Days ago, Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah spoke to his fellow countrymen and encouraged people to support Lebanon’s constitutional mechanisms to resolve the crisis of the coalition government losing its Prime Minister Saad Hariri to a forced Saudi authored “resignation”.
There remains the possibility that the current government can remain in place with a new Prime Minister, including Fouad Siniora, a former Lebanese PM from deposed Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. Siniora has apparently been in talks with President Michel Aoun about such matters.
The official position from Beirut is that Hariri must come to Lebanon in order to make a formal resignation, with members of all major parties openly questioning whether Hariri is being held captive in Saudi Arabia.
While Saudi Arabia has stated that Lebanon has “declared war”, this hyperbolic and frankly nonsensical provocation is not being taken on board by the US State Department or the EU.
A US State Department spokeswoman has said,
“The United States strongly supports the legitimate institutions in the Lebanese state. We expect all members of the international community to respect fully those institutions and the sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon”.
These remarks were echoed by a statement from the joint ambassadors of the EU who expressed “their strong support for the continued unity, stability, sovereignty, and security of Lebanon and its people”.
The EU Ambassadors also called “on all sides to pursue constructive dialogue and to build on the work achieved in the last 11 months towards strengthening Lebanon’s institutions and preparing parliamentary elections in early 2018, in adherence with the Constitution”.
This is indicative of an EU and US that seek the following
1. Stability for western businesses in Lebanon
Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, western investment has been steadily flowing back into Lebanon. France in particular has been keen to demonstrate its willingness to do business with its former mandate.
With this in mind, the EU and US seem to realise that a new civil war in Lebanon would be bad for business and they are not willing to take such a risk.
2. If there was a civil war, Hezbollah and its allies, including many Christian parties would win
Hezbollah only officially came into being during the final phases of the Lebanese Civil War. Since then, it has consolidated a powerful base among Lebanese Shi’as, but has also come to be seen as an implicit part of Lebanese political civil society as well as an implicit component of Lebanon’s defence infrastructure. Whether protecting Lebanon against Israeli aggression or al-Qaeda and ISIS attacks, many Lebanese including many Sunnis, have come to accept that Hezbollah plays a vital role in Lebanon’s once fragile security apparatus.
Because of this, in the event of a Civil War, Hezbollah, which represents the most efficiently armed and trained faction in the country and one that is in many ways a more disciplined and effective fighting force than the Lebanese Army, would easily win any conflict.
Only a fool would think otherwise, and the EU and US are ultimately not altogether as foolish as they often sound.
A very Saudi affair
From the beginning, I’ve stated that the Hariri forced resignation had far more to do with Hariri’s relationship to Riyadh than his position in Beirut. The combination of MBS’ faction in Saudi seeing Hariri as ineffective as a ‘puppet’ combined more importantly with the Hariri family’s association with enemies of the MBS, including a purged and slain Saudi prince, was the real reason for the fact that Saudi said “Hariri must go”. Much of this was later postulated by Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and thus far, his analysis is among the most objectively vindicated of any major political figure.
The latest statements from the US and EU also serve to bolster geo-political expert Andrew Korybko’s thesis that it is extremely likely that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s provocative language towards Yemen’s Houthis, Iran and Hezbollah is at this point, more bark than bite.
When one considers that ever major concerted Saudi attempt at actually destabilising the region, including and especially the conflict in Syria, has been coordinated in tandem with Saudi’s western allies, one realises that Saudi Arabia’s actual geo-political might is limited merely to bribes and intimidation, when not coordinated with any military power, including Israel which as myself, Korbyko and Nasrallsh acknowledge, is taking more of a passive vulture like role in respect of Lebanon and by extrapolation Iran, than one that is coordinating or dictating Saudi’s moves. In this case, Saudi’s aggressive language, like the Hariri ‘resignation’ speech is being authored by close allies of Muhammad bin Salman in Riyadh.
While Saudi does indeed hope to goad Hezbollah, Iran and Yemen’s Houthis into a further conflict, Iran and Hezbollah are not taking the bait. Houthis, which represent the weakest faction by far in Saudi’s ‘hated triumvirate’, are seemingly taking advantage of Saudi’s weakened position. This however is a sign of increased Houthi confidence in the face of increased Saudi bravado. If anything, the Houthis are aiming to show a fragmented Saudi regime that they can take Houthi lives, but that they cannot take their freedom. This is something that Saudi Arabia will have to acknowledge the easy way or the hard way–possibly with the help of the prodigal Qatari regime which is now well placed to be a peace broker between Sana’a and Riyadh.
Trump Tweet déjà vu
Yesterday, Donald Trump Tweeted his support for the purges of Muhammad bin Salman, a move which many thought confirmed an official US position in support of everything the Saudi regime is saying and doing.
I remain more convinced than ever that this is not the case.
First of all, the US State Department’s statement in favour of calm and legal stability in Lebanon goes against the Saudi narrative that Lebanon has somehow descended into a lawless Iranian military base. The US in saying that Lebanon’s sovereignty should be respected, clearly goes against the Saudi line that Lebanon has essentially forfeited its sovereignty to the ‘vast Shi’a conspiracy’ which exists only in the minds of Israeli and Saudi propagandists.
All the while, the US State Department has said precious little to either condemn or endorse the domestic Saudi purges.
Secondly, there is something of a resemblance to the apparent schism between official State Department policy and Trump’s Tweets in respect of the Saudi/Lebanon crisis and something similar which happened when Saudi and its allies broke off relations with Qatar. At that time, Rex Tillerson, like every other diplomat outside of the Middle East (with the exception of tiny Maldives), declared Washington’s neutrality in the dispute. This of course came after Donald Trump Tweeted his support for Riyadh.
Donald Trump clearly has good relations with Muhammad bin Salman, especially compared to many of the older princes who expressed shock at Trump’s style.That being said, Muhammad bin Salman also has very good relations with the leadership in Moscow and Beijing who are about as far from Trump’s brash style as one can get.
Muhammad bin Salman is a rogue with little political experience who is draining his own alleged swamp, so it is natural that Trump and Muhammad bin Salman should have some affinity for one another. Whether this will translate to a change in US policy which his tended to favour the more middle of the road Muhammad bin Nayef is far from certain.
I personally postulate that in some ways, the trilateral relationship between Muhammad bin Salman, Trump and the Washington deep state will evolve to be similar to that which exists between Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Trump and the Washington deep state.
Duterte is a radical reformer who in one short year has radically realigned Philippines’ foreign geo-strategic partnerships. Russia is now partnering with Manila on security issues and China has hailed a “golden period” in bilateral relations with Philippines. Duterte essentially conceded Chinese claims over the South China Sea and in return, China is pumping in investment and a shot of good will into the Philippine economy.
Duterte is loathed by the deep state for his foreign policy realignment and his war on drugs, while Donald Trump has spoken positively about the drug war in Philippines. Likewise, while Duterte loathed the technocratic Obama (he once called Obama the “son of a whore”), Duterte has expressed his personal admiration for the more colloquial and seemingly straight talking Donald Trump. However, Duterte has said that there is no going back to the old “colonial mentality” with the US, irrespective of his personal good will towards Trump.
In many ways, one could imagine Muhammad bin Salman, assuming he outlives his many blood thirsty rivals, having a similar geo-political position as Duterte vis-a-vis the other superpowers. This is to say, someone who will maintain substantial contacts with the US, in spite of mutual suspicion, but someone who also increasingly charts his own course internationally, especially where Russia and China are concerned.
That being said, my personal feelings towards Muhammad bin Salman are low. I see him as an opportunist looking to enrich himself with partners who make logical sense to a country looking to ween itself off oil dependency. By contrast, I see Duterte as a genuine patriot, a humble man, a good soul and a deeply sincere public servant.
While Lebanon’s situation is still perilous, the situation in Saudi Arabia is much more perilous, in spite of the fact that many still refuse to see Lebanon as a maturing post-civil war power while seeing Saudi Arabia as a rock of stagnant stability. Against this backdrop, it is important to see that the Hariri ‘resignation’ was merely the first of many Saudi purges. Hariri is after all a Saudi citizen and he was purged as such.
The United States is famous of engaging in dangerous foreign policy manoeuvres to hide domestic scandals. The illegal bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 got Bill Clinton’s concubine Lewinsky out of the headlines and the war on Iraq was used to silence those questioning the official narrative on 9/11.
In the case of Lebanon and Saudi however, it is a matter of using a foreign policy manoeuvre as a ploy in a game that is mostly domestic in nature. If Muhammad bin Salman was doing anything else, he would be signing his own death warrant as Hezbollah is the strongest faction in Lebanon and Iran is not only the strongest power in the Persian Gulf, but along with its new partner Turkey, the most formidable military power in the Middle East.