in Syria once more. A move which has clearly infuriated Saudi Arabia – Beirut’s eagerness to appoint an ambassador to Damascus, set up an embassy and enthusiasm to begin directly acknowledging the Damascus government again is perhaps a symbolic red line that caused Saudi to react so punitively without any apparent provocation.
Back in the final third of 2016, Saudi was considered too deeply preoccupied with the costly war in Yemen, among other things, to carry on investing time into the schisms of Lebanon’s politics. So, as a result, this (coinciding with his own financial problems) Hariri decided to back down and endorse Aoun’s bid for the presidency. In return, securing himself the countries premiership – and all the perks that come with it, including political amnesty.
The election was hailed by all sides as a positive step towards providing Lebanon with a functioning political class that can produce progress towards a better future. Lebanon has been in desperate need for a lengthy period of political certainty but within less than a year since its creation Lebanon’s “unity government” has been broken – Not by Iran but by Saudi Arabia. Alas, Lebanon, a country applauded for its democracy and vibrant mixture of religious groups living in relative peace has, again, failed to maintain political harmony.
I do smell a distinct stench of irony polluting this story as we see that it is the Arab Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and not the Persian Iran wreck the stability of their Arab neighbour. Hariri has always been adamant that it is Iran who undermines Lebanon’s independence and progress, clearly, that is not the case and last week was a perfect example of my point.
After Hariri returned to Beirut from his first visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran sent a senior advisor to the Supreme Leader Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, who met with President Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah SG Nasrallah and the PM Hariri on 3rd November. Velayati publicly praised Hariri, despite the fact that Hariri is notorious for his anti-Iran political posture. On behalf of Iran, Velayati was hoping to explore the possibility of expanding bilateral ties with Lebanon, offer to provide new security resources and calm tensions with Hariri following the PM’s condemnation of comments made by the Iranian President Rouhani during a recent speech in October. At a ceremony commemorating Hajj Mostafa Khomeini in Tehran, Rouhani said: “In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and the Persian Gulf region, no decisive/fateful measure can be taken in these countries without Iran’s opinion”. Leading Hariri to lash out at the Iranian President stressing that the latter’s comments about Lebanon were “unacceptable.”
“Lebanon is an independent Arab state that accepts no guardianship (a reference to Iran’s Supreme Leader) and refuses what undermines its dignity,” stated Hariri.
This blip was enough to cause a meaningful effort by senior Iranian figures to console Hariri and inform him this was all just a big misunderstanding, an address aimed at the US, not regional states.
“Iran protects the stability of Lebanon and its government and welcomes its independence,” Velayati eagerly declared following his meeting with Hariri.
Less than 48 hours later, Hariri was back in Saudi announcing his resignation on TV and calling for Iran’s hand in the region to be cut. The move was so surprising that President Aoun cancelled a trip to Kuwait and Speaker Nabih Berri – already in Egypt to visit President Sisi – considered abandoning the entire trip and flying back to Beirut to deal with the crisis.
By declaring his resignation, the government and indeed the whole country has been tossed back into frustrating uncertainty. The government Hariri formed at the end of 2016 is the same government he has tried to sabotage now near the end of 2017. Hariri has yet to return from Saudi Arabia and until he does, Aoun has said he will not accept his resignation. This story was a bombshell on its own but since then we have also seen a more unexpected story hit the headlines, an attempt by the Saudi Kingdoms Crown Prince to consolidate his power further in the Kingdom with an overnight effort of mass arrests of powerful political rivals. The Lebanese (in typical fashion) have been quick to jump on rumours and circulate paranoid conspiracy theories. “Perhaps Hariri had been kidnapped?” or perhaps, like the many other wealthy Saudi billionaires this weekend, had been placed under house arrest and forced to resign.
To put the record straight, I don’t accept the reasons behind Hariri’s resignation as anything more than excuses to accommodate Saudi’s demands. The Saudi’s have been making every effort to convince the media that Hariri’s life was at risk – even going as far as accusing Iran of involvement this early stage. The whole story seems fishy and hard to believe, even for the Lebanese security forces themselves who admitted they had seen no evidence of an assassination attempt. To be even more frank, most Lebanese party leaders live at constant risk of assassination but continue their work so it is no excuse for a Lebanese PM who knew the risks better than most of his father. I also don’t believe the rumours that Hariri is under house arrest, he will return to Lebanon again soon I am sure but the fact he announced his recognition in Saudi, then not returned to speak to Aoun about it is a clear message from Saudi of disrespect aimed at the government of President Aoun.
I do believe, however, that Saudi Arabia has used extortion by Saudi during Hariri’s visits but it would not have taken for Saudi’s leaders to convince Hariri to follow their commands. Hariri likes to pretend he is an independent Lebanese political patriot who puts his country first above all else but, like Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah, he will take instructions from his state sponsor, in Hariri’s case it’s Saudi Arabia.
To be fair to Hariri, he has largely resisted falling into the petty squabbling’s of the Saudi vs Iran arguments since taking office in 2016, leaving his door open to diplomacy and compromise – even with his longtime political rivals, the Hezbollah. This move, however, symbolizes Saudi’s comeback into Lebanese political arena but this time with new management; the young and reckless Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, who is considered the architect of both the Yemen crisis and the siege of Qatar, two examples of Saudi Arabia’s ghastly foreign policy decision making gaffes in recent years. It is this very same inexperienced Crown Prince Salman who has launch a power grab under the label of a “corruption crackdown” against potential political rivals who may resent his lengthy list of costly decisions.
The Saudi instigated move in Lebanon is a clear attempt to undermine a government which Iran has encouraged to develop and has the potential to become an important gateway into Syria as the war winds-down. Lebanon’s parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri has led efforts to conduct an election as soon as possible. “Holding the elections on time has become a confirmed issue and the polls will definitely be organized, and no one can act against that,” Berri told ad-Diyar newspaper in early October. Hariri’s heavily symbolic move has certainly pushed the upcoming elections into doubt, at least for the time being. The issue of who will replace the PM is also a new substantial problem.
Most Sunni’s eligible for the position will either back Hariri or be fearful of retribution from Saudi Arabia if they accept to work in a government which Saudi considers to be empowering Hezbollah. We have yet to see how President Aoun will deal with this crisis but whoever does replace Hariri will not carry the same weight as Hariri did in the political power balance which Aoun had been to maintain until now. Aoun will likely greater opposition from his parliament going forward with a new PM who won’t wield the same political clout as Hariri does.
I personally believe that Lebanon will continue to sail through the storm over the next few months with Aoun, Berri and other senior figures already uniting to find solutions to the new obstacles. The Lebanese have become good at weathering political storms over the decades – they are, after all, descendants of the great Phoenicians sailors – but this bold step by Saudi in extorting Hariri into effectively destroying his own political project is just the beginning of a new hostile foreign policy aimed at the small republic.
Saudi has been left deeply frustrated with failure in Syria. Lebanon is Saudi’s opportunity to try and turn the tables back into its own favour in the Levant. During Nasrallah’s speech on Sunday, he made clear that this was a Saudi effort which Israel has taken advantage of for its own interests. Israel, a long-time threat to Lebanese security, says Iran wants the “Lebnonization” of Syria and sees Hezbollah as its number one threat to its own national security and regional standing. Saudi and Israel are both throwing aimless jabs at the Iranian “resistance axis” probing for any openings to exploit. The actions over the weekend will not lead to a war, which some analysts believed was now imminent, but the message from Saudi is very clear, we don’t want any Arab state to work with Iran and we don’t want to see Hezbollah legitimized in a government platform. This is part of a joint effort to undermine Iran and create a new round of regional instability which could change the balance of power again in the Persian Gulf’s favour. Saudi is probing for soft spots seeing Lebanon as a prime target. If they find an opportunity to strike a blow they will take it, be it sanctions, forced resignations or supporting radical Islamist groups. How Lebanon’s leaders choose to deal with the crisis now could determine whether or not the long-awaited next war in Lebanon happens or not.