Missing the Forest for the Cedars: How the Saudi-Iranian Proxy War is Affecting Lebanon

Matthew Petti, JHU:

Even for a region as complex as the Middle East, Lebanese politics are notoriously hard to understand. Lebanon is a “confessional” republic where positions are allotted to and political parties are affiliated with religious sects. Consequently, it is sometimes difficult to follow the various factions and alliances of the country’s multiparty system. Although the complexity of this system can make it easy to “miss the forest for the trees,” Lebanon’s politics are intimately linked to regional developments. The gridlock in the Lebanese parliament’s attempts to nominate a new president is connected to the Syrian Civil War and Iranian-Saudi confrontation. Likewise, the breakdown in relations between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon is the result of factional disputes within Parliament.

Since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Lebanese politics have been split between two coalitions. Syrian troops had been present in Lebanon since the 1975 civil war, and Hariri’s assassination set off the “Cedar Revolution” that expelled those troops. Party lines were based on stances towards the Syrian intervention. The March 14 Alliance, formed in opposition to Syrian influence, is dominated by the Sunni “Future Movement” and the Maronite Catholic “Lebanese Forces.” The March 8 Alliance, which believes that Syrian influence is necessary to keep the peace, is dominated by the Maronite Catholic “Free Patriotic Movement” and the Shi’a parties Amal and Hezbollah. Since the end of Michel Suleiman’s presidency in May 2014, the two blocs have been unable to choose a new president. The parliamentary gridlock has paralyzed the country’s institutions, to the extent that the government could not even clean up the piles of trash accumulating on the streets of Beirut, sparking mass protests.

It is clear that both major blocs blame outside parties for the gridlock. In an interview with al-Monitor, Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi said “Lebanon is a small country surrounded by greater powers. We wish for a decision [regarding the institutional stalemate] to be fully Lebanese, but that is not the reality.” Everyone blames a different “greater power” for their woes. Rifi expressed his displeasure with Iranian policy; meanwhile, Secretary-General Ḥassan Naṣrallah of Hezbollah accused Saudi policy of leading to “strife in Lebanon, [to] the collapse of the government in Lebanon.” After five years of civil war in Syria, however, the weakened Assad government no longer has the same polarizing effect on Lebanese politics as it did in 2005. Instead, the influence of Syria is seen through the lens of a broader Iranian-Saudi proxy conflict across the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has felt itself to be in a defensive posture in its various proxy conflicts over the past year or so. With serious gains made by the Russo-Iranian alliance in Syria, the slow and expensive failure of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, a serious proposal for an arms embargo by the European Union, and recent protests in the Shi’a regions of Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and its allies have every reason to feel their influence waning. Meanwhile, Iran and its allies have become quite popular in Lebanon. As analyst Ali Hashem writes, the current selection of presidential candidates is “like choosing between sweet and sweeter” for the March 14 Alliance. Two recent developments may have been the last straw for the Saudis. At a meeting of the Arab League on January 10, Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil refused to condemn the destruction of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by protesters. Additionally, Samir Geagea endorsed Michel Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement candidate for president who is favored by Hezbollah. Geagea is the leader of Lebanese Forces, and was formerly seen as a Saudi ally.

Since Samir’s endorsement in February, Saudi Arabia seems to have been engaged in a campaign to remove the influence of Iran and its allies from Lebanon. On February 19, Saudi Arabia canceled a $3 billion aid package to the Lebanese Army, hoping to send a message to the Lebanese government. On February 23, the Saudi government issued a travel advisory for Lebanon, with several other Arab monarchies following suit. The kingdom also launched a series of measures targeted at Lebanese business abroad, revoking residency permits for 1,000 Shi’a and Christian citizens of Lebanon, and forcing several businesses to “liquidate” their operations. The Saudi ambassador was quoted in as-Safir demanding that the Lebanese government take action against “a particular government party.” On March 2, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of Arab monarchies allied with Saudi Arabia, named that party when it listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Saudi Arabia hopes that its punitive actions will force Lebanese power brokers to listen to its demands, or that the damage done to the Lebanese economy will at least primarily harm Hezbollah. However, Saudi actions towards Lebanon may backfire against the kingdom. After the Gulf Cooperation Council announcement, several Arab leaders denounced the designation. Iraq, Algeria and Tunisia distanced themselves from the announcement, as did the Popular Current in Egypt and Nahda Party in Tunisia. Even Saudi Arabia’s allies seem displeased with its current course of action. After meeting with American officials, Michel Aoun indicated that they saw the revocation of $3 billion in military aid as damaging to both US economic interests and the war against ISIS. Finally, Saudi Arabia may have provoked backlash within Lebanon. The self-described “anti-imperialist” newspaper al-Akhbar, along with some Western analysts, speculated that weapons smugglers captured in the Aegean Sea were part of a Saudi conspiracy to “explode” Lebanon. Whether this is true or not, Saudi Arabia’s overt attempts to influence Lebanese politics have emboldened anti-Saudi voices in Lebanon, and made it harder to support Saudi allies in the county.

Fortunately, Lebanon has not yet “exploded.” Both the parliamentary impasse and the Saudi frustration have been expressed peacefully so far. However, these tensions could easily become violent, as the capture of the weapons smugglers demonstrates. Sectarian tensions are high across the Middle East, and with its proximity to Syria and its history of civil war, Lebanon is particularly vulnerable. Sadly, when foreign powers view politics as a zero-sum game, they may prefer destabilization to compromise.

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