Why Saudi Arabia’s Lebanon Gamble May Pay Off
Hezbollah may choose to focus on its all-important goal of securing Lebanese-Syrian relations, at the expense of the Houthis in Yemen.
- Despite the perception that the maneuver backfired, Saudi Arabia’s move to force Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri to resign may pay off.
- Mr. Hariri is believed to be demanding that Hezbollah halt its support to Houthi rebels in Yemen and withdraw from Syria.
- Hezbollah and Iran primarily view the Houthis as an opportunity to complicate life for Saudi Arabia in the kingdom’s backyard – and not as a strategic priority.
- Hezbollah may choose to focus on its all-important goal of securing Lebanese-Syrian relations, at the expense of the Houthis in Yemen.
- Saudi Arabia could prove to be its own worst enemy in its effort to curb Iranian influence and win tactical victories in what amounts to a dangerous regional chess game.
Saudi Arabia’s gamble to pressure Hezbollah — the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia — by forcing the country’s prime minister Saad Hariri to resign, may be paying off. This is all the more surprising as there is a widespread perception that the Saudi maneuver backfired.
This perception is based on broad international support for Mr. Hariri following a speech in Riyadh in which he denounced Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy. Harari argued that Hezbollah was wreaking havoc in the Middle East.
In particular, it was the prime minister’s decision to put his resignation on hold once he returned to Beirut to a rock star’s welcome that reinforced the belief that Saudi Arabia had overplayed his hand.
Opening the door to backroom negotiations
In reality, Mr. Hariri’s decision opened the door to backroom negotiations. Hezbollah, a major political force in Lebanon, is finding that it may have to compromise to avoid a political breakdown in the country. Otherwise, it may fail to secure its most immediate goals.
Mr. Hariri is believed to be demanding that Hezbollah halt its support to Houthi rebels in Yemen. He is also thought to be demanding that it withdraw from Syria.
There, Hezbollah’s fighters support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. That, however, conflicts with Lebanese government policy not to become involved in conflicts raging elsewhere in the region.
Hezbollah signalled a willingness to compromise by urging Mr. Hariri to withdraw his resignation. It is calling for calm and advising its supporters not to take to the streets. It also announced that it was withdrawing some of its units from Syria and Iraq, where they supported Shiite militias in their fight against the Islamic State.
Mr. Hariri, who signalled this week that he may withdraw his resignation, put it earlier on hold. This move came at the request of Lebanese President of Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah. Aoun had allowed the militia in recent years to outmaneuver the prime minister.
Much is in play
At the same time, Hezbollah charged that Mr. Hariri had not announced his resignation of his own free will — but that he had been forced to do so by Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Hariri, who blames Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, his father and Lebanon’s prime minister at the time of his death, agreed to Mr. Aoun’s election as president.
Bruised by his inability to force Hezbollah’s hand, Mr. Hariri appears to have reversed his slide in popularity with his threat to resign. This has enhanced his prospects in forthcoming parliamentary elections.
Mr. Hariri’s newly found popularity and leverage, despite Saudi Arabia’s zero-sum-game approach to its proxy wars with Iran in Lebanon and elsewhere, may enable him to cut a deal. This would allow Hezbollah to focus on its all-important goal of securing Lebanese-Syrian relations at the expense of the Houthis in Yemen.
Complicating life for Saudi Arabia
To be fair, Hezbollah and Iran primarily view the Houthis as an opportunity to complicate life for Saudi Arabia in the kingdom’s backyard – and not as a strategic priority.
What is far more crucial for them is to ensure that Lebanon maintains close ties to the government of President Assad. Curbing the Houthis, who recently fired a ballistic missile at the international airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh, is at the top of the kingdom’s agenda.
Hezbollah, Syria and Iran need Lebanon to have normal, if not close ties to an Assad government once the guns fall silent. After all, international and U.S. sanctions against Syria as well as Assad and his associates are likely to remain in place. Lebanon has long been Syria’s vehicle to circumvent the sanctions.
China’s Belt and Road initiative
That becomes even more important against the backdrop of China suggesting that it would contribute to post-war Syrian reconstruction. China could see Syria becoming an important node in its Belt and Road initiative.
That initiative intends to enmesh Eurasia in a web of infrastructure, transportation and telecommunication links that would link Europe and much of Asia to China.
Like so often in recent years, Saudi Arabia could prove to be its own worst enemy in its effort to curb Iranian influence. Saudi players often opt for tactical victories which have not always thought through.
The Saudis must hope for a positive outcome, given that their ill-fated intervention in Yemen has not only sparked a massive humanitarian crisis, but also cost Saudi Arabia enormous reputational capital.