When it comes to Lebanon becoming a battlefield for the latent proxy war between the United States and Iran, one could argue that the writing is on the wall. President Donald Trump’s Administration is more assertive in challenging Tehran, and Saudi Arabia is reinvigorating its Lebanese contacts who have traditionally stood against Hezbollah. These developments raise questions about whether Beirut will remain marginalized in US Middle East policy or the Trump Administration plans to go on the offensive in deterring Iran’s regional influence.
The last episode of US intervention in Lebanon, which began in 2004, had mixed results but ended miserably. Former President George W. Bush sought to penalize Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for opposing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, while Paris and Riyadh challenged the Syrian regime’s rule of Lebanon, which was becoming increasingly domineering and coercive. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 was the watershed moment that reasserted US influence with the emergence of the “March 14” and “March 8” alliances.1 While helping to force Syrian troops out of Lebanon, the United States was not willing to risk everything to defend its new allies. US intervention began to fade in May 2008 after the Iranian-backed Hezbollah dealt a military blow to fighters loyal to the Saudi-backed “Future Movement,” the political party spearheaded by Saad Hariri after his father’s assassination.
Fast forward to 2017, and the United States and Saudi Arabia are once again testing Lebanon’s ability to turn up the heat against Iran. Since 2011, when the unrest began in Syria, Washington focused solely on two issues in Lebanon: the Syrian refugees and the war against the so-called Islamic State (IS). At present, Washington and Riyadh seem to be poised on the verge of a new push in Lebanon.
US and Saudi Pressure on Hezbollah
US-Saudi pressure has been gradually building up since last spring and is now in full swing. As Trump was heading to Saudi Arabia last May, Washington and Riyadh imposed joint sanctions on two Hezbollah operatives. On September 28, as the US Congress’s House Foreign Affairs committee was voting on the HR 3329 sanctions bill that targets Hezbollah’s fundraising and recruiting efforts, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was meeting with Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Geagea and al-Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel (both of whom have an anti-Hezbollah platform). They are expected to be the first wave of Lebanese leaders heading to Riyadh in the coming weeks. The Saudi comeback to Lebanese politics seems to focus on rallying the country’s leaders to counterbalance—or at least speak up against—Hezbollah.
On October 10, the Trump Administration rolled out a campaign against Hezbollah by instituting cash rewards against two of its operatives. For his part, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman noted that the Lebanese Army had become “an integral part of Hezbollah’s command structure.” The Saudi Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, who has been the focal point of Riyadh’s policy in Lebanon, had tweeted on September 4 a description of Hezbollah as “the party of Satan,” noting that “the Lebanese people should choose to either stand with it or against (Hezbollah)” Ambassador Nikki Haley, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, had affirmed on August 30 that the “United States will not sit by and watch Hezbollah strengthen itself for the next war.”
US officials conveyed three messages in that new policy approach: 1) “countering Hezbollah is a top priority for the Trump administration”; 2) rejecting the European notion of separation between Hezbollah’s political and military wings; and 3) suggesting that Hezbollah is “determined” to have the option to target the US homeland. The American attempt to pressure the Europeans echoes al-Sabhan’s tweet on October 8, pointing out that while US sanctions are welcomed, the answer to Hezbollah is “a strict international coalition to confront it and those who work with it.”
The statements come as the Syrian regime is gaining the edge in Syria’s civil war and Hezbollah has sealed off the Lebanese-Syrian border. These two key developments have implications on Lebanese politics at a time when the country is subjected to the arduous socioeconomic and security tolls of the Syrian war.
The Syrian Regime Dilemma Once Again
At the heart of the underlying tensions in Lebanese politics nowadays is the question of whether Beirut should normalize its relations with Damascus. The triggering point was when Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, met last month in New York with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Mouallem, despite public objections by current Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The advocates of normalizing Lebanese-Syrian relations argue that ensuring the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland requires a dialogue with Damascus, while those who oppose this line of thinking assert that Lebanon should remain neutral in the Syrian war.
That dilemma slightly pushed the Lebanese oligarchy back to their comfort zone of “March 8” and “March 14” after two years of building alliances across the aisle. In the past year, the growing synergy between Aoun and Hariri was to the dismay of their traditional allies. As a result, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (a close Hezbollah ally) colluded once again with the Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, who himself became critical of his “March 14” partner Hariri. The presidential race of 2016 and the political battle to agree on a new electoral law left the Lebanese oligarchy in disarray.
The Limits of Lebanese Politics
Unless casting the ballot is delayed for the fourth time, Lebanese politics in the coming months can only be seen through the prism of the legislative elections scheduled for next May. Saudi Arabia’s ability to effectively revive the “March 14” alliance is slim to none, as these leaders have been left out for years and are still recovering from their political wounds. Hariri, whose base is growing impatient over his relationship with Aoun and his passive posture toward Hezbollah, is facing dissent within his own party.
It is not clear whether Hariri’s low profile is a result of Saudi guidance or whether Riyadh is disappointed in his performance. Yet, no one weakened Hariri in recent years more than the Saudis by cutting his funding and undermining his leadership in Lebanon. Riyadh has previously allowed Sunni leaders on his right, like former minister Ashraf Rifi, to challenge him. Moreover, the leaders who have been recently summoned to Riyadh (like Sami Gemayel) have been critical of the prime minister.
Indeed, Hariri’s options remain limited moving forward. He can either resign and/or escalate the rhetoric against Hezbollah, but both steps would weaken the little leverage he has ahead of the elections. If Hariri decides to escalate his rhetoric, Joumblatt would most likely not go all the way against Hezbollah, while Berri and Aoun might distance themselves from the prime minister. The new electoral law is expected to restrain Hariri’s ability to win by a large margin; hence he needs President Aoun’s electoral alliance and support on domestic issues.
Riyadh is viewing with skepticism that synergy between President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri and sees Lebanon slipping away to Iran. The Saudi expectation was that the newly elected president would separate himself from Hezbollah; however, recent developments proved them wrong. Hariri has also taken positions that might have raised questions in Riyadh, such as allowing the bus carrying IS to reach Hezbollah on the Syrian border or denying that Iran is building missile factories in Lebanon.
As Riyadh was increasing pressure in recent weeks, Hezbollah’s tactic was to criticize Saudi Arabia while lavishing praise on Hariri. Hezbollah prefers to keep the status quo—that is, neutralizing Hariri to prevent a crisis at home. While it would not fire the first political shot against the prime minister, the Iranian-backed group would not hesitate to go on the offensive. Hezbollah’s record of coercive actions looms over Lebanese politics and Hariri learned that reality the hard way.
How Far Could Washington and Riyadh Go?
Both the United States and Saudi Arabia are resorting to new tactics in dealing with Hezbollah. In January 2016, when the Lebanese government abstained from voting in favor of an Arab League statement condemning the attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran, Riyadh retreated from Lebanon by cutting its funding to the army and launching a campaign against the Lebanese group. The recent Saudi move shows a new tactic of engagement to counterbalance Iranian influence. While its views on Hezbollah are crystal clear, the United States has seldom faced the Party of God publicly.
What is not clear, however, is whether the US-Saudi pressure is part of a larger strategy to deter Iran and the extent to which the two countries’ interests are aligned in Beirut. While Washington is primarily focused on the military aspect of the Lebanese group’s funding and on cross-border activities in Syria and against Israel, Riyadh is more focused on Hezbollah’s leverage over the Lebanese state. Indeed, the two countries have the same objective in Lebanon though their motivations differ.
Furthermore, one should not expect a Lebanon policy if the Trump Administration does not first have a Syria policy. What remains a conundrum for US policymakers is how to weaken Hezbollah’s leverage on the Lebanese state without punishing the country collectively. It will also be hard to persuade Lebanese leaders to stand up to Hezbollah while Saudi influence is diminishing in Syria. All Riyadh wants, it seems, is for its Lebanese allies to remain firm until things clear up in Syria. Emboldening the “March 14” camp is not a sound strategy if it is not combined with a regional US and Saudi approach. The United States, however, does not seem interested in investing time and resources in Lebanon, and the Saudis are not keen on risking their remaining influence in the country.
There are five main reasons why the US-Saudi attempt to deter Hezbollah in Lebanon will fail: 1) the “March 14” alliance may be very difficult to restore as a political force; 2) the United States and Saudi Arabia already do not see eye-to-eye on a myriad regional issues, be it Yemen, Syria, or the Gulf crisis; 3) the cash-strapped Saudi Arabia lacks its main leverage of funding Lebanese politicians to deter Hezbollah; 4) Lebanese leaders are focused on the legislative elections of May 2018 and the country’s domestic politics; and 5) the lack of clarity in Syria, whether in military dynamics or political solutions, leaves Lebanon in uncertainty where the oligarchy will refrain from any bold moves that might backfire later.
Furthermore, as the Trump Administration embarks on a new campaign against Hezbollah, it should avoid a number of possible missteps in Lebanon. The United States would be wise not to lead the way against Hezbollah on behalf of Israel, as US interests in the Middle East are much wider in scope. Washington also should continue to support the Lebanese armed forces; otherwise, other principal actors in the region like Russia and Iran would surely fill the void. US policymakers would do well not to embark on a plan to counter Hezbollah without a solid Lebanon and Syria policy; further, they should be careful not to push Lebanon to the brink, as Hezbollah would retaliate if needed. Finally, Washington should be advised not to overpromise allies in Lebanon, as it will not intervene to help them.
Since 2014, there has been a truce in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Hariri’s Future Movement based on two principles: resuming security coordination to combat IS and setting aside the contentious regional issues to facilitate the functioning of the government. That truce allowed Hariri to return to power and Hezbollah to remove its involvement in Syria from the political debate. What the United States and Saudi Arabia are offering is merely a public campaign that in the end, will not alter the balance of power on the ground. Given the current status quo, the best-case scenario for US-Saudi pressure is to transform Lebanese politics into an unbearable environment for Hezbollah. That, however, would mean great political and economic costs for a fragile country. Most importantly, the common interests that currently bind the Lebanese oligarchy, as they look ahead to the 2018 legislative elections, might prove to be stronger than any external pressure.
1 Following the assassination, two camps formed according to members’ positions regarding domestic politics and relations with Syria, the “March 8” grouping headed by Hezbollah and the rival “March 14” alliance that included Hariri’s allies. Today, both camps have seen much change in membership and influence.