Hariri standoff heats up
BEIRUT Lebanese officials are insisting on the return home of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri from Saudi Arabia, and the leader of militant group Hezbollah said the Saudis have ‘‘declared war’’ on Lebanon by holding Hariri against his will.
The United States yesterday added its voice to those urging that Hariri be allowed to return to Lebanon.
A political crisis has gripped the country and shattered the relative peace maintained by its coalition government ever since Hariri’s stunning announcement on November 4 from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, that he was resigning.
The announcement by Saudialigned Hariri jolted Lebanon and thrust it back into the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The move, and exceptionally strong statements by the Saudis against Iran that followed it, have deepened the mystery about Hariri’s fate and have led to rumours that he is being held in the kingdom against his will, despite his denials.
For the past year, Hariri has headed a coalition government that included members of Iranianbacked Hezbollah. He cited meddling in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region by Iran and Hezbollah in his decision to step down, adding that Iran’s arm into the region would be ‘‘cut off’’.
Saudi Arabia appears to want to see Lebanon headed by someone would form a government without Hezbollah, perhaps believing Hariri has become too lenient towards the group.
In a message apparently aimed at the Saudis but which could easily include Iran, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cautioned against using Lebanon as ‘‘a venue for proxy conflicts’’.
If Hariri wanted to step down, Tillerson said, he needed to ‘‘go back to Lebanon’’ and formally resign, ‘‘so that the government of Lebanon can function properly’’.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun told Saudi Charge d’Affaires Walid al-Bukhari yesterday that the manner in which Hariri resigned ‘‘was unacceptable’’, a Lebanese official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He called for Hariri’s return.
In a televised speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Hariri was being detained in Saudi Arabia and that his ‘‘forced’’ resignation was unconstitutional because it was made ‘‘under duress’’.
‘‘It is clear that Saudi Arabia ... declared war on Lebanon,’’ he said.
Nasrallah said he was certain that Hariri was forced to resign as part of what he called a Saudi policy of meddling in Lebanon’s affairs.
Hariri was being prevented by Saudi officials from returning to Lebanon, he said, adding that his detention should not be accepted.
Tillerson said he had seen ‘‘no indication’’ that Hariri was being held against his will.
An official in French President Emmanuel Macron’s office also said Hariri had told foreign ambassadors in Saudi Arabia, where he has been since the resignation announcement, that he was not a prisoner.
The French and US ambassadors met with Hariri, who ‘‘says he is not a prisoner, the (Saudi crown) prince says he is not a prisoner,’’ said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
The crisis is widely seen as a bid by Saudi Arabia to wreck Lebanon’s coalition government to try to undermine and limit Iran’s influence in the country through the power that Hezbollah wields.
In the first concrete action against Lebanon after days of threats by Saudi government officials, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries ordered their citizens to leave the country amid the soaring tensions.
United Nations SecretaryGeneral Antonio Guterres said it was essential that Lebanon remained peaceful, warning that a new conflict could have ‘‘devastating consequences’’ for the region.
Hariri’s appointment as prime minister and the formation of a government was a result of a tacit agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to sideline Lebanon from other regional proxy wars, particularly in neighbouring Syria. Iran is widely seen to have prevailed over mainly Sunni rebels in Syria, and with the wars in Yemen and the crisis in Qatar at an impasse, the Saudi crown prince may have decided to try to curb Iran’s influence in Lebanon.
It is unclear what Saudi Arabia’s long-term calculation is with Hariri. So far, it appears to have united the Lebanese against the kingdom, with most people REUTERS seeing the incident as an affront and a humiliation for him.
Lebanese officials are acting with caution, insisting on Hariri’s return before starting the complicated task of forming a new government.
Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia had shifted its attention to Lebanon after a failed 30-month war in Yemen and with Saudibacked rebels in Syria suffering setbacks. ‘‘If you think that you can defeat Lebanon, the resistance (Hezbollah) ... then you are wrong, mistaken and will fail, the way you did in all arenas,’’ he said.
Without providing any proof, Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia had asked Israel to attack Hezbollah in return for billions of dollars. He warned Israel against ‘‘miscalculation’’ or ‘‘taking advantage of the situation’’. AP
Posters depicting Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned, hang from trees along a main road in Beirut.