US Curbs Saudi Arabia’s Surge in Lebanon

While the mysterious resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri continues to cast a cloud over Lebanese politics, new developments have de-escalated tensions in the country. Clear statements from Washington, released by both the White House and the State Department, appear to have curbed the Saudi surge in Beirut and toned down Riyadh’s rhetoric against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Hariri’s television interview on November 12 had a reconciliatory tone as the prime minister announced his intention to return to Beirut this week; however, no political breakthrough seems to be looming on the horizon.

Hariri’s resignation, announced from Riyadh on November 4, has yet to be processed in his country’s national institutions. Lebanese President Michel Aoun decided not to accept the resignation until he meets with Hariri in person and understands the circumstances behind the decision. The Saudi leadership’s argument is that the Lebanese political system is hijacked by Hezbollah and that Hariri is facing a security threat in Beirut. On November 6, the Saudi Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, affirmed that Riyadh would deal with the Lebanese cabinet “as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia.” Furthermore, on November 9, Riyadh issued its citizens a travel warning for Lebanon and hinted that measures would continue to escalate until the Lebanese government controls Hezbollah’s regional activities. That Saudi pressure has been building up for a while and has reached new heights in the past two weeks.

In return, a rare sense of unity among members of the Lebanese oligarchy allowed President Aoun to initiate a diplomatic effort to pressure Saudi Arabia. The Hariri-led “Future Movement” issued a statement on November 9 affirming that Hariri’s return to Beirut “is necessary to restore dignity and respect to Lebanon at home and abroad.” There were indications coming out of Riyadh that the Saudi leadership might be seeking to replace Saad with his brother Bahaa, which created unprecedented anti-Saudi sentiments in the Lebanese Sunni community. Lebanon’s Sunni mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, opted not to hold a meeting for all former prime ministers to decide on a successor––the position is usually held by a Sunni Muslim––which was a sign of support for Saad Hariri. Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who is part of the Future Movement, indirectly answered the question of transferring power to Bahaa by affirming that, “We are not herds of sheep or a plot of land whose ownership can be moved from one person to another. In Lebanon things happen through elections not pledges of allegiances.”

On November 10, after six days of silence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a strong statement against “any actions that could threaten” Lebanon’s stability and warned about using Lebanon as a venue for proxy regional conflicts. The most remarkable point in that statement was Tillerson calling Hariri Lebanon’s prime minister and not referring to his resignation, which is an endorsement of the Lebanese president’s position of not accepting Hariri’s resignation. The White House followed the next day, on November 11, with a similar statement reiterating the US position; however, it made no reference to Hariri’s ability to move freely, considering the prevailing impression that he is under house arrest.

The Lebanese prime minister’s resignation raised doubts about the power-sharing agreement reached last year, which brought both Aoun and Hariri to power, as well as the legislative elections due in May 2018. President Aoun said that if by the end of this week there is no clarity on Hariri’s return to Lebanon, he will raise the issue at the United Nations Security Council. Beyond the optics and odd moments, Hariri’s televised interview on November 12 had subtle messages and quite a few clues about what might come next.

First, within the Lebanese context, Hariri reemerged as the national leader—albeit a weak one. The presumed Saudi attempt to replace him with a confrontational candidate has failed due to Lebanese and international pressure. Hariri’s tone completely shifted, compared to the earlier resignation statement, reverting to his reconciliatory approach. He also seemed flexible regarding the probability of backing away from his resignation with preconditions, most notably averting the normalization of relations between Beirut and Damascus. Hariri also reiterated the need to maintain the Lebanese government’s disassociation policy, which aims to guarantee a neutral foreign policy, especially in inter-Arab disputes.

Second, within the regional context, the content of Hariri’s interview hinted of a clear Saudi retreat in confronting Iran, compared to the bellicose rhetoric in the first few days of the crisis. Hariri noted that the major reason behind the shift of the Saudi attitude against Hezbollah was the Lebanese group’s involvement in Yemen, which suggested that Riyadh might be ready to end the crisis in Lebanon in return for Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Yemen. He did not explicitly mention that Hezbollah’s fighters should withdraw from Syria as a precondition to rescinding his resignation.

If Hariri returns to Beirut this week, it is not clear how long he would stay and whether he would immediately confirm his resignation or hold talks with the president first. If he decides not to officially tender his resignation, he will need to discuss the preconditions of returning to power with President Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Hezbollah, and this might take weeks, if not months. The second option is to officially resign with the understanding that he will be tapped once again, a process that will also take months as it would require an agreement on a new government platform and a cabinet formation. Most probably, the Lebanese oligarchy will do its best to accommodate Hariri’s requests, but it is not yet clear how his relationship with Riyadh will move forward and whether Riyadh will revert to a reconciliatory approach or maintain pressure on Lebanon and Hezbollah. If Saudi Arabia aims to continue the pressure without further escalation, due to international pressure, then Lebanon might remain in a stalemate in the coming months with a caretaker government managing the political crisis.

The Saudi approach of not distinguishing between Lebanese state institutions and Hezbollah has dangerous policy implications in Lebanon. Preserving national institutions, like the Central Bank and the Lebanese Army, traditionally took precedence when shaping US policy in Lebanon. Indeed, the State Department’s spokesperson Heather Nauert noted on November 7 that the US relationship with the Lebanese government “will not change” and expected that “all members of the international community to respect fully those institutions and the sovereignty and the political independence of Lebanon.” The policy differences between the White House, on the one hand, and the State Department and the Pentagon, on the other, seem to have quickly dissipated in the case of Lebanon. As a country neighboring Syria, the last thing the United States wanted was a Sunni-Shia confrontation in Lebanon that would reverberate across the region where Washington has vital national interests.

Hariri’s resignation and the Saudi push were a strong shock to the fragile Lebanese system. The US counter-pressure seemed to have swiftly restored the status quo in Lebanon. While Hariri’s popularity grew in the past few days, he will come back to Lebanese politics as a wounded warrior who will have to negotiate with Hezbollah on behalf of Saudi Arabia. However, if Hariri does not return this week, international pressure might increase on Riyadh. Continuing pressure by the United States in the coming period is key for the preservation of Lebanon’s stability.

It is also important to remember that the country is hosting over 1.5 million Syrian refugees and faces mounting economic woes and a fragile security situation, so destabilizing Lebanon further might lead to internal strife, a regional war, or the migration of Syrian refugees to Europe. Lebanon’s relative stability since 2011, most notably during the Syrian war, was pivotal to a US policy that was mostly focused on Iraq and Syria. Risking that stability with no endgame can easily backfire. Now, Saudi influence in Lebanon might have weakened as a result.