The Middle Eastern cauldron and Turkey
The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri – likely as a result of Saudi Arabian pressure - threatens to unleash a new cycle of sectarian violence in the Middle East.
The Saudis’ current moves against Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon appear to correlate with U.S. President Donald Trump’s new hardline stance on Iran. Trump ordered Congress on Oct. 13 to review former President Barack Obama’s flagship nuclear deal and called on European states to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. At the moment the EU only considers the group’s military wing a terror group.
In a similar vein, Trump sided with Riyadh when the Qatar crisis broke out five months ago, criticizing the close ties between Doha and Tehran.
The latest crisis, which culminated in al-Hariri’s resignation and the missile attack on Riyadh by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, includes messages of U.S. and Israeli solidarity with Saudi Arabia. This would indicate that Hezbollah is next in the firing line, as the U.S. and its allies seek to curb Tehran’s inexorable rise.
So does that mean that a new front will open in Lebanon?
The Saudis have a dismal foreign policy record. Victory remains out of sight in Yemen even though fighting started way back in 2015. In addition to the war’s financial cost, the Saudis are struggling with the moral weight of the war, which began amid an already dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.
The embargo against Qatar has done little more than divide Gulf countries and push Doha further towards Tehran. Does Saudi Arabia even have the stomach for a new military adventure, especially considering recent announcements concerning a major economic and political transformation at home?
Israel, which views Iran as an existential threat, has long been laying the groundwork for another war against Hezbollah. The signs are clear. Throughout the course of the Syrian war Israel has occasionally hit convoys headed from the Golan Heights to Lebanon. In addition, Israel’s largest military drill in two decades, Or Hadagan, simulated a war against Hezbollah in September.
Although Israel has shown off its will to counter Hezbollah, the country does not necessarily want a conflagration. The 33-day war against the group in 2006 yielded no tangible reward. On the other hand, if a new conflict does kick off, Israeli authorities claim they will not distinguish between Lebanon and Hezbollah and raze the whole country to the ground if necessary.
For the Trump administration, breaking Tehran’s back on Hezbollah might seem a favorable strategy. Mired in scandal at home, President Trump could seek to divert attention elsewhere with a foreign crisis. But given the recent lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, it would be unrealistic to expect the U.S. to engage in a military conflict that would trigger direct confrontation with Iran and endanger U.S. interests in Syria and Iraq. Although unwilling to engage themselves, the U.S. would be grateful for others to act instead.
What purpose do inflammatory comments serve? In the best-case scenario, a Qatar-style embargo could pressure Lebanon to counter Hezbollah’s influence in the region. Punitive measures, which could include cutting financial, banking and transport links, would damage Lebanon’s vulnerable economy. Given that remittances from Lebanese overseas account for 16 percent of the country’s GDP, would people blame Hezbollah, as expected, or would victimization open up new alliances?
If pressure mounts, Iran would probably aim to foment instability throughout the Shia Crescent, seeking to mobilize oppressed Shiite communities in Sunni-controlled countries such as Saudi Arabia, imperilling the marriage of convenience between Israel and the Gulf countries by bringing the Palestinian question to the fore.
In the Middle East even the best-laid plans frequently go to waste. And one spark can easily ignite an inferno.