Since 2011, the regions of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been embroiled in events which took a catastrophic toll on their socio-economic development and strategic stability with nations faltering and civil wars breaking out. But, since the outbreak of Arab Spring inferno, Lebanon has been intriguingly in immunity against this contagion which surrounds its neighbors. A nation-state possessing an unforgivable geography which shares a vast coastline in the west with Cyrus and the Mediterranean Sea, to the north and east shares a border with Syria, and a border in the east with Israel, with which it has a violent history.
Historically, Lebanon is not always this relatively immune from violence. Since its emergence as a modern state, the former French colony has been moving from one great crisis to another greater crisis. It was a battleground of proxy warfare and civil war from 1977 to 1990. In 2006, it was at war with Israel, and in 2008, it was a battleground of sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims which almost put Lebanon on the edge of another civil war.
Contemporary Lebanese stability has to do much with the 1989 Taif Agreement which was reached to conclude the Lebanese civil war. Under this agreement, a delicate balance of power was enshrined in which Lebanon’s President must be a Maronite Christian while its Premiership must rest with a Sunni Muslim and Speaker of the Parliament should be a Shiite Muslim.
Contemporary Lebanese stability has to do much with the 1989 Taif Agreement which was reached to conclude the Lebanese civil war. Under this agreement, a delicate balance of power was enshrined in which Lebanon’s President must be a Maronite Christian while its Premiership must rest with a Sunni Muslim and Speaker of the Parliament should be a Shiite Muslim. Though the 1989 Agreement did not bring political stability in Lebanon as witnessed in 2008, it did bring an end to decades of civil war which devastated the Lebanese State and society, and amidst interrupted episodes of violence, a relative placidity among various sectarian-political groups within Lebanon.
Recent event of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri’s resignation, and his residence in the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) may potentially put Lebanon back on a perilous trajectory of violence and upheaval in what appears to be another nation-state mired into the new Cold War between an increasingly reasserting Sunni Monarchy of KSA and regional powerhouse of the Shiite, the revolutionary Iran.
The regional rivalry between KSA and Iran have been playing out violently in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, where both regional giants support opposing factions. Both sides, as popularly believed, do not only practice different doctrinal beliefs about Islam but they also represent two distinct civilizations, Arab and Persian respectively.
Saad Al-Hariri became the Lebanese Prime Minister second time in December, 2016, breaking a two-year political deadlock. His previous stint as Prime Minister of Lebanon was between 2009 and 2011. In 2016, his second stint as Prime Minister was in a coalition government with President Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, and a Hezbollah ally. This coalition government was comprised of almost all major political parties in Lebanon including Hezbollah, a group which was implicated in the 2005 political assassination of Hariri’s father Rafiq Hariri.
Under premiership of Saad Hariri, Lebanese economy was on path of revitalization which was adversely impacted by closure of major trade routes and hosting of 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Coalition government of 2016 passed a legislation approving exploration of oil and gas offshore, and the parliament passed first budget since 2005. Moreover, Hariri was also credited for balancing Lebanese international relations with the United States and Gulf States and also for convincing Americans for their imperative aid to the Lebanese army.
Although, there are speculations abound regarding the circumstances under which Hariri resigned, it is reported that Hariri may have been compelled by KSA to submit his resignation. There are also concerns, even by members of Hariri’s own future movement, that the language of his resignation is not consistent with Hariri’s political lexicon. Hezbollah Leader Hasan Nasrullah termed his resignation as ‘forced upon’ and thus illegitimate while President Michel Aoun, so far did not accepted Hariri’s resignation.
However, in stark contrast of his earlier resignation, Saad Hariri in his very recent television appearance from Riyadh implied that his resignation was intended to serve as leverage to increase his authority in Lebanese affairs while also hinting at possible retraction of his resignation.
Political unity is a rare commodity in Lebanese politics yet Hariri’s resignation is one of those rare commodities on which there is general consensus in society, which unequivocally demand return from KSA of their still legal Prime Minister. However, in stark contrast of his earlier resignation, Saad Hariri in his very recent television appearance from Riyadh implied that his resignation was intended to serve as leverage to increase his authority in Lebanese affairs while also hinting at possible retraction of his resignation. Generally, it is believed that KSA had pulled the plug of Saad Hariri to probably plunge Lebanon into profound economic crises and political turmoil or maybe leverage his resignation to augment KSA’s influence in the Arab nation.
KSA is bearing the humiliation of the near-failure of its political projects in Iraq and Syria as both of these states enter the end game in uprooting proxy terrorist groups within their territory and Iran with its auxiliaries, in Iraq and Syria, is at the forefront of reclaiming the lost territories. Moreover, Saudi foreign policy also met with ignominy in Yemen as its attempts to restore the legitimate Government of Yemen were repeatedly frustrated by Iranian backed Houthi rebels.
By taking Hariri out of Lebanese political equation, KSA may be striving to settle the score with Iran as Lebanon, owing to its geography, is very significant in Iranian geopolitical algorithm. As Hariri resigned, citing Iranian interference in Arab affairs and a plot to assassinate him, which may not be entirely untrue, providing his father’s political assassination, KSA is building a scenario for a potential limited conflict on a sub-conventional level in Lebanon or maybe a direct confrontation of Hezbollah with Israel.
Moreover, Israel carried out its own military drills in September simulating a war with Hezbollah. Israel and Hezbollah had been in military confliction in Lebanon since long. Their most recent confliction in 2006 ended in stalemate but deterioration of the situation in Syria in the aftermath of the Arab Spring brought renewed yet punctuated hostilities between the two. Israel military drills maybe perhaps intended for a muscle flexing to Hezbollah but prospects for another contestation between Hezbollah and Israel cannot be cast-off entirely. Israel is also engaging in diplomatic measures to build up Saudi momentum.
Nonetheless, KSA does indeed possess three strategic options in its eye of the tiger for Lebanon – leveraging Lebanese economic fragility by applying economic blockade as it did with Qatar; engage in proxy warfare by plunging Lebanon into sectarian violence as it did in Syria; increase its political clout in Lebanon by persistently disturbing domestic Lebanese political matrix with controlled, limited belligerence as it can be interpreted by Hariri’s resignation.
KSA is already in process of assembling a narrative of war against Iran. On the same fateful day of Hariri’s resignation, a missile was launched from Yemen by Houthis which was aimed at Riyadh but intercepted by KSA. Saudi Arabia swiftly crafted a narrative against Iran, citing Iranian support for Houthis, therefore considered that the missile attack may tantamount to a ‘declaration of war’. Additionally, recent attack on an oil pipeline in Bahrain was also blamed on Iranian-sponsored groups. But in case of challenging Iran in Lebanon and elsewhere, KSA does not enjoy greater latitude in its policy options. A direct confrontation is off the table for obvious catastrophic repercussions. Nonetheless, KSA does indeed possess three strategic options in its eye of the tiger for Lebanon – leveraging Lebanese economic fragility by applying economic blockade as it did with Qatar; engage in proxy warfare by plunging Lebanon into sectarian violence as it did in Syria; increase its political clout in Lebanon by persistently disturbing domestic Lebanese political matrix with controlled, limited belligerence as it can be interpreted by Hariri’s resignation.
Albeit these strategic options carry with them significant strategic consequences for KSA, Israel, Lebanon and the wider region. So far, KSA has not been able to budge Qatar’s foreign policy as it was intended by the Saudi-led economic blockade and caused disunity among Arabs and the wider Muslim world, therefore it can be anticipated that the Saudi-led economic blockade against Lebanon, particularly in the time when it requires extensive financial support, may lead toward resentment among the Lebanese regarding KSA while simultaneously causing uproar from international actors regarding a potential state failure in Lebanon. Furthermore, Saudi-led economic constraining of Lebanon may open the country for more Iranian influence and finance thus giving it more strategic maneuverability in Lebanese affairs – a space which KSA hopes to restrict Iran from.
Second strategic option of proxy warfare, though grounded in intense violence and stimulating sectarianism, may favor KSA in terms that it creates an opening for Saudi Arabia to incrementally balance Iranian clout by bleeding Hezbollah militarily and politically. But it also runs the risk of the unleashing of Iran’s leviathan of proxies which may possibly initiate another Lebanese civil war. Hariri’s resignation, and possible retraction of it, can be seen in the context of a third strategic option as KSA and Saad Hariri sent Lebanon in temporary political turmoil, intending to leverage Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing political agreement to cripple Hezbollah, and subsequently Iranian, influence in Lebanese state affairs. Moreover, domestic politics of Israel and KSA may also influence their strategic choices regarding Lebanon and Hezbollah.
With ISIS near obliteration from Iraq and Syria and Iraqi State effectively putting an end to the Kurdish independence aspiration, it is probable that next, the Middle East crisis may not arise from mainland but from the coastal nation of Lebanon which was previously immune from the firestorm ravaging its neighborhood.