Lebanon’s Big Crisis, and What Saudi Arabia could Lose

By Billie Jeanne Brownlee and Maziyar Ghiabi | (The Conversation) | – –

The Twitter account of Lebanon’s prime minister, Sa’ad Hariri has been inactive since November 6, just after he announced his resignation in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh. Hariri justified his decision as a move to escape an assassination plot. So far, both Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces and Ministry of the Interior have declared that they were not aware of any such attempt.

Rumours continue, however, that Hariri’s absence was not voluntary but instead imposed by the Saudi government, in particular Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Riyadh’s newly empowered strongman. Despite Hariri’s protests to the contrary, the theory that this was a Saudi intervention is certainly plausible.

As some onlookers pointed out, Hariri’s speech used expressions and terms that are typical of Saudi public rhetoric against Iran. He explicitly accused Iran of interfering in Lebanon’s domestic affairs and in disrupting Arab politics, and referred to Hezbollah, the militarised Lebanese Shia movement, as an Iranian proxy force – even though he became prime minister partly thanks to Hezbollah’s tactical support. Lebanon’s president, the Christian Maronite Michel Aoun, even called on Saudi authorities to immediately “release” Hariri.

Feeling the heat

Relevant to all this is that the Saudi government is under serious internal and external pressure. The day before Hariri resigned, the Shia-led Yemeni rebel government fired a long-range missile aimed at the International Airport of Riyadh. And two days later, Crown Prince Mohammad ordered the arrest of dozens of leading Saudi political and business personalities, in what he termed a campaign against corruption. In practice, this seems a strategy to give way to his uncontested leadership in the country.

This clampdown on Saudi Arabia’s opposition and civil society groups started a few months ago, and the wealthy businessmen now under arrest are just the tip of the iceberg. The rich princes’ fate is, it seems, not too grim: they reside in the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in the capital. Opposition members, meanwhile, are held in prison.

The Saudis’ moves are pushing the Middle East ever closer to the outbreak of a major international conflict at an already tumultuous time. While the so-called Islamic State has lost almost all its territory in Syria and Iraq, the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa by Iraqi and Syrian forces – backed by a pluralistic coalition of Russian, Iranian, Kurdish, and popular resistance groups – has shifted the regional balance of power.

From a Saudi viewpoint, the new geopolitical calculus strengthens Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his erstwhile allies Iran and Hezbollah. Riyadh, which for many years supported insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq, could soon be left behind.

Tipping the balance

At the root of it all is the deadly, long-running rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has its roots not in the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Islam, but in the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Since then, the two countries have confronted each other multiple times, but never directly; Lebanon has been one of their main proxy battlegrounds.

After the events of 1979, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards helped to establish a local resistance movement against the Israeli Occupation of Lebanese territory. This became Hezbollah, which today is a powerful political and military force, boasting elected MPs and government positions. Thanks to Hezbollah, Iran’s regional influence surged, making the group a primary target for the Saudis, and by extension Israel and the US.

Just as the Saudi authorities’ hysterical invective against Iran in recent weeks has dramatic implications for the Middle East at large, Hariri’s resignation is a crisis in itself. The collapse of the Lebanese government, the fourth since 2005, could undo critical progress towards political reform and stability. Lebanon faces a massive humanitarian crisis; it’s now host to well over 1m Syrian refugees, who make up around a quarter of the total population. It also relies heavily on remittances from Persian Gulf countries.

The ConversationAdded to that, Saudi Arabia’s strange Lebanese ventures might pave the way for a more overt intervention by Israel, which last took action there in July 2006. That war left Lebanon, especially the southern region, in total infrastructural disarray. A reprise would do little good for Saudi interests; after the kingdom’s recent debacles in Yemen and Qatar, the last thing it needs is a conflict that would galvanise support for Hezbollah – and by extension, further embolden a resurgent Iran.

Billie Jeanne Brownlee, ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Exeter and Maziyar Ghiabi, Postdoctoral fellow at the Paris School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

CGTN: “Middle East tensions: Hariri to return to Lebanon soon”

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10 Responses

  1. It is very likely that most Israeli MILITARY leadership is against any invasion of Lebanon because, as the IDF has publicly noted, there are over 50000 missiles pointed at Israel.

    If Israel starts a war with Lebanon, most of northern Israel would become a rubble heap. And Israeli ground troops would not fair very well either as Hezbollah is very battle-hardened with very good leadership with lots of depth (the death of a single leader would not stop the resistance).

    Israel has less than 1000 anti-missile missiles, so after they are all expended, Israel is a sitting duck for the tens of thousands of missiles that would follow (Yes, anti-missile technology is a complete failure).

    In the long term, the Saudis and Israel are setting up their demise.

    • The estimates of the number of military-grade missiles possessed by Hezbollah currently is as high as 100,000.

      Israel’s military experts opine that the number of Israelis who might become fatalities in a war with Hezbollah under current conditions could be in double or even triple digits daily.

      Hezbollah only had 12,000 rockets in its inventory during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 when 165 Israelis died – 112 of them members of the Israel Defense Forces.

      Furthermore, Hezbollah now has an extensive inventory of guided long-range surface-to-surface missiles that it did not have in 2006.

      A guided Waad surface-to-air missile fired by Hezbollah at an IDF transport helicopter on 2006 destroyed it an killed the entire crew. A surface-to-sea Chinese Silkworm missile with a radar guidance system fired from the Beirut-area Mediterranean coastline disabled the Israeli navy warship Herat in that war, while killing five sailors aboard that ship.

      • The 100000 missile amount came out in budget negotiations in the Israeli legislature, so since all military leaders tend to hype the threats when asking for money, I discounted the amount by 50%.

        Either amount is more than enough to make most of northern Israel into one big rubble heap. This would destroy the Israeli economy since a majority of the population and industry is within range of the missiles.

        You are correct that the missile technology has gotten MUCH, MUCH better since the early 2000s. This is because the basic weapons technology has gotten BOTH better and cheaper. In some cases, a country (other than the gold plating ones like USA and Israel) can get three very accurate missiles now versus one less accurate missile at the start of the 2000s.

        Most analysts, especially USA based ones, can not seem to understand that a computer with a quad-core, 64-bit, 1 GHz CPU, a decent GPU, 1 GB of memory and up to 32 GB of storage, running FREE Linux OS, costs LESS than US$ 50. Couple that with Open Street View’s very accurate FREE maps and a “hacked” GPS chip (the USA restrictions on altitude and speed have been removed) and a very nice guidance system can easily be built for less than US$ 100. The rest is just basic rocket science and chemistry that is well understood by now.

  2. “After the events of 1979, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards helped to establish a local resistance movement against the Israeli Occupation of Lebanese territory”

    Yes Khomeini established Hezbollah. The reason was that Amal was too nationalist and independent for Khomeini (Amal was more resistance to Khomeini’s blasphemous claim of Vilayat-e Faqih . . . or to be the first perfect human since 874 AD, with full control over the temporal and spiritual affairs of all humans.) Khomeini wanted a pliable client force that he controlled in Lebanon to advance Khomeini’s interests; whatever they happened to be. [Initially Khomeini did not order Hezbollah to attack Israel.] Khomeini simultaneously also supported Amal.

    From 1979 to 1982, Khomeini secretly allied with Israel. If not for Israeli intervention, Saddam Hussein would have defeated Iran 1980, 1981 and 1982.

    Israel initially intervened in Lebanon in 1982 in part to help Israel’s Shiite Lebanese allies and Phalangist Christian allies against the PLO in Lebanon’s ongoing civil war. Later Israel had a falling out with her Shiite Lebanese allies. Khomeini stabbed Israel in the back by ordering Hezbollah to attack Israel . . . at a time when Israel regarded Khomeini, Iran and Hezbollah to be secret Israeli allies.

    Israel was deeply hurt by Khomeini and Iran’s betrayal and that sense of betrayal and hurt continues to dominate Israeli thought and policy to this day.

    Khomeini used Hezbollah to mass murder Lebanese Shia (including the nationalist patriotic Amal militia) in 1988 and for a series of other nefarious activities.

    If Khomeini or Khamenei ever really wanted to help Lebanon, they would have disarmed Hezbollah and flowed a large scale FID effort directly into to the LAF.

    “And Israeli ground troops would not fair very well either as Hezbollah is very battle-hardened with very good leadership with lots of depth (the death of a single leader would not stop the resistance).” Hezbollah has suffered heavy losses in Syria. Plus many Hezbollah forces remain deployed in Syria. Withdrawing them from Syria now would breath new life into ISIS and Al Qaeda. Hezbollah would not find fighting the IDF easy in another war. The IDF also has a very deep bench of officers and NCOs.

    A war between the IDF and Hezbollah would turn the rest of Lebanon against Hezbollah. I don’t think Nasrallah wants that.

    For that matter, why would Israel want to invade Lebanon right now? What possible Israeli interest is advanced?

    • It’s not just that simplistic of what was a very messy civil war with changing alliances and splits. It also seems to side-step what this ‘falling out’ was. The many casualties and displacement by Israel, including of the Shiite populations that lead to the splits, like Hezbollah from Amal (Amal who were initially fighting Paelstinian PLO, some with Israel’s support), and the turn in the aftermath of Israeli support of groups like the marauding Phalangists and subsequent invasion of South Lebanon, that made the surviving residents fear that they were going to be the new Palestinians. Israel miscalculated and probably should not have banked on the ideologues in Iran.

      • Saf, I blame Israeli mistakes in part for the falling out between Israel and Israel’s former Lebanese Shia allies. We are agreed on this.

        You are also right that Israel is responsible for Israel’s own actions and mistakes; including the consequences of Israel supporting Khomeini 1980-1982 and supporting Amal in Lebanon 1980-1982.

        Amal also bears some blame in the 1988 war between Amal and Hezbollah (although I think Hezbollah deserves more of the blame).

        I still believe that Amal and Hezbollah would have stayed as one fused joint organization if not for Khomeini . . . which has greatly hurt the Lebanese people.

        Saf, you have made many very intelligent comments on this blog in response to many articles and you no doubt know Lebanon a lot better than I do; so please correct me if I am wrong. My understanding is that most of Hezbollah’s initial support 1979-1982 came because of deep wide spread sectarian bigotry by Lebanese against Shia Lebanese. The Shia in Lebanon understandably felt they needed powerful militias to protect Lebanese Shia. I think that this reason better explains Hezbollah’s legitimacy (while not popular, Hezbollah has a certain degree of legitimacy and respect from fellow Lebanese) in Lebanon than Israel.

        “Most analysts, especially USA based ones, can not seem to understand that a computer with a quad-core, 64-bit, 1 GHz CPU, a decent GPU, 1 GB of memory and up to 32 GB of storage, running FREE Linux OS, costs LESS than US$ 50. Couple that with Open Street View’s very accurate FREE maps and a “hacked” GPS chip (the USA restrictions on altitude and speed have been removed) and a very nice guidance system can easily be built for less than US$ 100. The rest is just basic rocket science and chemistry that is well understood by now.” Couldn’t agree more.

        • Iraqi Da’wa was probably as or more important in formation of Hizbullah as Iran. It was the Israeli occupation from 1982 that radicalized Lebanese Shiites, and Hizbullah was more effective in defending the South.

        • Sorry, I should be clear. I’m no expert on Lebanon, I just have casual knowledge on some Shiite history there. I just think you didn’t factor the effect of the Israeli invasion.

          The Professor made the concise accurate point and obviously the historic authority here. (I didn’t realize there was Iraqi influence on Hezbollah. Always assumed it stayed with Amal).

          Amal was that group for Shias against other sectarian Lebanese groups initially. Israel was invested in the civil war, but that latest invasion was the turning point in Hezbollah’s rise.

          Shiites were disenfranchised, Israelis correctly noted. They claimed they were welcomed by the Shiites (I doubt this for all factions), but the nature of military occupation, militias and war, with bloodshed and displacement, that mood would change and meant more conflict. Hope this helps.

  3. Agree with Prof Cole on the close connection between Iraqi Da’wa and Hezbollah. Did Iraqi Da’wa also have close connections to Amal 1979-1982? I don’t know.

    Iraqi Da’wa and other Iraqi Shia factions ( including the predecessor of what is now called Badr/ISCI/SCIRI); and the Peshmerga began an uprising in Iraq in 1979. And they welcomed Lebanese Shia help. Hezbollah appears to have been more willing to do this than Amal. Is this why Iraqi Da’wa supported Hezbollah? I am not completely sure.

    In any case, didn’t Khomeini pay most of Hezbollah’s bills 1979-1980s? And most of Iraqi Da’wa and other Iraqi Shia militas? And much of the Peshmerga budget?

    I know that Hezbollah claims they did a better job defending Lebanese Shia from other Lebanese and Israelis than Amal’s militia. But wouldn’t a fused combined Hezbollah/Amal militia have been far more effective still? I think the Lebanese Shia greatly lost from the split. I think the Lebanese people as a whole lost from the split. [Although some other Lebanese factions might have thought that a Shia fitna was to their advantage; they were wrong.]

    I would make the case that the Israelis would have left southern Lebanon in 1983 if not for the perceived Hezbollah threat. Israel achieved her strategic aims in 1982 by defeating the Syrian military; and by helping Lebanese Christians and Amal drive the PLO out of Lebanon.

    I am also deeply disappointed that Hezbollah alone has refused to disarm in Lebanon. Hezbollah equipment should be donated to the LAF and individual Hezbollah soldiers should join the LAF. Evan Aoun quietly favors this. Amal and other non Hezbollah Lebanese Shia favor this. Only Hezbollah does not. Hezbollah insists on a state within a state.

    • There was no Hizbullah proper before ’84 or so, but several smaller radical groups, especially Islamic Amal of Abbas Mousawi. The radicals were mainly cultivated by Iraqi Da’wa, though Iran played a growing role over time. See Richard Norton’s work.

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