Tillerson Warns 'Foreign Forces' Against Using Lebanon as Proxy for Mideast Conflict

'There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces,' Tillerson says as Hezbollah accuses Saudis of declaring war

File photo: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks  from the briefing room of the State Department in Washington, D.C. on August 1, 2017.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday warned other countries and groups against using Lebanon as vehicle for a larger proxy fight in the Middle East, saying the United States strongly backed Lebanon's independence. 

Tillerson said he recognized Saad Hariri as Lebanon's prime minister and called him a "strong partner of the United States." 

Hariri unexpectedly resigned his post at the weekend from the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh and accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world. 

His resignation thrust Lebanon into the front line of a regional competition between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran that has also buffeted Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. 

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said Friday Saudi Arabia has declared war on Lebanon and had forced Hariri to resign.

Tillerson's backing of Hariri and the Lebanese government contrasted sharply with the approach taken by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia which has lumped Lebanon with Hezbollah as parties hostile to it. 

"There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state," Tillerson said in a statement. 

Lebanese authorities have said Hariri is being held against his will in Saudi Arabia, a charge that Riyadh has denied. Tillerson earlier said there was no indication Hariri was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will but that Washington was monitoring the situation. 

Tillerson's statement said there was no legitimate role in Lebanon for any "foreign forces, militias or armed elements" - an apparent reference to Hezbollah and its regional backer, Iran. 

But Tillerson also cautioned against "any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country." 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres meanwhile said it's essential that peace is preserved in Lebanon, warning that a new conflict could have "devastating consequences" in the region.

Guterres said he has been telling the political leaders and diplomats that it is important to preserve Lebanon's unity and stability "and the functioning of the Lebanese institutions."

"We are indeed very worried," Guterres said, "and we hope that we won't see an escalation in the region that would have tragic consequences."