Hariri unexpectedly resigned his post last week while on a trip to Riyadh and has not been home since, prompting a great deal of speculation that he's being kept against his will. According to my colleagues, a “tired” and “emotional” Hariri insisted during Sunday's interview that he had acted on his own accord and was not being held in the kingdom.
But officials in the Sunni politician's own party have told reporters they think Hariri, a longtime beneficiary of Saudi patronage, was coerced and made to resign. The kingdom's emboldened crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, was dissatisfied by Hariri's power-sharing agreement with a number of Lebanese factions, including Hezbollah, the Shiite organization backed by Saudi archrival Iran. Hariri's resignation speech focused on the growing threat posed by Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran.
According to one version of events, Hariri was given his marching orders not long after hosting a top Iranian foreign policy official, Ali Akbar Velayati, in Beirut. “He had been summoned to Saudi Arabia and then presented with a dictate to resign, senior diplomatic sources told me,” wrote the New Yorker's Robin Wright. “The language was prescribed. He was prevented from returning to Beirut and his communications were restricted. Reuters reported that even his cellphone was confiscated.”
“It’s one big political show, isn’t it?” Mustafa Khalil, a 34-year-old Lebanese engineer watching Hariri's interview in Beirut, said to TheWashington Post. “He’s not his own man anymore. He is saying what he needs to survive.”
Caught in the midst of a regional showdown, you can forgive most Lebanese for trying to find what accommodations they can. The grinding conflicts in Syria and Iraq are slowly entering a new phase. In both cases, forces backed by Iran are in ascendance. Hezbollah has deployed tens of thousands of fighters in its efforts to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And if pro-Assad militias finally capture the key Syrian-Iraqi border crossing at Bukamal from the remnants of the Islamic State, ideologues in Tehran will finally have a long-awaited arc of strategic influence stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean.
All of this makes the Saudis and the Israelis — who have fought several wars with Hezbollah — nervous. Analysts point to a potential scenario that could see both Saudi economic sanctions on Lebanon and perhaps even punitive Israeli strikes on Hezbollah positions, although the latter is more unlikely.
“We are in a real epochal moment,” said Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, in a phone conference organized by the Wilson Center in Washington. After centuries of Ottoman rule, an Arab order that emerged from the ashes of empire has seemingly collapsed. Iran has “consolidated its control of the entire Levant,” Salem said, while other major Sunni Muslim states such as Turkey and Egypt are "non-players," beset by their own political dysfunctions. Into the breach step the Saudis — with a strikingly activist agenda.
“We are in a new Middle East, where we'll see a series of confrontations and wars,” Salem said. Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro illustrated the messy complexity of the moment in one of his trademark tweets:
It's still not clear what the Saudis gain by forcing Hariri, a putative ally, to step aside. “His resignation does nothing to thwart Hezbollah’s power,” Thanassis Cambanis notes in the Atlantic. “If anything, a vacuum benefits Hezbollah, which doesn’t need the Lebanese state to bolster its power or legitimacy.”
Cambanis goes on: “Short of seeking actual war, Saudi Arabia has, at a minimum, backed a campaign to fuel the idea that war is always possible. While a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran wouldn’t shift the balance of power back toward the kingdom, it would upend still more lives in a part of the world where the recently displaced number in the millions, the dead in the hundreds of thousands, and where epidemics of disease and malnutrition strike with depressing regularity. Short of direct war, Riyadh’s machinations will likely produce a destabilizing proxy war.”
That is the case in Yemen, where a deadly Saudi-led intervention has intensified the impoverished country's civil strife and prompted a hideous humanitarian crisis. Saudi Arabia is particularly alarmed by Iranian and Hezbollah support for Yemen's Houthi rebels, but its costly war there has turned into a quagmire. Nevertheless, Salman has pushed an even more aggressive Yemen policy as well as the blockade of Qatar, which drags on with no resolution in sight.
“The impulsiveness of [the Saudi crown prince] has been a consistent theme — from the war in Yemen to the wave of arrests of constructive critics, royals and senior officials accused of corruption. The severity of Saudi Arabia’s action against Lebanon mirrors the blockade of Qatar in June — abrupt, with no room for negotiation,” wrote Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the kingdom's leadership.
Of course, as Khashoggi points out, an armed escalation with Qatar once seemed almost inevitable but has not come to pass. Conflict elsewhere is not inevitable, either.
That's partially because, despite the White House's strident anti-Iran rhetoric, it's unlikely the United States would welcome such a confrontation. State Department officials seem more interested in shoring up a somewhat friendly government in Iraq than poking Iran in the eye over Lebanon. But the uncertainty of the moment — and the lack of meaningful diplomacy between the region's main players — raises the risk of a more dangerous unraveling.
“Anything that happens will have to involve a much larger geopolitical grand bargain with the big players,” said Bassel F. Salloukh, a political scientist at Lebanese American University in Beirut. “But the political terrain is not right for this kind of bargain.”
In the meantime, he says, “Lebanon is being asked to carry a weight that it simply cannot carry.”
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