By Laura N. Bell
Two years have passed since Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned unexpectedly on November 4, 2017, citing frustration over Iranian interference in his country’s domestic politics and concerns for his own personal safety. Hariri’s resignation was ultimately short-lived and it occurred amidst the kind of drama suited to a Hollywood blockbuster. According to reporting by Reuters, upon landing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 3, the phones of Hariri and his entourage had been confiscated, after which he was held under house arrest and given orders to resign his post. He did so in a televised speech, reading directly from papers in his hands, blaming Iran and Hezbollah for sowing discord in the Arab world, and citing concerns about his potential assassination.
At the time of Hariri’s resignation, both explanations for his departure seemed plausible, if derived from Saudi concerns. The relationship between Iran and Hezbollah is well established and Lebanon has a history of political assassination. No one knows this history better than Saad Hariri, whose father, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in a bombing on Valentine’s Day in 2005. During Rafik Hariri’s terms as prime minister, he dealt with significant interference from the al-Assad regime in Syria, which is historically supported by Iran, and which is itself believed to hold some responsibility for his assassination. An international tribunal has since indicted four members of Hezbollah for the killing, and trials in absentia are ongoing, with closing arguments held in September 2018. Political divisions in Lebanon over the tribunal led to Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the cabinet in 2011, which collapsed the government. Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals and it is understandable that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would be unhappy with Hezbollah’s influence in the Lebanese government.
After his resignation speech, Saad Hariri remained in Saudi Arabia, and Lebanese President Michel Aoun refused his resignation until Hariri returned to Beirut to resign in person. Hariri sat for an awkward interview with a Lebanese television reporter in Saudi Arabia in which he stated that he was free to travel but would not do so because of concerns for his family’s safety. However, Hariri’s appearance did little to allay concerns and beliefs that he was being held against his will. French President Emmanuel Macron made an unscheduled trip to the Kingdom to visit with Hariri, and the intervention resulted in Hariri leaving Saudi and traveling to France as a guest of Macron on November 17th. By the end of the month, Hariri had returned to Lebanon, rescinded his resignation, and resumed the duties of his office contingent on a new approach to foreign policy known as “dissociation”—a policy of remaining neutral in regional conflicts.
In May 2018, nine years after the last parliamentary elections, voters in Lebanon went to the polls to elect a new parliament and, in February 2019, the new government was formed with Hariri continuing to serve as Prime Minister. Under a new proportional representation law passed in 2017 (previously it was a majoritarian system), Hezbollah did not gain additional seats in parliament. However, the March 8 coalition, which consists of Hezbollah and various allies, won 68 of the 128 parliamentary seats and therefore did increase its influence. While this is not enough to pass legislation on its own without additional support, the March 8 coalition does hold enough seats to prevent votes on issues that require a two-thirds majority. Since taking office in 2016 for the second time as Prime Minister, Hariri has made multiple concessions to the Hezbollah faction, endorsing Michel Aoun (who is allied with the March 8 coalition) for president, and refraining from commenting on Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. It is likely that Hariri’s willingness to work with Hezbollah as part of the government drew the ire of Mohammad bin Salman, prompting the resignation crisis.
Lebanon has proven to be a resilient state—surviving a brutal civil war, a history of political assassinations, failed governments, and a significant influx of refugees in the past six years equivalent to 25 percent of the population. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the state survived the dramatic events surrounding Hariri’s temporary resignation and the obvious interference by Saudi Arabia in the governing of the small Mediterranean country. In his resignation speech, Hariri stated that Lebanon was in “the eye of the storm” of Middle Eastern turmoil, largely blaming Hezbollah for the situation. It’s unlikely that these were actually Hariri’s chosen words, but it is an adequate descriptor of Lebanon’s place in the Middle East. Hezbollah’s influence has grown in recent years, placing Lebanon in the crosshairs of the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry. More recently, tensions in the way of rocket attacks between Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon and Israel are increasing, thereby adding even more volatile undercurrents to a stormy situation.
Iran is emboldened after successes in Syria and has utilized Hezbollah effectively as the tip of its spear, both in Lebanon and throughout the region. Yet, policymakers must recognize Hezbollah’s role in providing crucial social services to the Lebanese Shia population, essentially operating as a “state within a state” for decades. Failing to realize the group’s level of entrenchment in the Lebanese Shia community only hinders progress on democratic goals. In a recent interview on CNBC, Hariri refers to himself as a pragmatist and acknowledges the problem of an influential Hezbollah, but states that governance limits exist in the Middle East. Interestingly, Hariri argues that the group is a problem for the entire region, not just for Lebanon, and he believes that there is a lack of seriousness within the global community in addressing Hezbollah’s influence.
Saudi Arabia’s actions, such as requesting that all Saudi citizens leave Lebanon during the Hariri resignation crisis and building closer relations with Israel over their common enemy in Hezbollah, are alarming. Current Saudi involvement in Lebanon dates back to the 1989 Ta’if Accord, which ended the Lebanese civil war, and was brokered in Saudi Arabia. The Hariri family has strong ties to Saudi Arabia. Rafik Hariri made his fortune in Saudi through construction projects, Hariri family members (such as Saad’s brother Bahaa) reside in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia bankrolled many of the rebuilding efforts undertaken by Rafik Hariri in the years after the civil war. Prior to the resignation crisis, Saad’s family resided in the Kingdom, and his children attended school there.
Saad Hariri has visited Saudi since the resignation crisis, with the first visit in late February 2018. Hariri met with King Salman and, in early March, posted a selfie of himself with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Khalid bin Salman taken during the visit. From all public accounts, it appears that the Lebanese-Saudi relationship is back on track, but it is impossible to know what transpires behind the scenes or know Hariri’s personal viewpoint after the seeming forced resignation and house arrest at the hands of the Saudi regime.
Both Prime Minister Hariri and Lebanon appear to have weathered the storm since Hariri’s temporary resignation. However, Lebanon is in a precarious position both in terms of state security and economic stability. Lebanon housed an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees during the height of the Syrian civil war and still, according to Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, hosts 200 refugees per square kilometer in a state roughly one-third the size of Maryland in the United States. Regional tensions have resulted in reduced tourism revenues and the state is carrying enormous debt, resulting in recent reductions in credit rating. In efforts to avoid a potentially devastating involvement in regional conflicts, the official foreign policy of the state has been one of dissociation since Hariri’s return of office. However, in light of the renewed tensions with Israel, the policy now excludes the southern neighbor. Thus, Lebanon has no intention of remaining neutral towards Israel and while this is not surprising, it does signal increasing complications in Middle Eastern affairs today.
Lebanon may not be thriving, but it is surviving, and the government is working on improving the economic situation through programs such as investment in infrastructure financed by the pledging of a reported $11 million from international donors. In the wake of the 2017 resignation, the International Support Group for Lebanon scheduled three conferences, bringing together donors (private and public) to assist Lebanon in various projects—essentially to prevent a failed state. Similar conferences had been held in the past, but the resignation crisis prompted increased concern over the stability of Lebanon, as has the slow formation of the government in the wake of the 2018 parliamentary elections. However, a government is now in place and the state is moving toward reducing public deficits and improving the economic situation. One recent move is the repatriation of some Syrian refugees, attempting to ease somewhat the strain on public services.
From a U.S. perspective, policymakers must approach this issue with strategic patience and a flexible, multi-faceted plan. First, weakening Hezbollah economically in the short term will hinder the group’s capabilities and with this goal in mind, the U.S. Congress passed further sanctions in 2017. Although the sanctions were watered down to avoid impacting the broader Lebanese economy, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah admitted publicly that the sanctions were having an effect. Yet, he also stated that it would not affect their “primary source of financing”, which is likely Iran. In the long term, Iran’s financial support for Hezbollah will have to be addressed, but for now, the U.S. Congress continues to expand Hezbollah-related sanctions by sanctioning three Hezbollah members of parliament in 2019.
Second, the U.S. must support the Lebanese state, but avoid interfering with Lebanese sovereignty. The top concerns of Lebanese citizens in 2016 were the economy, corruption, and Syrian refugees, according to the Arab Barometer. The U.S. (and other interested states) has the capability to assist in these areas by increasing economic aid, buttressing institutions, and supporting democratic initiatives, especially those targeted at improving corruption laws and transparency. Lebanon has a strong civil society sector and, by supporting both existing governmental and non-governmental groups, the United States can help strengthen it.
The Arab Barometer indicates that 84 percent of Lebanese citizens believe that democracy is the best form of government for their country. With such strong democratic leanings, Lebanon should be prioritized in U.S. foreign policy with additional monetary aid, technical assistance, and public support. U.S. aid obligations to Lebanon in 2019 total $46 million, but much more is needed. Notably, the 2019 numbers are a sharp decline from just two years earlier when, in 2017, aid obligations to Lebanon totaled $109 million. By comparison, U.S. aid obligations to Lebanon’s neighbor Jordan, a constitutional monarchy, total $891 million for 2019 and $752 million in 2017.
U.S. policymakers must realize that Lebanon is, indeed, the “eye of the storm” in the Middle East and devise policy accordingly. The Shia population in Lebanon is sizable and Hezbollah is the primary supporter of the Shia community in the divided state. U.S. policymakers should acknowledge the role of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics, at least until there is a viable alternative for Shia representation. Hezbollah’s influence in government increased in the most recent elections and there is no evidence to suggest that a sea change is on the horizon. An official census in Lebanon has not occurred since 1932, making it impossible to determine population shifts, but it is suspected that the Shia population has increased in recent decades and may total as much as 31% of the Lebanese population based on a study by the Beirut-based research group Information International.
Thus, the U.S. and the international community should work to prevent the Iran-Hezbollah relationship from metastasizing and overtaking Lebanon. Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia will accept an Iranian-controlled Lebanon, particularly in light of the Iranian-backed Assad regime’s survival in Syria, and thus interstate war could erupt. Within Lebanon, communal fractures may boil over, leading to another civil war, or tensions at the southern border might spark another Lebanon-Israel war. All of these scenarios are plausible and no one wins if Lebanon descends into violence.
Laura N. Bell is assistant professor of Political Science at West Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on political violence, terrorism, and transitional justice. She is currently working on a monograph examining the use of assassination as a tool of terrorism, and is part of a project team analyzing transitional justice mechanisms in Lebanon.
Image: Hariri during a state visit to Moscow in 2017 shortly before the resignation crisis.
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