Contributed by Joe Montero
Saudi Arabia’s war of words over Lebanon keeps on building and Israel has jumped in supporting the Saudis. As each day passes, the war of words comes closer to being transformed into a war of weapons.
The tilt at Lebanon is largely as proxy for a growing hostility against Iran, which has arisen out of diverging positions in the politics of the Middle East. While Iran has taken a position that lays claim to the region’s independence from big power politics, the Saudis have decisively shifted in the opposite direction.
Nothing marks this more clearly than being decisive backers of the Syrian opposition ISIS and al Qaeda terror bands with money, guns and diplomacy. Then there is the systematic and brutal continuous bombing of Yemen that is on the brink of creating the biggest famine experienced anywhere in decades.
Intertwined with the stand off is the divide between Islam’s Shia and Sunni. Within the Sunni camp, there has lately emerged a camp that has become increasingly material dependent on the west and especially the United States and this is led by the absolutist Saudi royal family that sees itself as heading the Sunni world, and utilises this to push its own ambitions to be a regional power. That branch within the faith that has given rise to ISIS and al Qaeda is Saudi grown and Saudi maintained.
But after a short period of gains in the battlefield, the movement is experiencing major defeats. The most spectacular is in Syria. There has also been major loss in Iraq, including within the northern Kurdish region and a strengthening of the Shia position.
The attack on Yemen has been directed against the Shia Houthi forces, who happen to control most of the country. Saudi air strikes are backed by backed by pro al Qaeda and ISIS forces on the ground and the invasion has the support of the United States government.
Ongoing resistance from the Houthis has denied a quick victory and this risks sinking the Saudis into a quagmire.
In short, Saudi ambitions have not been going so well. Hence the chosen strategy to shift to a new theatre, target Iran as the headquarters of the Shia faith and its links to in Lebanon through Hezbollah and the Palestinians. Iran is accused of supporting the Houthis in Yemen the Syrian government and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The idea is that a new conflict in Lebanon might just turn around the series of defeats.
A large part of the Lebanese population is Shia and mostly support Hezbollah, which is a senior partner in the country’s coalition government. The apparent sudden resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri has changed the situation changed the Lebanese political landscape. He resisngned on 4 November, via a televised broadcast from Saudi. Hariri has not been seen since then. Complicating the matter even more is that he is a dual citizen of both countries and is implicated by close business dealings with certain influential Saudis.
The response of the Lebanese government has been to not accepted the resignation and has called for the return of its Prime Minister.
Whatever the truth, whether the resignation is manufactured or not, the situation has provided the opportunity to intervene onto Lebanese affairs. The big problem is that Lebanon is not so easy to control. Nor is Hezbollah easy to defeat on the battlefield. Israel found this out it its 2006 war. It is a problem that highlights the need for allies.
A marriage of convenience between Saudi and Israel has developed. Both realise that to achieve their regional ambitions, they need each other. The major failure to date has been an inability to achieve overt support from the United States, which faces a major problem in juggling its global and regional priorities. Consequently, it has joined the European Union in giving support to the Lebanese government.
There is also Russia, which is not likely to just stand by and do nothing.
A significant likely driver of this is that the Hariri announcement has backfired. It’s authenticity is under question and there is speculation that Hariri has been forced and is under Saudi house arrest. In Lebanon it has led to a strengthening of national unity and the isolation of the Saudis.
Lebanon has a strategic importance in relation to Syria. The two countries share a border and Lebanon’s history is that it was a part of Syria, artificially separated by the British colonial administration. The population on both sides of the dividing line shares a heritage and there always has been and remains considerable support for re-unification.
A controlled Lebanon would inflict a political wound on the Syrian government. More importantly, it would secure a base area, from which to carry out operations against Syria. Success here would provide a major advance towards the isolation of Iran.
For Israel, success would mean the removal of Hezbollah, a serious weakening of the Palestinian resistance to occupation, securing its own influence over the future of Lebanon and a weakening of Iran.
This is a fantastic ambition that is very difficult to achieve. The danger for the Saudis is that war against Lebanon might be impossible to control and could easily bring a new defeat. The forces on the other side are formidable and and the Saudis may be stretching themselves out too far.
So why, other than to reverse recent failures, are the Saudis’ intent on moving in this direction? The kingdom is now largely isolated from its neighbours and looking for a way out by cementing new friendships. Domestic politics also come into play, in the shape of the intensified hostility between rival claimants to the crown. The dominant faction has pitted itself against tradition and badly needs something to secure its political position and what can serve this better than rattling the sabre, against an identified threat to the Saudi nation?