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Iran and Saudi Arabia on the brink of a proxy war over Lebanon

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The intrigue over whether Saudi Arabia this month sparked a crisis in Lebanon by forcing Saad Hariri to resign as its prime minister may soon be clarified. But the possible closure of one chapter opens another, potentially more dangerous, crisis. Mr Hariri, son of Rafiq Hariri, the former premier assassinated in 2005, was due back in Beirut on Wednesday in time — poignantly enough for a country so vulnerable to the geopolitical games of outsiders — for Lebanon’s independence celebrations. The perception is near universal in Lebanon that Saudi Arabia held Mr Hariri, whose family the kingdom has long backed, against his will. It is also believed Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi’s all-powerful crown prince, made him step down as a move against Hizbollah, the Iran-backed Shia paramilitary movement that acts as Tehran’s spearhead in the region. Hizbollah has the (to Riyadh, intolerable) legitimacy of a coalition government in Beirut led by a Sunni prime minister and Saudi client. Posters of Mr Hariri festoon the streets of Beirut. Presumed Saudi disrespect in coercing him to read out his resignation from Riyadh has provoked a rare outbreak of unity, momentarily blunting the angular antagonisms of Lebanese sectarian rivalries. But Lebanon has struggled to recover a semblance of independence. The 1975-90 civil war never entirely ended, one top official in Beirut remarks. Even after Israel ended its occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, and Syrian troops departed in 2005 after the Cedar Revolution triggered by the murder of Rafiq Hariri, the country remains caught in a vice between two external powers — Iran and Saudi Arabia — in a Shia-Sunni split with the Christians divided between the two sides. After long periods of no government, Michel Aoun, a Christian general allied with Hizbollah, was installed as president a year ago, with Mr Hariri heading a power-sharing administration of most of Lebanon’s 18 sects. That is now at risk, as the country faces another vacuum, its finances hang by a thread along with its ability to fund a debt equivalent to 145 per cent of economic output as well as harbour 1.5m refugees from Syria’s civil war — among a population of 4.3m. If Lebanon becomes a new front in the proxy wars Riyadh and Tehran are waging across the region, the reverberations could further destabilise a Middle East no one seems able to control. Last Saturday, Mr Hariri went to Paris and met President Emmanuel Macron, who earlier had visited Riyadh to mediate a way through the impasse. But on Sunday, the Arab League met in emergency session in Cairo to back the Saudis: declaring Hizbollah a terrorist tool in Iran’s neo-imperial behaviour in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The Arab League is best known for somewhat windy declarations. Yet given that Hizbollah is part of Lebanon’s government and parliament, is the most powerful organisation in the country and has strong influence over Lebanese security services, the League’s stance aligns the Saudi bloc with Israel. The Israeli government and military establishment have repeatedly said they will make no distinction between Hizbollah and the Lebanese state in future conflicts. They warn that another Lebanon war is inevitable so long as Iran and Hizbollah build a permanent presence in Syria — where both have fought to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s regime — and the Lebanese paramilitaries keep adding to their stockpile of Iran-supplied missiles. Yet if Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MbS, as he is known) wants to use Israel to push back against Iran, his record in foreign policy so far speaks of frustration more than achievement — bets he expects reluctant allies to cover. After launching an air war in Yemen against Houthi rebels, heterodox Shia who have had limited support from Iran and its allies, Saudi Arabia expected Egypt and Pakistan to supply ground troops. They did not. More than two years on, MbS is stuck in a quagmire, criticised for Yemeni civilian deaths, famine and a cholera epidemic. This summer’s Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led blockade of Qatar elicited a torrent of supportive tweets from US president Donald Trump. Yet it is not going well, beyond pushing Qatar towards Iran and unsettling investors. The policy has divided the Gulf, split the Trump administration and discomfited European capitals. In the present case of Lebanon, France is leading a European push back against Saudi Arabia (while sharing its concerns about Iran). The US is still supplying the Lebanese army and (mostly) counselling caution. Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is clearly trying to bond Saudis and Israelis together against Iran. But there are limits to such an alliance. And Israel will work to its own timetable and goals. Lebanon could, however, be crippled if the Saudis target remittances from its estimated 400,000 nationals who work in the Gulf — lifeblood for the Lebanese economy — and if Riyadh lobbies Washington to further tighten sanctions aimed at Hizbollah but which do much collateral economic damage. Before any of that, Saad Hariri needs to confirm he is indeed resigning, or whether the real purpose of this bizarre and risky episode is to extract concessions from Hizbollah and its patrons in Iran.

Courtesy: Financial Times