Analysis

Israel and U.S. Set Eyes on Lebanon as Iran-Saudi Proxy Clash Heats Up

Israel pivots from Syria to Lebanon as Hezbollah amasses political power ■ Iran finds way to bypass U.S. sanctions and retain presence in region

A photo tweeted by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on April 9, 2018, shows Hariri taking a selfie with French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Paris.
Saad Hariri,AP

An anonymous op-ed published by the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese newspaper "Ad-Diyar" at the end of October blasted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman:

"You, Mohammed bin Salman, you pig, you kill innocent children in Yemen. The Arab nation will avenge your entire term. You, Mohammed bin Salman, you pig, you invited a journalist to murder him and you call yourself a man, no – you're a pig, there's no sign of manliness about you. We don't want your representative here; the acting ambassador should get out, because we don't want a representative of the devil in Beirut."

The article was roundly criticized by almost all of Lebanon's political factions and was slapped with a criminal lawsuit at the demand of Lebanese Justice Minister Salim Jreissati. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's response was also in keeping with the required public stance. "The essay does not represent the Lebanese people's or media's morality in any way. This is a failing attempt to bash the relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and a blatant violation of the laws preserving the freedom of the press," Hariri said.

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He omitted the adjective "excellent" from the term "relations" and refrained from praising the work of the acting Saudi ambassador or defending the Saudi crown prince. Perhaps Hariri understands that exactly one year ago, he was in a similar situation to the one Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi found himself in. The butcher's knife may not have been brandished against Hariri, but he was in house arrest for days in a villa adjacent to Riyadh's Ritz Carlton Hotel, where several dozens of Saudi millionaires and billionaires were incarcerated at Crown Prince Mohammed's orders.

Hariri was forced to broadcast a statement that he was resigning from the prime minister's post. In addition, he was humiliated by being forced to join a tour the crown prince held in a few Gulf states to prove the Lebanese leader wasn't being held captive. In contrast to Crown Prince Mohammed's promise to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi that Hariri would be free to return to Beirut after visiting Egypt, the Lebanese prime minister was forced to land in Cyprus before touching down in Beirut. The crown prince's reckless attempt to affect a coup in Lebanon and appoint Hariri's elder brother to the post of prime minister failed because the Hariri family made it clear that it was united in supporting Saad Hariri, despite their close ties to the Saudi royal family.

Mohammed's conduct in that affair should have made it clear to the United States, which was involved in releasing Hariri from house arrest, that the Saudi crown prince is a ticking time bomb.

But the Trump administration, gripped by anti-Iranian obsession, saw the Saudi move as a plausible way to strike at Iran's influence in Lebanon by removing a prime minister who preserved a certain political stability by maintaining a dialogue with Hezbollah. The failed Saudi coup attempt worsened Hariri's status in May's parliamentary election, in which he lost about a third of the seats to his rivals, including Hezbollah. Since the election, Hariri has in vain tried to set up a cabinet. It has transpired that Hezbollah will not only be a major partner in the cabinet, it could also hold the power to block any decision it doesn't like.

According to Lebanon's constitution, any cardinal decision like approving the budget or going to war requires the support of two thirds of the 30-strong cabinet members. So if one movement or coalition of movements has a third plus one minister it can foil any decision – which is exactly what Hezbollah wants. It is also acting to appoint one more minister from among the independent Sunni elected officials who support the organization, which would expand its power to four ministers. Together with the ministers that Lebanese President Michel Aoun is permitted to appoint, Hezbollah will ensure the required third plus one.

Hariri made it clear to Aoun that Hezbollah's appointment of another Sunni minister spells his political suicide and that he wouldn't agree to it under any circumstances. Such an appointment will also come at the expense of the ministers allotted to Hariri's al-Mustaqbal list.

While Aoun supports Hariri's position, he's proved in the past that he can switch his loyalty. After all, after fighting as general against the Syrian occupation and getting exiled to Paris for 15 years, Aoun returned to Beirut only to become Syria's ally and Hezbollah's Christian political partner.

Another difficulty is Hezbollah's demand for the Health Ministry, which could set Lebanon on a collision course with international institutions that refuse to cooperate with a ministry headed by a Hezbollah official, especially following the American sanctions on Hezbollah and Iran.

But Hezbollah is showing no signs of giving in. Increasing its political power in Lebanon is now much more vital to preserve Iran's power in the country, ensuring Lebanon's continued cooperation with Syria and blocking the American influence in Lebanon. The Lebanese leadership's official version is that the country won't be affected by the sanctions on Iran because of the meagre trade scope between the states. Lebanon's banking system is also complying with the sanctions imposed both on Iran and on Hezbollah.

The organization has stated that it doesn't use the Lebanese banks at all and according to Western reports, it acts through straw companies and businesspeople, who pass on the money for its use.

The American administration reported this week that Iran gives Hezbollah some $700 million a year in funds, weapons and ammunition, but in Lebanon the amount is estimated at less than half of that. Hezbollah, which pays salaries to 70,000 employees – including combatants, maintenance workers, officials and activists in welfare institutions – is an important economic force in Lebanon. The money it gets from Iran also oils the wheels of the Lebanese economy. So if Iran is obliged to slash the assistance, it will have an effect on Lebanon's economic stability as well.

Meanwhile in the U.S., Congress is examining an option to freeze or revoke the military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, which reached $120 million last year. Congress members are demanding that U.S. President Donald Trump report not only on military cooperation with the Lebanese army but about implementing UN Resolution 1701, which was passed in 2006 as part of the end of the Second Lebanon War. Under the resolution, the Lebanese army must be deployed in South Lebanon and prevent Hezbollah from gaining control south of the Litani River. It must also help UN forces enforce the resolution, which includes disarming Hezbollah.

The Lebanese army was the first to fight with American special forces against the Islamic State's bases on the Lebanon-Syria border, but it also cooperated with Hezbollah for the same goal. As for disarming Hezbollah, nobody in Lebanon would even consider discussing the issue.

Israel has complained for over a decade that Hezbollah does not implement Resolution 1701 as it continues to arm itself and has obtained tens of thousands of missiles since the war. Israel has warned publicly that if Lebanon continues to allow Hezbollah to set up factories to improve its missiles' accuracy, Lebanon itself would become a target instead of Syria.

Perhaps Israel would prefer to focus on Lebanon following its partial severance with Russia after a Russian plane was shot down in Syria – and the subsequent fear that Russia will act more intensively in the war-torn country.

This is problematic though; despite Israel's attacks, it never received fire from Syria. Strikes on Lebanon, however, could reopen the northern front and increase Hezbollah and Iran's strength, in addition to the damage to lives and property.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah is expanding its presence in southern Syria. According to Lebanese and Western intelligence sources, the organization is trying to recruit militia fighters who received American and Israeli support. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that Hezbollah is offering every new recruit some $200 a month and could recruit as many as 2,000 fighters.

This move is intended to replace pro-Iranian militia fighters from Iran and Afghanistan, part of who have retreated to eastern Syria. One of the goals of the sanctions on Iran is to block its involvement in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. But the Iranian strategy, which is based on local forces like the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, will continue assisting the country to maintain a presence in these areas without being affected by the sanctions.