Saudi’s ‘War on Lebanon’ Backfires
After being accused of forcing him to resign, Saudi Arabia’s apparent detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has boosted support for Hezbollah, says author and professor Amal Saad
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The standoff between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia is escalating in the aftermath of the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. On Thursday, Saudi Arabia said Lebanon has effectively declared war against it and ordered all Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon immediately. On Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia is holding Hariri against his will in a bid to exploit internal divisions and weaken the Lebanese state. Nasrallah’s comments come one day after the US State Department fueled speculation about Hariri’s status, refusing to say whether he is being detained in Saudi Arabia.
STATE DEPT.: In terms of the conditions of him being held, or the conversations between Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Hariri, I would have to refer you to the government of Saudi Arabia and also to Mr. Hariri’s office.
Press: I’m sorry, you said the conditions of him being held. Is he in detention?
STATE DEPT.: I’m not going to put that word behind, I’m not going to associate that word with it, but where he is right now…
PRESS: Where is he? Does he have a nice room at the Ritz-Carlton?
STATE DEPT.: I don’t know personally where he is-
PRESS: Or is he in a…?
STATE DEPT.: I’ve heard different reports. I can’t confirm where he is, but where he is right now.
PRESS: Well, where did the charge meet him?
STATE DEPT.: He met him, I don’t think I’m permitted to say that, but I will double check on that.
AARON MATÉ: To discuss the situation in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, I spoke earlier to Amal Saad, an author and Professor at the Lebanese University in Beirut. Amal Saad, welcome. Let’s start with Hariri. Hezbollah says that they believe he’s being held against his will. Saudi Arabia says they’re protecting him from an assassination plot. What do you think is going on?
AMAL SAAD: Well, it’s not just Hezbollah actually who believes that Hariri is being held against his will. The Lebanese state has in fact adopted this position as well. Even members of his own party have been sort of insinuating that that’s what they believe too, so I think there’s more or less solid evidence now that Hariri is in fact one of the Saudi nationals, because he has dual citizenship, who have been held under house arrest of some kind. As for the, you asked about the assassinations, the allegation. There has been absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Hariri’s life was under any kind of danger in Lebanon. When the Al Arabiya report first came out with that story, three different branches of Lebanon’s security services came out and denied that his life was indeed in danger. Internal Security, General Security, Army Intelligence, all of them denied this. Then the Al Arabiya changed their narrative and said western sources told us that his life was in danger. So, it’s a very poorly fabricated story, to be honest, that nobody here in Lebanon takes seriously.
AARON MATÉ: With on Thursday Saudi Arabia ordering its citizens to leave Lebanon, all this has raised fears of a possible Saudi military action against Lebanon. What do you think is going on there?
AMAL SAAD: Just to address the travel ban, this isn’t the first time Saudi Arabia has imposed a travel ban of this kind. If I’m not mistaken, this happened also in 2013 and a couple of times before then. Saudi Arabia does this periodically to put political pressure on forces inside Lebanon. As for what this means in terms of escalation, it is definitely an escalation. I don’t know where this will lead to next. I highly doubt it will lead to any kind of military intervention on Saudi’s part. It will be next to impossible for them to launch any kind of war on Lebanon without the aid of Israel and US backing. Now, US backing, perhaps they might be able to get that, especially since Trump seems to be doing this on his own. From what I’ve been reading today, for example, the State Department doesn’t seem to be toeing Trump’s line on this. Also, I think CENTCOM issued some kind of statement that wasn’t fully in line with Trump’s position either.
Even Nasrallah himself said he doesn’t believe the State Department is behind Trump on this. So let’s assume bin Salman gets Trump’s support for some kind of military intervention, they would both need to convince Israel to do the dirty work for them, especially for Saudi. And I seriously doubt that Israel is interested right now in launching any kind of war with Hezbollah. It got a taste of that back in 2006 when Hezbollah was way behind the stage it’s reached now militarily. Hezbollah in 2006 was a very powerful army inside Lebanon. It was a resistance, it was still a guerrilla group, it launched a hybrid war, but it was nowhere near as experienced as it is now. It did not have the type of weapons it possesses now, did not have the combat experience it has now, and it did not have the same type of military alliances that it does now.
Obviously, it’s always had an alliance with Iran and Syria, but the situation in 2006 wasn’t one whereby either Syria or Iran were going to intervene. It wasn’t one whereby Hezbollah had the capability of launching a counteroffensive on Israeli territory itself, of enlisting or mobilizing troops outside of Hezbollah’s own resistance forces. This is what’s different about any impending war now, is that first of all, Hezbollah has become basically a regional power. In 2006, it was a regional player. Today, Hezbollah is a regional power. Any war that Hezbollah is engaged in today cannot possibly be an isolated Israeli-Lebanese war. It’s going to be a war that is fought on several battlefronts in several different arenas, and all of Hezbollah’s allies will participate in any future war. This is something Nasrallah himself threatened quite recently when he said that there will be tens of thousands of fighters from Syria, from Iran, from Afghanistan, from Iraq, alongside Hezbollah.
And this is why I think it’s extremely unlikely that Israel would be ready to engage in a war on multiple fronts, including inside Israeli territory itself, and also with the participation of other forces. This would have to drag in the US somehow, I think, as well, and I don’t know if the US is prepared to do that. I’m quite certain Israel isn’t either.
AARON MATÉ: On this point about Hezbollah being stronger militarily than it was in 2006, do you see the timing of this Saudi move against Lebanon and Hezbollah as being related to Hezbollah’s recent victories in Syria, where it developed a stronger military capacity and defeated Saudi proxies that were fighting the Assad regime?
AMAL SAAD: It’s definitely related to that, because it’s no coincidence that Saudi’s latest moves have come in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Deir ez-Zour in Syria, of Al-Bukamal. Now very recently the border between Iraq and Syria is now fully clear. The Resistance Corridor, which western media and Israel and states like Saudi like to call the Shia Corridor, which is a huge misnomer, is actually a resistance corridor between these countries that provides for the free flow of fighters, weapons, people, goods, the same sort of open borders you have in the EU, for example. But obviously, at a time of war it’s even more necessary. Now that that’s been secured, in addition to the liberation of Lebanese territory from Nusra, from ISIS very recently, late this summer, and also in Iraq.
ISIS has been dislodged from the region, Nusra has lost a lot of territory in Lebanon and in Syria, and therefore, Saudi Arabia basically panicked, over and above its losses in Yemen, and it’s been failing miserably in Yemen, as everyone can testify to with this latest blockade and their total desperation to strangulate Yemen. The resistance of the Houthis there is a formidable obstacle for them in their quest for regional domination. They have failed in every single arena that they have thus far fought. And today, by the way, let me say this before I forget, Nasrallah pointed out something quite interesting. He said, and this is something we know now, we know obviously now that Saudi Arabia is pressuring Israel to invade Lebanon, and he said they’ve even been offering it millions of dollars to that effect, but he said that in 2006, Saudi did the exact same thing, that Saudi was in part, not responsible, because Israel has its own calculations and would have launched a war anyway, but Saudi was definitely persuading it back then to wage war on Hezbollah and was actively supporting that war.
So Saudi Arabia has been lobbying for this for quite some time now, and I think it became even more necessary when it saw that all its cards in the region have been played and are of no use to it anymore. This latest tactic, this is a last resort, I think. There’s nothing else that they can do to stand in the way of Hezbollah’s growing influence. They can’t do anything vis-a-vis Iran, and it’s purely an act of desperation, I believe, to, Imagine how desperate a state must be to this openly, and very crudely, kidnap the prime minister, their own ally, of another state. That’s pretty desperate in my mind.
AARON MATÉ: Hezbollah has wide popularity inside Lebanon, but not amongst everybody. There are groups that oppose them, but I’m wondering what has been the impact of this Saudi move in terms of public opinion across the board when it comes to Hezbollah?
AMAL SAAD: You know, actually, obviously Hezbollah’s constituency is fully supportive and so are most Christians in Lebanon, if not all, I would imagine, even though what’s interesting is that the Sunnis of Lebanon, who have for the past maybe decade or so had a lot of tensions with Hezbollah and haven’t been big fans of Hezbollah, even they today, and I say this based on not just anecdotes, but I’ve been actually very carefully reviewing media interviews, be they on video or in newspapers, with Sunnis, different media, mind you, not pro-Hezbollah media, and from everything I’ve been hearing from the students I teach, from things I’ve read, and the general mood of the country, and over and above that, from Hariri’s own party, their statements that they’ve been issuing lately, none of them support Saudi Arabia in this latest move. Maybe some of them haven’t been openly blaming Saudi Arabia for kidnapping Hariri, but nonetheless, they do not see this as in any way beneficial to the Sunni sect in Lebanon.
What Saudi’s basically done is, it’s not only removed Lebanon’s prime minister, forced him to resign and destabilized the country, it’s also dethroned the Sunni leader. He was, I’m not going to say he commanded an overwhelming majority of Sunni support, but he did command around 50% of Sunni votes in the last elections, or most recently. Actually, in 2009, he won 65% of the Sunni vote. Now it’s less. He’s lost a lot of support since then, but nonetheless, Hariri remains today, he commands a plurality, if not close to a majority, of Sunni support in Lebanon. So by removing him from the Lebanese political scene, by denying him a political role, Saudi Arabia has effectively disempowered Lebanon Sunnis. Over and above that, the only party that really stands to gain from this is Hezbollah.
As we saw today, Nasrallah in his speech was defending Lebanon’s constitution, Lebanon’s institutions, its procedural legitimacy. He was behaving like a statesman. He was calling. He was speaking in the language of a state. His discourse is identical to President Michel Aoun, who’s been calling for exactly the same. So Hezbollah has now been further legitimized inside Lebanon on the popular level. Politically, it’s emerged much stronger. At the same time, Nasrallah even actually defended Sunni rights in Lebanon. He said, “Why are you depriving Sunnis of their leader?” So it’s really ironic that what Saudi Arabia has done is marginalize Sunnis, when it’s been accusing Iran and Hezbollah of marginalizing them or disempowering them. It’s gone and done that itself by kidnapping their leader and denying him any future political role.
And this is something extremely dangerous, in my opinion. At the same time, I think Hezbollah will stand to gain if Saudi Arabia takes further steps, which I presume it will, in escalating. I’m not saying it’s going to go wage all-out war, that’s definitely not on the…. I not saying Saudi Arabia’s going to wage an all-out war, but what it can do is pressure Lebanon economically, and that in itself is a form of economic warfare. It can try and destabilize Lebanon on the security level. It can unleash terrorists on Lebanon. There are many things Saudi Arabia can do. It can fight this war in many different ways, which it probably will attempt to do at least. Yeah, go on.
AARON MATÉ: And if it does, what do you expect the US role to be. I mean, just today you had Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying, and let me actually to respond to this … he said there was no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements, other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state, implying there that Hezbollah might be a foreign force inside of Lebanon.
AMAL SAAD: This isn’t the first time that Tillerson does that, is it? He said that recently about Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Unit, or Forces, who are of course Iraqi, not Iranian. He called them Iranian forces at the time and called on them to leave Iraq, and he’s pretty much done the same today by referring to Hezbollah as a foreign armed force or militia, which is ludicrous. I don’t know if that’s a case of him genuinely being unintelligent, really, or ignorance, or if he is basically parroting a very dangerous sectarian Saudi discourse, which depicts all Shia as being foreign and Iranian and un-Arab. So I’m not really sure if that was deliberate or not.
At the same time, he did actually say that the US supported Hariri, which was interesting, which is something that Trump hasn’t said himself. So I’m not really sure how the US as a whole is going to respond to this. As I said earlier, there may be a rift within the United States government right now on this issue. We still don’t know, I don’t know if Americans even know that at this point. From what I see is that if this situation is pushed to the brink, if there is a security escalation, an economic escalation, a political one, whereby, And that’s the next logical step that Saudi Arabia before it does anything else will have to cut off diplomatic relations with Lebanon. It’s already declared war on Lebanon. It’s already basically suggested Lebanon is an enemy state.
So the next logical step would be after this travel ban, and asking its citizens to withdraw their assets from Lebanon, is to cut off diplomatic ties. And that would effectively place Lebanon, and it already has started to do that, in the resistance camp. And that’s the irony of the situation, is that Lebanon now, as a Saudi enemy, is part of the other camp. In the past, there was one group within Lebanon, one political camp within Lebanon, which was Hezbollah and its allies like Michel Aoun and others, who represented the resistance camp. But that was only part of Lebanon. We couldn’t talk of “a Lebanon” at that point being a unified entity. Now we can. Even media’s starting to use the term “Lebanon”: “Lebanon responds, Lebanon is threatened with warfare,” etc.
So now Lebanon has effectively assumed the position that Hezbollah and its allies assumed on the international scene. And this is very counterproductive. This is exactly what has happened. It’s only going to push all of Lebanon further into the resistance camp if there is a greater escalation at this point, which would … I’m kind of envisioning a scenario whereby, and I don’t think this is going to happen, but if it does, if there’s some kind of chaotic situation where we have a lot of instability, civil strife, etc., Hezbollah is going to emerge as the strongest power inside Lebanon that can restore law and order, that can guarantee safety and security for people if the state becomes dysfunctional. And that is another very dangerous, for Saudi Arabia and the US and Israel, at least, from their perspective, it’s a dangerous development.
And that’s why I think it’s very counterproductive. It’s a very, very stupid policy. It’s a very impetuous, impulsive, irrational policy the Saudis and the US have engaged in. My thinking is that Israel might try and dissuade them, ironically, at this point from escalating the situation militarily, because Israel is the party that’s going to be required to place and to stage in any upcoming military intervention.
AARON MATÉ: Amal, let me ask you, the main domestic criticism that I hear about [Hezbollah], and correct me if I’m wrong, is that it’s already decided to put Lebanon in the resistance camp without the consent of the rest of the country. So, for example, intervening in the Syrian war without properly consulting the population and the Lebanese government. What are your thoughts on that?
AMAL SAAD: First of all, when Hezbollah, even on the Israeli issue, when Israel invaded Lebanon, Hezbollah never asked the Lebanese for permission to resist. As a popular resistance movement, it never felt that it was obliged to get a consensus.
AARON MATÉ: Isn’t that why they were created?
AMAL SAAD: Yeah, exactly. Ever since then, it’s been resisting Israel, and Nasrallah has said this on many occasions, that our resistance is not based on national consensus, because obviously there are forces within Lebanon who do not represent Lebanon’s best interests, or at least they don’t represent anything called the national interest. When we talk about the nation interest, or a national security doctrine, the first thing that comes to mind is defense of borders, sovereignty, independence. These are sort of basic rudimentary definitions of what the national interest is, and no state would allow that. Unfortunately, in Lebanon we’ve had many political forces who would be not only more than happy, who have invited Israel to invade Lebanon. This happened in 2006 as well.
So it’s quite understandable that Hezbollah doesn’t sit around waiting for that kind of consensus to emerge, because it won’t, precisely because there are parties in Lebanon which do not want Lebanon to be independent, which do want, if not occupation, political domination by outside forces like the US, Israel and now Saudi. This is also the same case with Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Hezbollah was fully aware that groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, whose very ideology is committed to destroying, basically, eliminating the Shia in the region, to destroying Iran and the resistance. That’s just part of their ideology. Their very name says that. It’s ISIS, it’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which means they want to dominate this entire region.
So even if one wants to look at it as some kind of preemptive warfare, which it wasn’t, mind you, because these groups were already attacking Lebanese and were already infiltrating across the border, Hezbollah had no choice but to do that to prevent Lebanon from becoming Syria. And in fact, it has been very successful in this. You know, the facts prove this, because since 2014, we haven’t had any terrorist bombings, in Beirut at least. Beirut has been immune from any kind of terrorist infiltration, thanks to Hezbollah and the Lebanese army and the security forces in Lebanon, their close coordination, their counter-terrorism measures. This is what Hezbollah now has, in addition to its resistance, I call it a post-resistance movement now, because Hezbollah’s expanded its resistance role. It’s gone beyond resisting Israel to defending Lebanon’s borders like a conventional army, and in addition to that, it’s now engaged in a counterinsurgency against these Jihadi groups in Syria and Lebanon and Iraq, and also it’s responsible for homeland security, for counter-terrorism.
So because of these different roles Hezbollah has been playing, we see a very weak country like Lebanon with a very weak army being immune from the same kinds of attacks that have plagued Europe, for example, and even the United States. It’s ironic, but Lebanon has become safer than London or Paris.
AARON MATÉ We’ll leave it there. Amal Saad, Professor at Lebanese University, author of “Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion” and the forthcoming “Hizbu’llah’s Post-Resistance”. Professor Saad, thank you.
AMAL SAAD: Thank you, Aaron. Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.