A sigh of relief in Lebanon: On November 22 Prime Minister Saad Hariri put on hold his November 4th resignation in a cabinet which includes Hezbollah Party, in order to negotiate terms for Lebanon’s neutrality in Arab affairs. “Neutrality,” “dissociation” and “self-restraint” are code words for “ending Hezbollah’s participation” in the Syrian civil wars. Hariri’s resignation had signaled the end of a painstakingly – hammered out cabinet partnership between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Saudi-backed Hariri.
Observers agree that it was Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) who had pressured Hariri to resign. In an overly optimistic and simplistic op-ed, Thomas Friedman presents the position of the Crown Prince MBS on the resignation: “Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, is not going to continue providing political cover for a Lebanese government that is essentially controlled by the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia, which is essentially controlled by Tehran.”
Hariri’s return to cabinet leadership in Lebanon is a quick response to the international community which has rejected a Saudi formula dictating politics to neighbors. There is global compassion for Lebanon; this fragile country cannot stand intact for long with a decapitated government.
The Hariri story is an international development. In a Foreign Policy article Katulis and Schweitzer, fellows of the Center for American Progress, commented last week on the Saudi move and its echo in Israel: “The Trump administration’s passive and incoherent Middle East policy has also fostered moral hazard with some of our [this author’s insert: US and Israeli] closest partners in the region, as seen in the recent actions by Saudi Arabia to use threats and psychological warfare to pressure Iran’s partner in Lebanon, Hezbollah. The move appears to have backfired by prompting a backlash in Lebanon, and it may have forced Saudi Arabia to recalibrate.”
Aggressive meddling in Lebanon seems to be part of a larger Saudi scheme to limit dissent inside and outside the Royal Kingdom. Just as the Crown Prince MBS had isolated Qatar from the Gulf Cooperation Council and placed hundreds of Saudi leaders under house arrest, the strong man of Arabia is now trying to tame Lebanon’s political tiger: Hezbollah. Riyadh’s overreaching is in compensation for discouraging developments, specifically Tehran’s expanding influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s overreaching reveals poor judgment. First, Hariri’s (Sunni) community was not consulted on how, or whether, to delegitimize Hezbollah’s governance role. Second, there was no recognition that Hezbollah has a grassroots base in south Lebanon. Hezbollah is liked by some, disliked by others, but feared by all: a war on Hezbollah is a war on Lebanon.
Hariri is open for reconciliation with his pro-Iranian members in the government; he will continue to insist that Lebanon must be neutral on regional issues, particularly on the Iran-Saudi conflict. However, with Hezbollah engaged in a war on the side of the Syrian and Iranian regimes, it is difficult to expect full Lebanese neutrality. No one expects Hezbollah to hand over its arms in Syria or in Lebanon anytime soon. To entice Hariri to continue to share power with his opponents in the cabinet, Hezbollah’s leaders may pledge to tone down the rhetoric against Saudi Arabia, may promise to end involvement in the Yemen war, or may promise to return their fighters in Syria to Lebanon at a later suitable stage. This future stage may evolve diplomatically through the international post-war plans for Syria.
There are still other reasons why Hezbollah is not willing to disarm. Its Shiite communities feel threatened on different geographical fronts. Hezbollah’s people have not forgotten that in 2006 Israel launched a devastating war on Lebanon to try to liquidate Hezbollah. Since 2006 Israel has been threatening to attack again to “finish” with Hezbollah.
One other major factor is in the calculus of Hezbollah’s continued mobilization. The current refugee population makes Lebanon a demographic time bomb. Hezbollah sees itself as a stabilizing force for the entire country.
Lebanon is now a nation of four million citizens, hosting half a million Palestinian refugees and over a million displaced Syrians. Hezbollah argues that it is fighting for Lebanon’s security and for its own survival in the region. Hariri is also aware that Syria’s future will significantly impact the Shiite community both in Syria and in Lebanon.
Hariri joined the Lebanese cabinet knowing full well that Hezbollah is, after all, the largest Lebanese political party. He realizes that Hezbollah’s political prism shows Lebanon at the crossroads of two major regional conflicts, one between the Arabs and Israel, and the other between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Saudis will learn that there is no way to shape Lebanon from the outside through their man, Hariri; the Lebanese will have to shape their own destiny as the region’s security evolves. It is just as well to keep this precarious, sectarian republic “as is,” given the deep unknowns within its regional environment. Lebanon’s long-term stability (and consequentially Hezbollah’s civil integration in wider society) will not be achieved before Syria’s future is properly planned, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is approached creatively and the Saudi-Iranian toxic rivalry is contained.
The Crown Prince MBS needs to drop his manipulative magic wand in order to participate constructively in rebuilding the region. Let Hariri enjoy the increased popularity he has accrued since his return to his post. If he stays in the cabinet leadership it is good news for Lebanon.