Targeting Lebanon Again

As Trump escalates against Iran, the Saudis up the ante against Hezbollah

By Abdel Bari Atwan

It is becoming clearly apparent that a new chapter in Saudi Arabia’s vendetta with Iran is about to begin unfolding in Lebanon, and that it will take many forms: involving the political, economic and media spheres.

This was made plain be recent verbal exchanges between Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah and the Lebanese resistance, and Tamer as-Sabhan, Saudi minister of state and currently the kingdom’s principal spokesman. It was further underlined by the hasty summoning to Riyadh of Saad al-Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister and Saudi Arabia’s principal client in the country.

Sabhan, who knows Lebanon well having worked at his country’s embassy in Beirut, began by directing a series of strongly-worded accusations at Hezbollah on his Twitter account, and then repeated them in an interview with the MBC television channel, which is affiliated to the anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces (LF) party. Employing distinctly un-diplomatic language, the Saudi minister fulminated against Hezbollah, calling it ‘the devil’s party’ and a ‘terrorist militia’, demanding that it be cut down to size both domestically in Lebanon and in the wider region, and accusing it of waging war on Saudi Arabia at the behest of Iran.

Most pertinently, he repeatedly warned that if Hezbollah ministers were not excluded from Lebanon’s multi-party government, the country as a whole would pay a heavy price, and threatened that anyone who cooperates with the party – whether politically, economically or in the media — would be punished.

It was amid this escalation of threats that Hariri was urgently summoned to visit Riyadh. The prime minister lost no time complying. He cancelled all his engagements and flew off, as though he were a Saudi government functionary, as remarked some Lebanese journalists who viewed his behaviour as demeaning not just to himself but to the entire country.

Two inescapable questions arise here: First, what prompted this sudden Saudi escalation against Hezbollah, with such verbal ferocity, at this particular time? Secondly, what actions can Saud Arabia actually take against the party in Lebanon, and could they develop into a military confrontation?

In reply to the first question, it can be safely said that this Saudi escalation is directly related to the US’ broader escalation against Iran, reflected in President Donald Trump’s speech to Congress and his refusal to certify the nuclear deal.

It is also related to developments in Yemen, and specifically the recent fighting on the kingdom’s southern borders with the country. Sabhan alluded to this when he tweeted: ‘Hezbollah militias are targeting our Gulf countries on Iran’s orders… and Lebanon has become captive to them.’

Two and a half years after Saudi Arabia launched what it thought would be a quick and decisive war on the country, the fighting inside Yemen and in the border areas is not going Riyadh’s way.  The Houthi Ansarallah movement has intensified its military attacks, as well as missile strikes on Saudi border towns such as Jizan and Najran. These are said to have reached their targets and not been intercepted by Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile defence systems.

The Saudi leadership accuses Hezbollah of training Ansarullah fighters and supplying them with Iranian-made missiles by some means or other (despite the comprehensive Saudi-led air, sea and land blockade of Yemen). Moreover, Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdessalam – in an unprecedented interview on Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel – threatened also to fire missiles at cities deep inside Saudi Arabia as well as Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s chief partner in the Yemen war. Perhaps this is what Sabhan meant when he accused Hezbollah of threatening the Gulf states.

There are many things that Saudi Arabia, the US’ closest ally in the Arab world, could try to do against Hezbollah and its allies. Its escalation could take a variety of forms that would have negative consequences – especially in the economic and financial spheres — for Lebanon as a whole. And there can be no ruling out the possibility of a military confrontation ensuing.

Nasrallah is aware of this. In a speech on Saturday he noted that Saudi Arabia did not have the means to confront Hezbollah on its own, or via local Lebanese proxies, and could only do so as part of an international alliance. The Hezbollah leader has been warning for some time that he expects Israel to launch another large-scale assault on Lebanon.

We do not know what instructions Hariri was given when he met Saudi strongman Crown Prince Muhammad bin-Salman. But it would not come as a surprise to learn that he was told either to withdraw from the government or sack its Hezbollah ministers in order to create another government crisis in Lebanon. Hariri would have no option but to comply. That would mean the collapse of the hard-won political accommodation that enabled him to return to office and Gen. Michel Aoun to be elected president.

Sabhan was not speaking on a whim, but under instructions from on high. These higher authorities are closely connected to the White House and US military and security agencies. They do not act or strike postures on any significant issue in the region without coordinating with and receiving directives from these agencies, in the context of the alliance binding the two countries.

Which takes us back to where we began. Lebanese is being put back on the burner, and the heat will soon begin to rise.