Is war between Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah an impossible scenario?

Is war between Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah an impossible scenario?

The proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran threatens to spill over from Yemen into Lebanon as Riyadh rattles sabers at Lebanese terrorist group

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 US-made F-15 fighter jet flown by the Royal Saudi Air Force (YouTube screen capture)
A US-made F-15 fighter jet flown by the Royal Saudi Air Force (YouTube screen capture)

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia called on all its citizens to leave Lebanon immediately. Shortly afterwards the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry made a similarly dramatic call to its own citizens.

This could just be an empty threat, or perhaps an attempt to pressure Hezbollah and Iran. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to look at the bigger picture. A call for citizens to leave a country like this is close to a declaration of war, or more specifically, an act prior to a declaration of war.

Is it beyond the realm of possibility that the Saudi army will launch operations against Hezbollah targets? Perhaps. But in today’s Middle East. the impossible can become reality within days or even hours.

Let’s start with the facts:

It was Hezbollah

Last Saturday Saudi Arabia claimed the Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh’s airport. The missile, which was intercepted by Saudi defenses, was fired by Zaidi Shiites, who have a slightly different faith than the dominant Shiite religion in Iran (which follows the Twelver branch of Shia Islam).

For the Saudis there is no doubt that Iran is behind the Houthi rebels, even though they follow different streams of Shiism. Iran is the patron of the rebels, it funds them, trains them and arms them with advanced weapons, including ballistic missiles, and even sends fighters to help them.

An Iranian fishing vessel intercepted off the coast of Oman by Saudi-led coalition forces carrying arms believed bound for Houthi rebels in Yemen, September 2015. (screen capture: Al-Arabiya)

A senior Saudi officer showed a photograph of an Iranian transport ship laden with Iranian commandos about to disembark on the shores of Yemen. This is also how the heavy weapons of the Revolutionary Guards are sent to the Houthis in Yemen – boats unload missiles and rockets near the shores of Yemen in Houthi-controlled areas, and men from the Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah fighters stationed there collect the shipment.

Only two days after the ballistic missile was fired, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir was interviewed on CNN and said explicitly that it was Hezbollah that fired the Iranian missile from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen.

We will retaliate

Iran operates in Syria, Iraq and other places via the Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah special forces, headed by Talal Hamiyah and others. “Iran cannot fire missiles at Saudi cities without expecting us to retaliate,” Al-Jubeir added.

It is possible that this was an empty threat.

But perhaps such statements, along with practical moves in the region, presage an escalation between Riyadh and Hezbollah. Perhaps the Saudis will go after Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in order to send a message to Iran: “If you attack us through the Houthis, we will attack you through Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Saudi King Salman, right, meets with outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 6, 2017. (Saudi Press Agency, via AP)

How does this tie into the resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi ally who was urgently summoned to Riyadh (just like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas).

He was apparently forced to resign based on what Riyadh saw as provocation by the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese government.

Choose a side

Whether there was or was not a real threat to Hariri’s life, it makes no difference. The fact is that the former head of the Lebanese government “chose a side,” exactly as Riyadh wanted.

On Friday morning France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that Hariri was not being held against his will by the Saudis. In an interview with a French radio station, Le Drian, who is visiting Riyadh as part of the official state visit of President Emanuel Macron, said, “As far as I know, we believe that he is free to go anywhere within Saudi Arabia, and he makes his own decisions.”

It is reasonable to assume that the French delegation came to Riyadh for an unexpected visit partly to check on Hariri’s state, and it would not have given assurances about his well-being if there was any concern that Hariri was being held against his will.

Abbas was also called to Riyadh urgently this week, and it is possible that he was asked to not interfere — in other words, to do everything so that the US can stand with the Saudis, even if that means not to cause problems for Israel at this stage.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on November 7, 2017. (Thaer Ghanaim/Wafa)

Would a Saudi airstrike in Lebanon cause Hezbollah to react against Israel?

It is hard to know at this stage. Hezbollah is not rushing to another war against Israel, especially if it is not Israel who is interested in escalation against it, but rather the Saudis themselves.

The most important person in the kingdom

Among the people Macron met with was the young heir to the Saudi throne, Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. He is the most powerful man in the kingdom and possibly the most important and far-reaching reformer in Saudi Arabia this decade, and is currently leading several parallel moves.

MBS no longer hides the war going on between the Sunni and Shiite factions in the Middle East. He has done more than a little to emphasize it and demonstrate it. It is no longer games and diplomatic statements in the name of “Muslim brotherhood.”

MBS understood this week the great danger that Iran has created on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep, after the missile was fired at the airport.

Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Moscow’s Kremlin, Russia, May 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, pool, File)

For bin Salman this was a provocation to war, a casus belli.

However, we are desperately looking for the lines that connect the steps against Iran and Hezbollah to his second move, against some 200 members of the royal family and most senior businessmen. And his third track, preserving the Israeli-Palestinian political process.

It is possible that these are three parallel paths which will not converge quickly. In other words, (and not specifically in this order,) bin Salman may be first working to reform the inner processes of Saudi Arabia, for example the status of women in the kingdom, by fighting corruption and purging pockets of resistance within the royal court. Second, he is working actively against Iran and Hezbollah, which we may soon witness more tangibly. And third, he is giving backing to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in order to show the Western world and the Arab nations that he still wants to help the Palestinians.

There are the strong connections between Israel and Saudi Arabia in various fields. Who provided the Saudis with the relevant information about Hezbollah’s involvement in firing the missile, for instance? Was it Saudi intelligence alone? So perhaps it is possible to understand why it is important to bin Salman to justify his connection with the Israelis.

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