Lebanon and Syria and the Saudi-Iran Detente

The recent China-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran is expected to have a de-escalating effect on many issues in the Middle East, albeit to different degrees and with varying outcomes. The agreement quickly received a boost from Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s invitation to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit the kingdom, and the latter’s acceptance of said invitation. The two countries have much to discuss, including ensuring peace and security in the Gulf, the war in Yemen, political uncertainty in Iraq, the apparently unfinished civil war in Syria, and opposing stakes in Lebanon as the country approaches what may be a dreaded final collapse. To be sure, the two leaders’ agreement to meet and address the many issues dividing them has the potential to usher in a new phase of politics and cooperation in the Middle East.

Lebanon and Syria stand at the forefront of the countries that are intimately connected to and that will be greatly impacted by the outcomes of both the Beijing accord and the upcoming Raisi visit to Riyadh. Both countries have old political, economic, cultural, and religious linkages to Saudi Arabia and Iran, and both may reap handsome benefits from positive developments, including stability, financial assistance, and civic peace. While the agreement was widely welcomed in the region—with the expected exception of Israel—much will obviously depend on events and de-escalation efforts in the next two months, which the Beijing agreement designated as a preparatory period before Riyadh and Tehran reopen their respective diplomatic missions. But what is uncertain is whether a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran will reflect positively on Lebanon’s unfulfilled presidential election. And in Syria, the agreement will help the Assad regime to regain its place within the Arab political order without seriously limiting its old strategic ties with the Islamic Republic.

The Uncertainties of Lebanon

It is hard to discount the potential positive impact that this agreement could have on developments in Lebanon, where a presidential vacuum persists, and political gridlock is the name of the game. Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, the most powerful military and political force in the country and Iran’s local ally, said that the accord is a “good development” that could benefit many countries, including Lebanon. However, it is also not hard to see that the accord may not lead to any positive impact, at least in the short term, because of specific conditions affecting Lebanon and the crisscrossing sectarian entanglements among its many political forces. To be sure, while outside actors—especially Saudi Arabia and Iran—have undeniable influence with local parties, and can thus help direct them onto a path of cooperation, their influence may run into obstacles born of the parties’ sectarian political interests and competing agendas. Compounding these considerations is the concomitant impact of the agreement on Syria, which has close ties with some influential Lebanese parties and decidedly adversarial relations with others.

The accord may not lead to any positive impact, at least in the short term, because of specific conditions affecting Lebanon.

At the top of the myriad issues awaiting some sort of resolution in Lebanon is that of electing a president for the republic, which still has not been accomplished more than four months since the end of former President Michel Aoun’s term. While this election is not the only serious impediment on Lebanon’s road to recovery, its success is likely to facilitate the easing of the general political stalemate. As things stand today, a caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati is the executive authority in the country, with the presidential vacuum showing no sign of ending. Mikati’s cabinet cannot even agree on necessary executive actions because of the push and pull of competing ideologies and interests among its members. And no new government can be formed to formulate an economic reform agenda, as the International Monetary Fund has demanded, without a duly elected president. Therefore, for a Saudi-Iran agreement to truly help Lebanon, it must result in some movement on the question of electing a new president for the country.

Hezbollah and the Amal Movement led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri—undoubtedly with the support of their allies—have recently advanced the candidacy of former parliamentarian and minister Suleiman Frangieh. Hezbollah’s original condition for a president was someone who “would reassure the resistance” and who “would not stab [it] in the back,” by which it meant itself, its relationship with Iran, and its ideology of perpetual resistance to Israel and the United States. On a local level, Hezbollah’s main concern is finding a president who will maintain its dominant position in the state and the government. But by choosing Frangieh, who also has very close relations with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah has practically made its candidate partisan, in a country where compromise and accommodation between competing forces are essential preconditions for communal and political coexistence. Frangieh himself has said that if elected he will be impartial and “will not conspire against the resistance nor against its rivals and enemies.” But in the eyes of Hezbollah’s opponents, the die has been cast.

Some of Hezbollah’s opponents and detractors have, since the beginning, supported parliamentarian Michel Moawad, son of René Moawad, who was assassinated a few days after being elected president following the signing of the 1989 Taif Accords. Moawad is a self-described “sovereignty” candidate who represents many of the forces that oppose Hezbollah’s—and by extension Iran’s—dominant role in the country. But in 11 presidential election rounds in parliament, he has not been able to muster the support of more than one-third of the 128-member legislative body. Still, considering the sectarian nature of the presidency—the president must be a Maronite Christian—Moawad’s position is better than Frangieh’s, specifically in the Christian camp, although it does not assure him of success. He is supported by the largest Christian party, the Lebanese Forces, headed by Samir Geagea, which controls 19 seats in parliament, in comparison with Frangieh’s party’s two seats. So far, the second largest Christian party (with 17 seats), the Free Patriotic Movement, which is headed by MP Gebran Bassil, has refused to support either candidate. Bassil, whose party has been Hezbollah’s ally since 2006, is an undeclared candidate, but has failed to convince Hezbollah to support him because of the latter’s long commitment to Frangieh, who was passed over in 2016 in order to accommodate none other than Basil’s father-in-law, former President Michel Aoun, whose term expired last October.

It is these and other issues that may limit a positive impact of the Saudi-Iran agreement in Lebanon. Both sides of the Lebanese political split suffer from the same ailment: If either of the candidates, Frangieh or Moawad—or indeed a third candidate—were to convince at least a simple majority of parliamentarians (65 members) to support them, they would be unlikely to surmount the constitutional requirement of a quorum of 86 members (two-thirds of parliament) for a legal electoral session. If the Saudi-Iran agreement were to have an impact on Lebanon’s presidential election, it would have to be geared toward pressuring the opposing parties to support a compromise candidate who can secure a quorum. But such a candidate is likely to be weak because they would have to walk a tightrope between not providing Hezbollah with the assurances it demands and also not accommodating its opponents. Not having the strong support of either camp, such a prospective president would likely be unable to reconstitute the state and its institutions and would thus help perpetuate the country’s current state of near-collapse.

There is a distinct possibility that Lebanon will wait for a long time before it can complete its presidential election, whatever the outcome of a Saudi-Iran rapprochement.

As a result, there is a distinct possibility that Lebanon will wait for a long time before it can complete its presidential election, whatever the outcome of a Saudi-Iran rapprochement. On the one hand, it is hard to believe that Iran would pressure Hezbollah to give up on its demand for a president to protect itself; doing so would be tantamount to giving up on its agenda of resisting Israel and the United States. It would also be like surrendering to the party’s opponents in Beirut who have for a long time demanded that it be disarmed. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that Saudi Arabia would concede to Hezbollah’s full and open dominance of Lebanon. The party long ago burned its bridges with Riyadh—to the detriment of Lebanon’s relations with the kingdom and other Gulf countries— and no intervention by Iran is likely to succeed in rebuilding them. Furthermore, Hezbollah’s opponents are unlikely to agree to the election of a Hezbollah supporter; Michel Aoun played that role between 2016 and 2022, a period that witnessed the final collapse of the Lebanese state vis-à-vis Hezbollah.

Assad’s Good Tidings

It is likely that the Saudi-Iran agreement will hasten Syria’s return to the Arab fold; but the original, and indeed the main impetus for this return was a radical change among Arab states regarding relations with Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has recently visited Oman, which never fully severed its diplomatic ties with his country, as well as the United Arab Emirates, which he had previously visited in March 2022, both times meeting with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. A parliamentary delegation from Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Libya, Egypt, Oman, and Lebanon also trekked to Damascus under the pretext of helping Syria deal with the devastating February 6 earthquake and met with Assad. Meanwhile, at the Munich Security Conference last February, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said that a new approach to Syria is needed. There are reports that Jordan also led a group of Arab countries in a proposal to offer Syria billions in reconstruction funds to address the devastation wrought by 12 years of civil war, and did so in exchange for the Syrian regime’s engagement with the opposition, its crackdown on narcotics smuggling, and its asking Iran to scale back its role in the country.

These and other overtures to the Syrian regime, together with the Arab world’s decided abandonment of the Syrian opposition, indicate that the Saudi-Iran agreement may not have a Syrian angle after all. Indeed, Iran has been the Syrian regime’s staunchest proponent and supporter since the early 1980s, a situation to which the Arab world did not appear to have much of an objection. Before Syria’s 2011 revolution and Iran’s open interference in its affairs on the side of the regime, Syria was just another member of the Arab political order, and had been allowed to play a dominant role in post-civil war Lebanon, one that helped propel Hezbollah to prominence there. It is thus difficult to come to the conclusion that the Saudi-Iran agreement has much to do with domestic Syrian developments, or that Iran has agreed to give up its interests and influence in Syria.

It is likely that the Saudi-Iran agreement will hasten Syria’s return to the Arab fold.

What is certain, however, is that the Syrian regime seems to have finally succeeded in triangulating three disparate yet interconnected issues while welcoming the Saudi-Iran detente. First, Bashar al-Assad’s visits to and contacts with Arab leaders and politicians have cleared the way for his country’s rehabilitation in the Arab world. So far, it is not known whether Assad will be invited to participate in the upcoming Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia; Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan is on record calling it “too early” to discuss the idea. However, considering the current authoritarian nature of Arab officialdom, it is doubtful that Arab leaders will insist that Assad hold open discussions with the Syrian opposition about political reform in the country as a precondition for rejoining the league.

Second, in the absence of specific commitments from Iran about noninterference in the internal affairs of other—read, Arab—countries, Assad has no obligation to scale back on his relations with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s role and influence in Syria continue apace, and in his weakened position after 12 years of civil war and both economic and physical destruction, Assad is in no condition to distance himself from Tehran, as some Arab regimes may want him to do. Besides, the Syrian regime is not the target of Israeli attacks on Iranian assets there; and in fact, such attacks may be to Assad’s advantage since they help curb Iran’s role and influence without him having to get his hands dirty. It is thus obvious that the Syrian president has already made his calculations and decided to stay the course with Iran, with the equally logical decision to constantly renew an insurance policy underwritten by Russia.

Third, Assad has been shrewd in finding ways to ameliorate the potentially detrimental Iranian influence in his country, to minimally sideline whatever remains of Arab criticism on that count and to keep his options open. His latest maneuver in this regard was his March 15 visit to Moscow and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, only a few days after the announcement of the Saudi-Iran agreement. In a strange move that indicated that he may be looking for ways to balance Iranian influence, Assad asked the Russian president to increase the number of Russian soldiers and bases in Syria, and to make their presence there permanent. Coming at a time when the Russian invasion of Ukraine is bogged down and the Russian economy is suffering from debilitating western sanctions, this request may indicate that Assad is desperate to preserve some room for maneuver if Iran fails to live up to its China-brokered commitment to end its interference in his country’s domestic affairs.

Lofty Goals and Limited Promise

A detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran is long overdue, and their recent agreement and King Salman’s invitation to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi are welcome developments helping to achieve it. This detente is bound to help Gulf security, stability, and cooperation, and will likely spill over into other issues in the wider region in which both countries are involved and to whose political forces they are wedded for different reasons and to different degrees. But what will be the ultimate arbiter of this promising opening are the concrete steps these two Gulf states take toward realizing what are so far simply lofty goals and admirable objectives.

But given the political, sectarian, and factional complications in Lebanon, the Saudi-Iran detente is unlikely to resolve the country’s stalemate regarding its presidential election anytime soon. And other issues related to the election will have to wait until Lebanese factions find the necessary formulas and compromises, ones for which they themselves are responsible. In Syria, the Beijing-brokered agreement will help the Syrian regime rehabilitate itself in the Arab political order—although that process began before the parties met in the Chinese capital. What seems to be certain is that the Syrian regime has succeeded not only in surmounting Arab objections to its rehabilitation, but also in preserving its close relationship with Iran while assuring itself of Russia’s support as a counterbalance to the Islamic Republic’s influence in the country.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Chinese Foreign Ministry