OPINION by Halim Shebaya
Lebanese President Michel Aoun called the circumstances of his disappearance “ambiguous and mysterious” and asked Saudi Arabia for clarification. In meetings with foreign ambassadors, he has gone further and declared Hariri “kidnapped”.
It has become clear that Hariri was planning for a short visit in Riyadh and was scheduled to return to Lebanon that weekend. He is set to appear for the first time tonight in an interview from Riyadh.
I spoke to Habib Ephrem, president of the Syriac League in Lebanon and secretary-general of the Levant Encounter, a think-tank known to be very close to President Aoun. He showed me an entry in his calendar from last week titled “11:30am Hariri” scheduled for Monday, November 6. He had received a call from the office of the prime minister on Saturday, November 4, hours before Hariri resigned in front of Al-Arabiya’s cameras. Clearly, not even his team in Beirut knew what was going on.
Hariri now seems stuck in Riyadh, like another head of government, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president, who reportedly has not been allowed to leave the Saudi capital for months. And with all the posturing from Riyadh, the fear in Beirut is that the country might be facing a proxy war, just like the one in Yemen.
The Lebanese are not ‘a herd of sheep’
According to the latest reports, Saudi Arabia took the decision on Hariri’s resignation because “he was unwilling to confront Hezbollah”. He was handed his resignation speech while waiting to see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
There have been also rumours that Saudi Arabia is setting the stage for Saad’s older brother, Bahaa, to replace him, and has demanded that members of the Hariri family go to Riyadh to pledge allegiance.
When it comes to an armed confrontation with Hezbollah, it is unlikely that any party in Lebanon would be willing to participate.
Interior Minister Nohad Machnouq had a scathing response when asked about the issue: “[The Lebanese are not] a herd of sheep or a plot of land whose ownership can be transferred from one person to another. Lebanon’s democratic system is based on elections, not on a simple pledge of allegiance.”
Clearly, the latest developments are an assault on Lebanon’s sovereignty and one that has been widely condemned in Lebanon, except by hardline supporters of Saudi Arabia. These include former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, a Sunni strongman from Tripoli, as well as Samir Geagea, the leader of the Christian party Lebanese Forces, who only found the “timing” of the resignation surprising but not the substance of it.
Saudi escalation in Lebanon
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain urged their citizens to leave Beirut, given the Kingdom’s accusation that Lebanon has declared war on Saudi Arabia.
This is not the first time such a travel ban has been issued. In February 2016, Saudi Arabia undertook a similar evacuation in the aftermath of the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Riyadh’s justification for the move then was that Lebanon failed “to condemn Iran’s aggression”.
Tensions later subsided, especially after the presidential settlement that brought Aoun to the presidency and Hariri to the premiership.
But, this time, Lebanese citizens are more worried that this evacuation of Saudi citizens could be followed by an economic – and possibly military – escalation. There is also the ever-present Israeli threat of renewed aggression against Lebanon; Israeli officials have been talking about another conflict with Hezbollah even before the latest crisis.
Now, Iran already has its ally in Lebanon well-armed and ready. The question is whether Saudi Arabia intends to confront Hezbollah militarily, leading to a Yemen-like situation.
Such a move would have a devastating effect on the country and the millions of Syrian and Palestinian refugees it is hosting. Given the human catastrophes in Syria and Yemen and the incessant turmoil in Iraq, pushing conflict on Lebanon would unleash a whole new level of chaos, destruction and death in the region.
Lebanon does not want war
In a widely watched political show last Thursday, a Saudi analyst offended the Lebanese public by hurling threats and insults at Lebanon, even going as far as accusing the Lebanese president and the speaker of being terrorists.
The Lebanese reacted with anger to these accusations on social media, leading Justice Minister Salim Jreissati to ask the general prosecutor to investigate the case as a crime of contempt and criminal libel against the president, speaker, foreign minister and Lebanese Army.
If the Saudi intention behind the resignation was the formation of a strong anti-Hezbollah coalition that would spearhead an escalation against the party in Lebanon, the result would not satisfy Riyadh. So far, there has been a clear display of “national unity” signalling the importance of preserving stability and avoiding another war.
In fact, it is not clear what options Saudi Arabia has in the event of a decision on a full-blown confrontation. To be sure, it has many supporters.
However, when it comes to an armed confrontation with Hezbollah, it is unlikely that any party in Lebanon would be willing to participate.
Now, this is not to say that Hezbollah enjoys national backing. On the contrary, one thing that has become clearer is that Hezbollah will be unable to continue with its policy of involvement in conflicts outside Lebanon’s borders without drawing the ire of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
Samir Geagea had a point when he called on the party to withdraw from regional conflicts if it is serious in its support for Hariri.
So far, the Lebanese public has made it clear that it has no “appetite” for a military showdown with Hezbollah. It has also become crystal clear that Lebanon does not want to be part of another armed conflict, nor does it want to be led into a confrontation on someone else’s behalf.
The civil war of 1975-1990 was enough. And so were decades of Israeli aggression and wars.
Cooler heads need to prevail. There is no other choice.