The Hariri mys­tery

The Le­banese PM must re­turn from Saudi Ara­bia lest his coun­try slides into in­sta­bil­ity

The Hindu - - EDITORIAL -

Saad Hariri’s shock res­ig­na­tion as Le­banon’s Prime Min­is­ter has not just plunged the coun­try into an­other spell of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity but also reignited re­gional ten­sions be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran. Le­banon has been a theatre for proxy re­gional bat­tles for years. Eleven months ago, Mr. Hariri, a Sunni with close business and po­lit­i­cal ties with Saudi Ara­bia, had formed a coali­tion with Hezbol­lah, a Shia party-cum­mili­tia that has Iran’s sup­port. This had, in turn, al­lowed the elec­tion of Michel Aoun as Le­banon’s Pres­i­dent. But since then Riyadh has be­come in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient with Mr. Hariri’s fail­ure to con­front Hezbol­lah, whose mili­tia wing was in­volved in the Syr­ian civil war on be­half of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, an­other Saudi ri­val. It was against this back­drop that Mr. Hariri an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion on Novem­ber 4 from the Saudi cap­i­tal and blamed Hezbol­lah and Iran for his de­ci­sion. Sur­pris­ingly, more than a week later he is yet to re­turn to Le­banon and com­plete the for­mal­i­ties of the res­ig­na­tion, so that the coali­tion can take the next steps. His con­tin­ued ab­sence has trig­gered spec­u­la­tion that he was forced by the Saudis to resign and is be­ing held in Riyadh against his will at a time when the king­dom is turn­ing up the heat on Hezbol­lah and Iran.

There are re­gional stakes in­volved in this sit­u­a­tion. Hezbol­lah has evolved into a battle-hard­ened semi-con­ven­tional mil­i­tary force. In 2006, Israel at­tacked Le­banon with the aim of de­stroy­ing Hezbol­lah, with lit­tle suc­cess. Since then, Hezbol­lah has amassed weapons from Iran and has got bat­tle­field train­ing in the Syr­ian civil war. Its po­lit­i­cal arm has enor­mous in­flu­ence in Beirut’s cor­ri­dors of power. Saudi Ara­bia is con­cerned about this grow­ing mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal clout of what it sees as an Ira­nian proxy. U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has backed Saudi poli­cies. Riyadh has the silent sup­port of Israel, which sees Hezbol­lah as a threat on its north­ern bor­der. If the Saudis forced Mr. Hariri to resign, they will pre­fer an­other Sunni leader who takes a more con­fronta­tional view of Hezbol­lah. Saudi Ara­bia has also asked its cit­i­zens to leave Le­banon, sig­nalling po­ten­tial mil­i­tary ac­tion. Hezbol­lah, given its ca­pa­bil­i­ties and his­tory of re­sis­tance, may re­tal­i­ate if its core in­ter­ests come un­der at­tack. It is un­for­tu­nate that Le­banon is once again be­com­ing a pawn on the West Asian geopo­lit­i­cal chess­board. Le­banon’s lead­ers, who will re­call the hor­rors of the 1975-1990 civil war, should forge at least a sem­blance of unity and ask re­gional pow­ers to stay out of the coun­try’s do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. They should ask Mr. Hariri to re­turn home im­me­di­ately and ex­plain to the peo­ple the real rea­sons be­hind his res­ig­na­tion, and why he an­nounced it from Riyadh. Hezbol­lah should also be ready to ad­dress the con­cerns of its coali­tion part­ners and be wary of dis­rupt­ing the po­lit­i­cal bal­ance. No­body in Le­banon will gain if this bal­ance is up­set.

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