If the Middle East is a chessboard, here’s how the pieces line up in light of recent developments
For years, Lebanon, often a plaything for foreign powers, had largely avoided becoming a battleground for the region’s toxic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But a surprise resignation by Prime Minister Saad Hariri this month, seemingly at the behest of the Saudi government, has pushed the country into the center of that struggle for dominance, which risks plunging the region into open conflict — with Israel acting in conjunction with Saudi Arabia.
For the record:
7:40 PM, Nov. 19, 2017An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began an anti-corruption drive on Nov. 3, the same day Yemeni rebels launched a missile targeting the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The anti-corruption drive and the missile incident took place Nov. 4.
Here’s a glance at the some of the players involved and where they stand on the chessboard.
It was less than two months ago that Saudi Arabia captured headlines for finally allowing women to drive, for planning a futuristic desert city with more robots than people, and for lining up the historic initial public offering of a storied oil company.
But that was before Nov. 3, when the kingdom’s crown prince, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman (nicknamed MBS), began an anti-corruption drive that nabbed top-grade officials and even princes. That same day, the Houthis, Yemeni rebels who Saudi Arabia says are backed by Iran, launched a ballistic missile targeting the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
The latter event infuriated Saudi leaders, pushing them to escalate their battle for regional dominance against Iran, with whom they have sparred in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The Saudi government imposed even tighter restrictions on an already devastating blockade of Yemen and ordered Hariri to Riyadh, where, many believe at the behest of the Saudis, he resigned from office and pinned the blame on Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Lebanese Shiite political party and armed faction.
Neutralizing Hezbollah would certainly be a win for Saudi Arabia. The group became the vanguard of forces fighting for Syrian President Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria, and Riyadh is adamant in its assertion that it has a hand in Yemen and elsewhere.
Yet there is little Saudi Arabia can do to stop the group. Instead, Hezbollah is expected to target Lebanon’s economy, a threat repeatedly mentioned by Hariri in a recent televised interview.
Estimates put the number of Lebanese expatriates in Persian Gulf countries at about 500,000, most of them in Saudi Arabia; they send back some 60% of the $7 billion in remittances received in Lebanon every year.
The latest dispute with Saudi Arabia comes at a time when Iran can boast impressive achievements beyond its borders: The war in Syria, though not finished, is on the wane with Assad, who benefited from Iran’s help, still in power. Riyadh’s constant focus on Iran has it engaged in a deeply unpopular bombing campaign in Yemen, even though many say the Houthis are hardly the Iranian proxy Saudi Arabia makes them out to be. And Tehran enjoys unprecedented influence in Iraq, where it trains and supports a powerful grouping of irregular forces.
If Saudi Arabia does attack Hezbollah, Iran could leverage its influence to bring, as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech this year, “hundreds of thousands of fighters… from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Yet many in Iran would prefer to focus on the economy now. Low oil prices mean Tehran cannot so easily shrug off the effects of sanctions, which were relaxed but not eliminated as part of its nuclear accord. It is now poised to benefit from the reconstruction bonanza in Syria and Iraq — something that won’t happen if there’s a war in Lebanon.
Israeli military planners and leaders have long said that a rematch with Hezbollah was imminent. The group pummeled the Israeli army into a stalemate in 2006 (considered a relative victory, given the record of Arab-Israeli clashes), and though the Israeli-Lebanese border has been mostly calm since then, both sides have ramped up their defenses, not to mention their rhetoric, over the last few months.
And this time, the Israelis would have the cover of Saudi Arabia, the leading power of the Arab world.
Yet it would also have to contend with an enemy with far greater experience and more capabilities — and arms — than ever before, not to mention the breathing space to operate in neighboring Syria.
And although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never passed up an opportunity to warn about Iran, a war on his northern border may be a bit too close to home.
Though Hezbollah is technically a militia, it displays the discipline and organizational prowess that would put several regional armies to shame. And, thanks to the bare-knuckled trials by fire they endured in Syria, its cadres now have experience and the arms to go with it.
True, its involvement in Syria has robbed it of the standing it once enjoyed throughout the Arab world, but it still has plenty of supporters, especially in parts of Lebanon, where its ability to provide services often exceeds that of the government.
In any case, a bombing campaign aimed at Hezbollah would fail to dislodge it and would probably increase its popularity (or at least make the Saudis more unpopular, if Yemen is any measure). And though there is little doubt its ranks have thinned because of the war in Syria, Nasrallah insists the group would withstand a confrontation with Israel.
Even if all of Lebanon’s perpetually squabbling sects agreed to excise Hezbollah (virtually an impossibility), there is little they could do about it. That was a lesson many learned in 2008, when Hezbollah operatives ran street battles in the capital, Beirut, and quickly established the group as the biggest gun in town.
But the issue for the Lebanese is that the specter of conflict has arrived just as the country was rebounding from the economic effects of the war next door.
Even tourism, one of the hardest-hit sectors, was enjoying a resurgence. Fancy cars with Saudi, Kuwaiti and Emirati license plates were once again making an appearance on Beirut’s overcrowded thoroughfares.
Still, officials say the economy has already weathered greater challenges. They add that there is little fear of a currency run since most of the estimated $180 billion deposited in Lebanese banks was from residents.
In addition to the economic threat, Saudi Arabia’s maneuvers could carry a political cost: Politicians of all stripes (even those who came to prominence with support from Riyadh) have already expressed misgivings over the way Hariri is being treated.
And as for Hariri, it would be difficult to see how he could challenge Hezbollah on matters of outside interference after his resignation, which was widely seen as a performance whose script was written in Riyadh.
The government is too busy fighting its own battles against armed opposition rebels to be involved in a war next door. But the prospect of losing Hezbollah, a vital ally that led many of the Syrian army’s operations, may spur Damascus to intervene, or at the very least offer the logistical support of the Syrian army should Hezbollah be attacked.
Meanwhile, both Iran and Hezbollah have unprecedented influence in the country, granting them a perfect staging ground to strike across many parts of the region.
Bulos is a special correspondent.
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