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