Europeans should work to blunt the impact of Saudi Arabia’s strategy and prevent dangerous confrontation.
The sudden resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister has thrust the country into renewed political crisis. Less than a year after Saad Hariri re-entered office, his departure raises fears that Lebanon is being dragged anew into the dangerous crosswinds of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Hariri justified his resignation by pointing to Tehran’s destructive regional interventions and threats to his own life. But his abdication is widely seen as orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, not least because Hariri announced the decision from Riyadh.
His departure appears driven by the re-energised Saudi leadership’s desire to confront Iranian regional ascendancy, with Riyadh unwilling to see Hariri provide legitimising cover for Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Hariri’s return to office in December 2016 saw Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s Christian ally, elected president, and the formation of a government of national unity that included Hezbollah. It was also followed by the passage of a new electoral law and other measures seen as cementing Hezbollah’s ascendancy.
Under the direction of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who is simultaneously consolidating authority at home, Riyadh is dramatically changing tack in Lebanon. It has now gone as far as declaring a state of war between Saudi Arabia and the Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese state, raising the prospect of further impending escalation.
But while the resignation and wider strategy aims to pull the rug from beneath Hezbollah’s feet, it is more likely to destabilise the country and ultimately strengthen the group’s hand.
Lebanon has avoided falling into conflict over the past six years while war has ravaged neighbouring Syria. The collective memory of Lebanon’s own civil war and the buy-in of key political leaders to the current order still hold firm. But renewed political paralysis and associated economic shock – which could be made considerably worse if Riyadh tightens the financial noose – will feed intensified instability and the further hollowing out of the state.
These are precisely the conditions which will help Hezbollah reinforce its parallel, non-state ascendancy. Over recent years Iran has exploited vacuums of governance and conflict conditions to strengthen its hand in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. There is no reason to believe that the outcome will be different in Lebanon.
Moreover, any military targeting of Hezbollah could be devastating for the county. This applies to possible Israeli strikes, which may be encouraged by the focusing of attention on Hezbollah’s dominance, but which risk provoking wider confrontation given competing claims in Syria.
Europeans can expect to face intensified pressure from both Riyadh and the US to assume a more hardline position against Hezbollah. The Trump administration has singled out Hezbollah for intensified targeting, and Congress recently passed a bill calling on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group in its entirely (Europeans currently distinguish between its sanctioned military wing and non-sanctioned political arm).
But rather than follow this lead, Europeans should veer the other way, taking measures that aim to preserve Lebanon’s stability and governance structures, and to prevent wider conflagration. Iran is clearly a key source of regional instability, and Hezbollah has become increasingly assertive in Lebanon. But there is no wider strategy behind Hariri’s resignation that can realistically dislodge the group’s influence.
As part of this approach Europeans should look to persuade the Saudi leadership and its US backers of the merits of a policy in line with the Kingdom’s recent reversal in Iraq. After a long period of disengagement since 2003, Riyadh is now re-engaging the Baghdad government in a bid to balance Iranian influence. Europeans should press for similar strategic thinking in Lebanon and aim to pull back Saudi policy before it reaches a dangerous point of no return.
A broad-based government and legitimate parliament, even if it includes Hezbollah, still likely represent a better means of establishing some political counter-weight to the group’s dominance. It is also key to providing the governance services needed to maintain the semblance of a functioning state able to act as a legitimate alternative to Hezbollah.
Within Lebanon, Europeans should support efforts aimed at ensuring a government remains in place and that long-overdue parliamentary elections proceed as scheduled in May 2018 (nearly a decade after the last vote in 2009). European relations with key actors within Lebanon – including Hezbollah’s political arm - give them some on the ground mediating influence which has been effectively deployed over recent years.
The prime ministership is a Sunni-designated role in Lebanon. And though Hariri is the dominant Sunni actor in Lebanon, there are others such as former Prime Ministers Najib Mikati and Tammam Salam, who are less immediately beholden to Riyadh and who could step in. Europeans interlocutors should work to support an interim government featuring one of these or a similar Sunni figure to provide continuity.
Europeans should accompany this approach with a focus on diplomatically pressing Hezbollah to defer to consensus-based decision making over unilateral dominance. Europeans should not be naïve in expecting full compliance, but Hezbollah has a clear interest in maintaining domestic stability.
The group’s initial response to Hariri’s resignation has been to blame Riyadh rather than Hariri, while President Aoun has, for the moment, rejected the resignation. A desire to not burn bridges with Hariri and keep him in government suggests a more conciliatory approach that should reinforce the need for a stabilising strategic approach over potentially counter-productive disengagement and confrontation.
Europeans have long championed their support for Lebanese stability as a key dimension of their regional strategy. Hariri’s resignation is an opportunity to demonstrate real commitment to that goal, even if means pushing back against the assertive grain of Europe’s Saudi ally. Without a moderating force Lebanon risks being drawn into the dangerous crosshairs of intensifying Saudi-Iranian regional tensions.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.