Saudi Prince Salman’s Chess Game with Hezbollah in Lebanon
Prince Salman’s counter coup d’etat in Saudi Arabia has resulted in the forced resignation of Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon says Vijay Prashad
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri resigned on Saturday, in a pre-recorded broadcast first aired in Saudi Arabian television and then in Lebanon. He said he believed there was an assassination plot against him and accused Iran and his Lebanese coalition partner, Hezbollah, of sowing strife in the Arab world.
SAAD HARIRI: I would like to say to Iran and its followers, that they will be losers in their intervention in the Arab affairs. Our nation will wake up, as it did in the past, their hand in the region will be cut off.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now joining me to analyze this unfolding situation is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is now the executive director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and is also chief editor of LeftWord Books. Vijay, allow me to dive right in here and ask you what we know so far, and you assessment of Hariri’s sudden resignation.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it should be said that Lebanon has been in a very fragile state ever since the war broke out in Syria. And there’s been a real attempt inside Lebanon for all the different political factions to create some kind of stability despite the fact that several of them are on different sides of the Lebanese civil war. So it was quite a feat that a kind of unity government was created with Saad Hariri agreeing to take the Prime Ministership, while Michel Aoun, who’s an ally of Hezbollah, became the president. This very fragile government then moved forward and in fact passed a budget, you know, just a short while ago. It looked like things were quite stable in Lebanon as compared to the neighborhood, and with the Syrian war slowly winding down, things looked quite positive for Lebanon. And then of course, Mr. Hariri was hastily called to Saudi Arabia, from where a first broadcast on Saudi television, he declared his resignation.
This really surprised not only his own allies inside Lebanon, but also, the president of Lebanon Michel Aoun, who in fact has refused to accept the resignation, and has said he will only consider this resignation when Mr. Hariri returns to Lebanon. There is of course great speculation that Mr. Hariri is being held in a kind of prisoner in Saudi Arabia, not being allowed to return to Lebanon. So the tension and crisis of course continues. This tension, I should add, is part of the broad crackdown inside Saudi Arabia by the son of the current king, Mohammed bin Salman, who’s arrested 11 important people inside the kingdom, and has arrested and shut down basically three private news outlets inside Saudi Arabia.
SHARMINI PERIES: Vjay, this week we saw a number of people arrested in Saudi Arabia, this appears to be a crackdown on, what does this crackdown, or crisis, have to do with Hariri, if anything?
VIJAY PRASHAD: It should be, I think, seen that this turmoil inside Saudi Arabia is a direct consequence of Saudi Arabia having basically lost the goals that it had set for itself in Syria and in Yemen, with the collapse of Isis, with the reassertion of the government of…, Saudi Arabia has basically seen its goals unmet inside Syria. At the same time, it’s war in Yemen, a very harsh war where there has been considerable has also come undone. Saudi Arabia has been lashing out at Yemen, and in fact yesterday, put a total moratorium, an embargo, on all ports and airports of Yemen, not allowing aid to enter the country. So, this crisis, in its neighborhood, the failure in Saudi Arabia, to execute its ambitions in Syria and in Yemen, the very deep crisis its own economy, with no oil prices and so on, has created a legitimacy problem for the king of Saudi Arabia, particularly his son, Mohammed bin Salman, who has been in charge of almost every aspect of Saudi rule.
And what he has done in the last few days, is gone after every single other branch of the royal family, sons of previous kings, nephews of the current king, the very rich in the country, has arrested them. It is being suggested inside Saudi Arabia that this was a counter coup led by Mohammad Bin Salman, because he was afraid that some of these princes and others might have been mounting a coup against him, an unstable rule that he has been managing, very poor execution of wars and so on, so this was his countercoup. Then wrapped up in this, perhaps in this tantrum around the defeat of their ambitions in Syria is perhaps the forced resignation of Saad Hariri of Lebanon.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, and his father, who was assassinated in a car bomb back in 2005, they have very close ties to Saudi Arabia, what hold might Saudi Arabia have on the Prime Minister, and what do we know about what’s happening to him now, he’s being held in Saudi Arabia, some reports says against his wishes, what are your thoughts?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, there is one suggestion that Mr. Hariri is being held. Now, it is true that he has very close ties with the Saudis, so did his father, and in fact, many people have suggested that this is Saudi Arabia trying to micromanage Lebanese politics. On Sunday, Mr. Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, went on television in Lebanon and suggested as much. He accused Saudi Arabia of interfering in Lebanese politics. He suggested that because Mr. Hariri made his announcement in Saudi Arabia, on Saudi television, that this was a direct evidence of Saudi interference in Lebanese politics. So, one suggestion is that Mr. Hariri, totally beholden to the Saudis, basically had to do their bidding when they wanted to destabilize the government in Lebanon and perhaps pressure the situation so that there is some kind of war, perhaps undertaken by Israel or others, against Hezbollah to start a more regional war against Iran. That’s one suggestion.
The other suggestion is that Mr. Hariri has basically gone into exile in Saudi Arabia, unable to manage the situation in Lebanon, I think frustrated by the victory of the very closely linked with Iran group, Hezbollah, and the defeat of the ambitions of his bloc in the region. So whether he is being held captive, or he’s gone into exile, either way, there is an attempt now by Saudi Arabia to put the pressure on Hezbollah, to use Hezbollah, in a way, as perhaps a way, to start a regional war of the west, and Israel, against Iran, including of course, Saudi assets.
SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, this morning there was an opinion, a piece penned in the Haaretz newspaper in Israel, asking “Is Saudi Arabia pushing Israel into war with Hezbollah and Iran?” Your thoughts on that.
VIJAY PRASHAD: I think that’s a very good way to phrase the question. I think there’s an attempt by Saudi Arabia, having seen the United States unwilling to do its bidding entirely vis-a-vis Iran, I mean the Trump Administration has gone quite far in its belligerence attempting to poke Iran, to prod Iran, to make Iran do something that would then welcome, allow the United States to attack Iran. But that road seems to not be going forward, and I think that the Saudis are now trying to have a kind of proxy war against Iran, by pushing some kind of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
It needs to be said that Hezbollah is a very disciplined political outfit, and I very much doubt that they will take this bait and go to war against Israel. Because also true, that since the 2006 war since Hezbollah and Israel, which was essentially a stalemate, where Hezbollah was not destroyed, which was the aim of Israel, now Hezbollah is much stronger, given its experience in fighting in Syria, and I think the Israelis recognize that a war against Hezbollah is not going to be as asymmetrical, as say the Israeli wars against the Palestinians, that has Hezbollah will inflict major damage on Israel. So I doubt very much that the Israelis will take the bait, will be as adventurous as the Saudis perhaps would like, and go to war against Hezbollah, which they should perhaps think that as the Saudis think, is a way to get at Iran.
SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, I understand that the leader of Hezbollah, Nasrallah, had very calming presence according to people on the ground, that he went on air right after this resignation was aired, and people felt as if the country was in crisis, and apparently Nasrallah had a very calming presence. Does Hariri’s resignation leave a leadership crisis in Lebanon, and what will this mean for the politics and governance of Lebanon?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well I mean, Lebanon is an interesting place because its entire government structure is sectarianism between the Christian Mennonites, the Sunnis and the Shia. So it’s not a question that the resignation of Mr. Hariri will collapse the government. It’s also clear that in the last 15 years, Lebanon has had long periods where an illegitimate legislature has continued to govern. In other words, where its term has ended, its continued to hold office. So I don’t think there’ll be some complete vacuum in Lebanon. I think other forces will come in, the permanent bureaucracy is going to continue to work, and besides, it’s a highly decentralized country. So things are going to happen. I don’t think this is going to make Lebanon fall into some kind of abyss.
I think the real question here is going to be Mr. Hariri’s bloc is going to do. What his political party is going to do. He has not been the most effective leader of their political party, he is not perhaps as wily as his father, he’s much more susceptible to influence by the Saudis and others. So, this might just give an opening inside the future movement, which is his bloc, for other people to come in and take power. So, let’s see what happens, what’s interesting is, that Mr. Nasrallah has basically given a timetable for his return to make a comment. He’s spoken on Sunday, he’ll come back on Friday, he recognizes that this is a very quick moving series of events, and his commentaries are going to be taken very seriously. So I think, let’s wait and see what happens during this week.
SHARMINI PERIES: And one final question, in terms of Saudi Arabia’s objective in all of this, give us a sense of what we should be looking out for over the next little while.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well I think that Saudi Arabia’s objective is basically driven by the fact that its ambitions have been routed and it wants somehow to poke Iran, and I’m very much hoping that in order to prevent some kind of new cataclysmic war in West Asia, that Iran holds itself back, takes a mature attitude, that Hezbollah takes a mature attitude to this crisis, no one gets provoked by Saudi actions. He has now called the king and his son, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, have called the leader of the Palestinian government, Mahmoud Abbas, to Saudi Arabia. We shall see what happens here, will Mahmoud Abbas make some kind of statement from Riyadh? Will he also be arrested and held in Riyadh? It’s to be seen what is going on, but what is very clear, is this is some sort of Saudi tantrum playing across the region, and I hope other actors are sober minded in their reaction to it.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alright Vijay, as always I thank you so much for joining us today.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.