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Analysis

Defeated by Iran, the Saudis wash their hands of Lebanon

Riyadh’s decision to halt aid and bar its citizens from Beirut marks a victory for the Shiite axis over the Sunnis in an ever-deepening regional war

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Lebanese protester raises a placard during a mass rally against a political class seen as corrupt and incapable of providing basic services on August 29, 2015, at the iconic Martyrs Square in Beirut. (AFP PHOTO / STR)
A Lebanese protester raises a placard during a mass rally against a political class seen as corrupt and incapable of providing basic services on August 29, 2015, at the iconic Martyrs Square in Beirut. (AFP PHOTO / STR)

The Lebanese should be losing sleep over the dramatic developments in the last 48 hours in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with regard to Lebanon. The decision by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to bar their citizens from visiting Lebanon is expected to cause considerable economic damage to Beirut. If you add to that the Saudi decision to halt its $4 billion annual aid to the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army, this makes for a devastating economic blow imposed by Riyadh on Beirut.

Unfortunately for the people of Lebanon, there’s not a great deal they can do about what looks like another battle in the wider Middle East war that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies are waging against Iran and the rest of the “Shiite axis.”

The bottom line seems to be that Saudi Arabia — one of the most important allies of the former Lebanon, the moderate, modern, advanced Lebanon that for decades was controlled by a Christian Maronite-Sunni alliance — has decided to pull away, to wash its hands.

It is giving up on its allies and leaving Lebanon in the control of Iran, Hezbollah and the new alliance that has taken shape there between various Christian Maronites (Michel Aoun and his men) and the Shiites, who today constitute the country’s largest community.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses Lebanese TV viewers in a speech broadcast Tuesday, February 17, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses Lebanese TV viewers in a speech broadcast Tuesday, February 17, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)

In many respects, the Saudi decision represents a recognition of defeat: Lebanon is now controlled by Iran and Hezbollah, and therefore every dollar transferred there as military or government aid simply strengthens Hezbollah at the expense of the remaining moderate Sunnis and anti-Syrian Christians.

Underlining the point, Iran has moved quickly to fill the vacuum left by Riyadh. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran announced Tuesday that Iran is ready to discuss providing military help to the Lebanese Army “if an official request for such assistance is made.”

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir (center right) welcomes his Bahraini counterpart Khalid Bin Ahmad al-Khalifa (center left) and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani of Bahrain (far right) upon their arrival for a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) extraordinary meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh, January 9, 2016. (AFP/Ahmed Farwan)
Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir (center right) welcomes his Bahraini counterpart Khalid Bin Ahmad al-Khalifa (center left) and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani of Bahrain (far right) upon their arrival for a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh, January 9, 2016. (AFP/Ahmed Farwan)

It’s unlikely that the Saudis and the UAE will be the only Sunni states to reach the conclusion that Lebanon is lost. Riyadh tends to takes steps like this only when it has the full backing of the other Gulf states.

Why have the Saudis acted now rather than earlier? Apparently they’ve finally concluded that Lebanon’s political circus is beyond repair and that any further effort to preserve Lebanon’s old political framework, and to pretend that the democratic show goes on, only serves Hezbollah and the Shiites. More than this, from the Saudi perspective Lebanon is inseparable from the war with Iran unfolding in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond. Preserving the appearance of a functioning government in Lebanon does nothing to help the Sunni axis; it merely strengthens Hezbollah’s position as the group that runs Lebanon.

Lebanese politician Michel Aoun in 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)
Lebanese politician Michel Aoun in 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)

Where is all this heading? Certainly to a deepening of interreligious tensions inside Lebanon. The armed confrontation there between Sunnis and Shiites, which has played out in wars between terror organizations until now, is likely to escalate sooner rather than later.

It may also see the Saudis take the major gamble of entering the Syrian conflict.

Washington and Moscow may be seeking support everywhere in the Middle East for their call for a ceasefire in Syria from Saturday, February 27, almost five years after the start of the civil war. But both Russia and the US know full well that this will be a very limited ceasefire at best (Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front are not part of it). At worst, it will collapse in the deafening crash of still deeper conflict.

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