The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on November 4—announced from Saudi Arabia, which built on his statements by accusing Lebanon of waging war against it and calling on its citizens to leave the Mediterranean country—has heightened justifiable concerns that the crisis could escalate into a new Middle Eastern war. Hariri’s resignation signals Riyadh’s increased efforts to counter Hezbollah and turn more Lebanese against the Iran-backed group, which entered into an uneasy coalition with Hariri and President Michel Aoun in October 2016 to end a two-year standoff that had left Lebanon’s presidential post vacant. As Iran has consolidated gains in Iraq and Syria—recently underscored by the joint Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah victory over the Islamic State in Deir Ezzor—and Saudi Arabia is caught in a costly quagmire in Yemen, Riyadh has chosen to pursue a confrontation with Tehran by targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Riyadh wants to use its leverage over Hariri to interrupt any power-sharing equilibrium that legitimizes Hezbollah. Beirut’s controversial appointment of an ambassador to Damascus on November 2, its plans to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and Aoun’s statement on October 31 that “Iran is present and has its influence in the Middle East and it must be taken into account” have all added to Saudi Arabia’s perception that Lebanon is aligning too closely with Tehran.
Various Iran-backed Shia militias’ fight against Islamic State has further consolidated Tehran’s influence in the Levant, which will not be easy for Saudi Arabia to reverse. Following years of investment in Iraq and close partnerships with Iraq’s Shia leadership since 2003, Tehran has been committed to playing a strong hand there—unlike the Saudi government, which largely disengaged from Iraq once the pro-Iranian regime of Nouri al-Maliki ascended to power.
Nonetheless, with the full support of Donald Trump’s administration, the Saudis are reengaging with Iraq. In October, during U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Riyadh, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met and held the Saudi Arabia–Iraq Coordination Committee’s inaugural meeting. The committee’s purpose is to capitalize on the potential for improved relations between Riyadh and Baghdad following the reopening of the Arar border crossing and resumption of flights between both countries in August. In October, four days after Saudi Minister of State for GCC Affairs Thamer Al Sabhan arrived in Raqqa, Saudi Minister of Energy Khalid al-Falih visited Baghdad, where he called for boosting cooperation between the two countries in the first public speech made by a Saudi official in Iraq’s capital in several decades.
Likewise, in Syria, where Saudi Arabia had backed the opposition that failed to oust Assad, Riyadh hopes to play a future role in the country’s reconstruction process. Abdulrahman Bin Abdullah al-Zamil, who chairs the Council of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, declared in February that within a year the Syrian civil war will be over and “Turkey and Saudi Arabia will be the re-constructors of Syria.” On October 17, Al Sabhan traveled to Raqqa shortly after U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab militias drove the Islamic State out of the Syrian city, where he met with U.S. Special Envoy Brett McGurk to discuss Riyadh’s role in Raqqa’s reconstruction.
Sabhan and Falih’s visits to Raqqa and Baghdad and the Saudi Arabia–Iraq Coordination Committee’s first meeting followed two trips made by the Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in July and August, respectively. Sadr’s visits were well received by Saudi and Emirati leaders, who have welcomed the cleric’s calls to disband Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq—the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states view these militias as a grave threat to their security, given how they are heavily armed and close to the Saudi–Iraqi border. Furthermore, GCC officials accuse such groups of arming and training Shia militants on Iraqi soil to wage attacks in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. From Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s perspective, Sadr’s strained ties with Iran and his emphasis on Iraqi nationalism above sectarian politics offer the Saudi- and UAE-led bloc an opportunity to realign Baghdad within the Arab fold. Saudi officials believe that by shaking up Tehran’s allies in the Levant, Riyadh can severely counter Iran’s influence there.
In light of Trump’s decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which threatens to unravel the nuclear accord with Iran, and his October 13 speech about countering Iran’s regional conduct more aggressively, the Saudis are banking on stronger support from the White House, which sees Hezbollah not only as a threat to Israel but also to vital U.S. interests in the region. Ongoing allegations that Hezbollah is maintaining a presence on the ground in Bahrain, in addition to Riyadh’s accusations that the Lebanese group played a role in the Houthis’ November 4 missile launch—which Saudi defense systems intercepted over the capital—illustrate the context in which the kingdom also deems Hezbollah a direct threat to GCC security. On top of sanctions that U.S. lawmakers imposed on Hezbollah in October and Trump’s tribute to the 241 U.S. service members killed in Lebanon in 1983, U.S. leadership is increasingly focused on countering Hezbollah via sanctions, potentially followed later with direct military confrontation either in Syria or elsewhere.
Yet previous efforts coordinated by Hezbollah’s enemies to weaken it have been unsuccessful, which naturally raises questions about how easily the Saudis will be able to counter Hezbollah’s power in the Levant, particularly given the extent to which the kingdom is bogged down in Yemen. Additionally, Tillerson’s response to the Lebanon crisis—warning on November 10 against “using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts”—suggests that Trump, members of his administration, and the U.S. diplomatic and defense establishment are not on the same page, just as they were not during the blockade of Qatar in June. There appears to be a rift in Washington between those who support giving the Saudis free rein to counter Iranian influence on Riyadh’s terms and those who believe that, while the United States and its allies must push back against Iran’s clout in the Middle East, the kingdom’s tactics—such as the recent actions against Lebanon—are risky and too dangerous.
Meanwhile, the Saudis are reportedly also pressuring Israel to take action against Hezbollah, raising the specter of yet another Middle Eastern war. Hezbollah’s arsenal of heavy weaponry appears to have deterred Israel from resuming its 2006 war in Lebanon. However, if Tel Aviv moves against Hezbollah in Lebanon, most likely a growing number of Lebanese Sunnis and Christians would support the Shia group’s defense of Lebanese national security—and Saudi Arabia’s attempt to weaken Hezbollah’s legitimacy in Lebanon could ultimately backfire. Yet regardless of the wishes of the Lebanese, Riyadh will continue to pressure Lebanon to pick between the kingdom and Hezbollah—and by extension Iran.
Theodore Karasik and Giorgio Cafiero are respectively the Senior Advisor and CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Follow them on Twitter @TKarasik and @GiorgioCafiero.