Over the weekend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ordered the arrest of four government ministers and 11 royal princes. His actions show that his consolidation of power is fully intended to go hand in hand with his increasingly ambitious and aggressive foreign policies in the region. The implementation of Bin Salman’s domestic changes was always going to face opposition within the kingdom, but his foreign policy decisions have been raising eyebrows at home even more. If there is to be a ramping up of his push back against Iranian expansionism, then removing opposition at home was always going to be an important first step for him, seeing as policies like Saudi involvement in the Yemen war have already been gaining criticism.
That ramping up of foreign engagement has also drawn in Lebanon with the resignation announcement of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Significantly, his televised speech was broadcast not from Beirut on Saturday, but from the Saudi capital Riyadh. Furthermore, Hariri’s decision to step down astonished people on all sides of Lebanon’s political landscape. Even his closest supporters and advisors were caught unaware. His stiff and uncomfortable looking demeanor in the resignation video broadcast to the nation has been jokingly compared to a hostage plea and even spawned a satirical online campaign called “Free Hariri.”
The extremely fragile power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon meant the government was rarely able to achieve much of substance, and Hariri was beholden to Hezbollah lawmakers, watching helplessly as Hezbollah entrenched itself within various elements of the Lebanese State. However, it was not expected at all that he would quit, and few in Beirut believe this was anything other than a direct order from Bin Salman. With Saudi Arabia as Hariri’s largest backer, he was in little position to refuse.
What does Hariri’s resignation mean for Lebanon’s immediate future?
For now, it has created a political crisis that will likely involve much fallout and finger-pointing over the collapse of government, leaving people especially irritated. After all, it took many months of painful negotiation before all sides accepted Hariri as prime minister in the first place.
The current administration will remain in place but go back to being a caretaker one, with severely diminished authority to carry out many functions. It effectively suspends the government, and in doing so, will almost definitely prevent the long-awaited parliamentary elections for next year. Yet again, Lebanon’s political system grinds to a halt.
There is also a high possibility of some unrest and protests in the street, with clashes between pro-Hezbollah elements and Hariri supporters.
What is motivating Saudi Arabia and what might it do next?
Saudi Arabia had seemingly given up on attempting to curb Iran and Hezbollah’s growing influence in Lebanon under the previous King Abdullah. This is a course of action Bin Salman is determined to reverse. The timing of this announcement is significant. Deir el-Zour and the final remaining ISIS strongholds in Syria are beginning to fall to Assad forces, allied with Hezbollah and Iran. That could essentially pave the way to the creation of road access from Tehran to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea, further empowering both Iran and its vassal, Hezbollah. Bin Salman will likely do everything he can to prevent this, and Hariri’s resignation was just the first move.
However, through these actions, it is highly possible Bin Salman is starting to create the environment for a war between Hezbollah and Israel. Hariri’s resignation appears to be an argument from Saudi Arabia that Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanese politics is already a fait accompli, and thus Hariri had no option but to leave. A similar argument has been put forward by Israel.
How is Hezbollah responding?
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech last night calling for calm and patience. For the firebrand cleric, it was an uncharacteristic attempt to de-escalate the situation. We have been hearing saber-rattling from Hezbollah for several years now, but it was always received with some skepticism as many believed the group would do anything to avoid fighting a war at home while so heavily invested in the fighting in Syria. Paradoxically, now that we are hearing a call for calm, it’s fair to say that the possibility of war may be much more a reality. Nasrallah railed at Saudi Arabia but declined to mention Israel.
How does Israel factor into all of this?
The possibility of a war between Israel and Hezbollah has seemed more like an inevitability in recent years. For the Israelis, Iranian expansion and unfettered access from Tehran to the Mediterranean is an existential threat. At the same time, Iranian-supplied long–range missiles would make a war with Hezbollah deadly for the Israelis, with civilian lives more at risk than in any war before. Israel most certainly does not want a war with Hezbollah, but the longer it waits, the stronger Hezbollah grows. Israel’s Army Chief and Defense Minister have both now said that Hezbollah’s hegemony over governmental functions across Lebanon have blurred the line between the militants and the Lebanese Government. A pro-Hezbollah President (Michel Aoun) has made the point for them, as has what the Israelis have viewed as military coordination between Hezbollah units and the Lebanese Army this summer when fighting ISIS on the Syrian border.
Israel has tried to reduce Hezbollah’s expansion of military power with careful airstrikes against Hezbollah targets inside Syria, hitting its leadership and missile shipments headed toward Lebanon or the Golan heights. Israel’s stance on all-out war with Hezbollah will depend on what guarantees of support the Trump administration has or will make. Israel would probably prefer U.S. military support of some kind (air, intelligence. etc.) if it comes under attack by Hezbollah’s rockets. Nasrallah has threatened to hit civilian targets in Israel as well as nuclear facilities.