Regionalization is the Name of the Game

"We are faced with a cold regional war between Shi'ites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in which both major contenders move their minor allies on the Middle East chessboard." Prof. Giancarlo Elia Valori discusses Hariri's resignation and the crisis in Lebanon. Opinion

Photo: AP

On November 4 last, during the great "purge" within the Saudi elite, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, resigned claiming that his life was in danger.

He was paying a visit to Riyadh and the interview released made us implicitly understand that a change was possible.

Saad Hariri, son of Rafik – the politician and businessman linked to Saudi Arabia who had been assassinated with a high-potential bomb on February 14, 2005, along with 21 other people, rose to power last year in the framework of an agreement envisaging Michel Aoun, a Christian liked by Hezbollah and Syria, as President of the Republic.

In his abovementioned interview with the Saudi television on November 4, Hariri had harshly criticized Iran and President Aoun had called him by phone to "ask for his resignation."

However, Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, had been elected with the consent of Saudi Arabia.

It should be noted that on the same day, Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a long-range missile targeted to Riyadh.

The Houthi Shi'ite rebels had already fired approximately 120 missiles against Saudi Arabia, but so far, none had reached the capital city.

Saad Hariri has a complex relationship with both the Saudis and the Iranian and Shi'ite universe.

In 2010, when he had first been appointed Lebanese Prime Minister – before some US leaders – he had often criticized the Saudi pressures designed to put an end to the Lebanese dispute with the Syrian regime.

Saad Hariri seemed to be very independent of Saudi Arabia and Iran. He probably thought that the latter might be useful to rebalance the Saudi influence on the Lebanon.

Hence, everything seemed obvious: Saudi Arabia did not want to trigger the fuse in Syria and wanted to avoid destabilization in the Lebanon – inevitable after the destabilization of the Syrian regime. Finally, Saudi Arabia did not accept Iran’s expansion among the Houthi and, however, deemed that all those points of tension could be easily controllable if kept separate from one another.

It is by no mere coincidence that in January 2011 – the year of "Arab Springs" – Saad Hariri was removed from office a few minutes after a photo opportunity with Barack Obama.

Hariri resigned on November 4 in view of political elections scheduled for next May.

Saad Hariri's political party can win on the basis of a fundamental criterion – namely the refusal to accept Hezbollah's expansion in Lebanon, which is increasingly widespread among Sunni voters – while Hariri currently seems to be ever closer to the Lebanese Shi'ite "Party of God."

Nor should we forget about Saad's scarce personal and political resources, now used up in years of election, propaganda and party welfare.

It is hence evident that, currently, Saudi Arabia no longer needs a buffer State such as Lebanon, where to create large-coalition governments with Iranian agents but, if anything, it wants the political and territorial collapse of the Lebanon and its fragmentation between pro-Saudi areas and Shi'ite-controlled areas.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has softly let it know that it wants to replace Saad Hariri with his brother Bahaa, who – in a mix of business and politics – is closer to the new equilibrium imposed by the Crown Prince on the Saudi power elite.

Hence we are faced with a cold regional war between Shi'ites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in which both major contenders move their minor allies on the Middle East chessboard, with the United States supporting Saudi Arabia – without realizing what is really happening – and Russia, the new actual global player in the region, having stable relations with Iran, winning in Syria, maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia and dealing with Turkey to solve the Kurdish issue.

Nevertheless, if Iran has also to deal with tensions in Lebanon, defending the political and military power of Hezbollah – "Imam Khomeini's beloved creature" – it cannot maintain the same economic and military standing in Syria, nor even support the Houthi rebellion with the same forces as in the past.

It is a proxy war – hence the strategic equation is based on the possibility of consuming the opponent’s resources by diverting them from the true targets they intend to hit.

Iran wants Yemen because it is a way of strategically controlling – on the same territory of the Arabian Peninsula – the Sunni Kingdom and the commercial lines going to the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal.

Saudi Arabia wants Lebanon, or part of it, to put pressures on the Syrian borders and disrupt the line Iran is building to connect the Iranian borders with those between Syria and Lebanon.

It is a connection that – under the supervision of the Russian Federation – enables Iran to reach the Mediterranean safely and control its indirect borders with the Sunni Kingdom.

That is the reason why Saudi Arabia wants Saad Hariri to pay the bill now: a few days ago, the Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs said that the Lebanese Sunni leader "did not do enough" to "drive Hezbollah back into the caves."

Furthermore, the "Party of God" does not intend to clash directly with Saudi Arabia but, over the next few weeks, it could repeat the action against Israel which, in 2006, won wide consensus for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In this case, the elections should be won with war, also forcing Hariri and the other small Sunni political parties to come to terms with the Shi'ites of Southern Lebanon, who now hold and control the Armed Forces and most of the bureaucracy.

Looking to the tendencies of those who vote for Hariri's "Future Movement" political party – Tayyar Al Mustaqbal – it can be noted that there is an anti-Shi'ite polarization and an explicit rejection of Saudi's "protection" for the Lebanon.

The May elections in Lebanon will be won by those who will be able to emphasize national independence and a new welfare State project.

Ironically, according to what ascertained in 2014 by the Hague International Tribunal, it was Hezbollah who organized the attack on Rafik Hariri, the first real destabilization act in Lebanon.

However, as said by the Russian nobleman who, after the destruction of his family by the Bolsheviks – agreed to work as Head of the Russian Protocol at the Versailles Conference: "If your mother dies knocked down by a tramcar, this does not mean that you should stop catching it."

Meanwhile, after Saad's resignation – obviously forced by a Saudi Kingdom that could not accept that in the most stable Saudi-friendly government in Lebanon there were two Hezbollah ministers – the Lebanese political offer is distorted and made more complex.

Obviously, the Shi'ite group will try to form a new government, which will have an unstable majority.

In this case, Saudi Arabia will force the Shi'ite group to destabilize its own country unintentionally.

Unless the "Party of God" starts a campaign against the Jewish State, which would distract attention from the internal political equilibria and shift it to external warfare and would enable the Shi'ite group to be supported by the great majority of the Lebanese people.

Hence, while Syria is now part of the Iranian axis, Saudi Arabia wants Lebanon – possibly the whole of it – to seal the Shi'ite hegemony in the Syrian cul de sac between Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

The French President, Macron, discussed the Lebanese issue carefully in his visit to Dubai on November 9 last. On the one hand, he underlined the French effort for achieving Lebanon's unity and stability while, on the other, he fears Iran's ballistic missile program.

They should have thought about it before, when the P5+1 signed the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, considering that the ICBMs – although not having nuclear warheads – may be fatal in a military confrontation.

The US nuclear weapon psychosis has prevented from thinking about other threats, no less serious than the nuclear ones.

Obviously, any Western country confining itself to the rhetoric of "dialogue" or trivial equidistance and renouncing to claim its specific national interest, is doomed to "come to ruin," as the disarmed prophets described by Machiavelli.

What could we do instead?

For one, we could define a series of points on the Persian Gulf coast where to deploy an international force, which should regionalize and curb the conflicts in the area, up to making them become irrelevant.

Moreover, with his resignation, Hariri could reaffirm his allegiance to the new course of the Saudi monarchy inaugurated by the Crown Prince while, as already noted in a previous article, Saad's company – namely Saudi Oger – was harshly hit by Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s recent sanctions.

Accepting the Saudi dictates to rescue himself and his "property" – to use Machiavelli’s language again – is a rational and understandable choice, also considering that elections in Lebanon are very costly.

Nor can we rule out that, by putting pressure on the Lebanese Shi'ites, Saudi Arabia wants to create the conditions for an agreement with Iran in an area that is for them much more useful than Lebanon, namely Iraq, a necessary ally for oil and an inevitable bulwark in the regionalization of Bashar el Assad’ Syria.

Regionalization that could also be useful to Iran.

Therefore, the "Party of God" may choose to accept a compromise on the Lebanese government to defuse the confrontation with Saudi Arabia or it may create a broad front with other religious-social minorities and relegate Saad and hence the Saudis to the opposition. It may also accept a "technocratic" government that would bring Lebanon to the May elections in a situation where everyone is hands-free – including Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Nor can we rule out that Hezbollah wants to continue the alliance with Saad, thus putting the Saudi political operations in Lebanon in difficulty.

Meanwhile – and by no mere coincidence – this year the Lebanese government has adopted the State budget for the first time since 2005.

A budget that is not the budget of a country undergoing an immediate financial crisis.

The public deficit is supposed to be 5.2 billion US dollars, and it should be recalled that the Lebanese lira is pegged to the US dollar at a fixed exchange rate.

A projected deficit of 9.54% of GDP, while the GDP is expected to grow by 2.2% in 2017 with a still tragic debt / GDP ratio of 149%.

Both the crisis of migrants from the Syrian border (so far a million and a half people) and the clash for the distribution of resources among the various political and religious areas are the reasons why public spending has skyrocketed over the last four years.

This makes us think that, in the future, Iran or Saudi Arabia will be interested in funding the Lebanese public debt in exchange for political and military favors.

Finally, there is a ridiculous absence of the European Union, which now thinks that foreign policy is a luxury.

 

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