Lebanon’s PM Saad Hariri Steps Down

The impact on Lebanon and the region.

A Lebanese friend called this reporter over the weekend with the question, “What do you think of the resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri?”  The short response to the friend was “check out where he made his announcement – in Saudi Arabia.”  It is clear that Riyadh had something to do with Hariri’s decision to resign as Prime Minister, and it comes only a year into his current post.  Qatari based Al-Jazeera-TV reported (November 5th, 2017) that “The snap resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri over the weekend reflects a push by Saudi Arabia to openly confront Iran, its long-time regional adversary, and Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.”

According to Al-Jazeera, Hariri, who made his announcement in a televised speech on Al-Arabiya Satellite TV, also said that he believed he faced threats to his life (his father Rafic Hariri was assassinated by Syrian and Hezbollah agents).  Saad Hariri denounced Iran for “sowing disorder and destruction in Lebanon,” and criticized Hezbollah for “building a state within a state in Lebanon.”  He went on to say that “Iran and its allies - you have lost in your efforts to meddle in the affairs of the Arab world,” and added that “the region will rise again and the hands that you have wickedly extended into it will be cut off.” Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reacted on Saturday to Hariri’s resignation.  Netanyahu tweeted from London that “The resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri and his remarks on Iran are a wake-up call to the international community to take action against the Iranian aggression, which is turning Syria into a second Lebanon.”

Amin Gemayel, former Maronite-Christian President of Lebanon, following his meeting with President Aoun in the context of Hariri’s resignation, slammed regional victory claims by Iran and its allies, and noted that “Lebanon did not have to pay a price for things that it had nothing to do with.” He added, “It is important to preserve Lebanon’s neutrality and independence.” It was meant to be a clear reference to Iran and Saudi machinations in Lebanon.

Fouad Siniora, the former Sunni Prime Minister and a close advisor to the Hariris, warned of the necessity to be aware of the dangers that Lebanon is facing and find a solution to the problems Lebanon is witnessing.  He stated that “Lebanon has always been keen on its neutrality and non-alignment, but it is now clear that it is heading toward an axis that does not serve its interests.  We must adjust the compass, respect the Taif Agreement and the constitution, restore the strong state that is responsible for its entire territory and reinstate a respect for Arab legitimacy that serves the region’s interest.  We should also respect the international resolutions to which Lebanon is committed and remain under the umbrella of the Baabda Declaration.”

Lebanese Forces MP, Antoine Zahara, said that he hopes Hariri’s resignation leads to “an uprising of dignity in the face of all political obstacles facing the government.” He added that the recent comments by Iranian advisor for International Affairs, Ali Akbar Welayati, may have prompted Hariri’s resignation.  Waleyati claimed that the Syrian-Lebanese-Iraqi victory against the terrorists (a reference primarily to the anti-Assad opposition) constitutes a victory for the “axis of resistance.” Zahra pointed out that “including Lebanon in the Iranian axis without consulting the Lebanese counterpart is a serious offense.”

Hariri’s resignation will most assuredly disrupt the delicate balance that existed in the Lebanese polity.  The three most powerful confessional groups in Lebanon:  the Shiite-Muslims dominated by Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, the Sunni-Muslims led by Saad Hariri, and the Maronite-Christians personified by Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, co-existed for a year despite deep hatred and animosity between these groups. 

As long as Lebanon was led by strong individuals such as Aoun, Hariri and the Hezbollah organization, Lebanon enjoyed a relative equilibrium.  It enabled the state to overcome several occurring crisis situations.  The absence of a national president due to over two years of political stalemate was resolved by the unlikely alliance of Aoun’s Maronites, Hariri’s Sunnis, and Hezbollah.  It elected Aoun as President of Lebanon, and Hariri as Prime Minister.  It also ended the garbage crisis, and it settled on a date for the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in May, 2018.

Saudi Arabia has been the Hariri family financial patron throughout most of Lebanon’s post-civil war history.  Now, with Iran’s gains in Syria, and Hezbollah’s control in Lebanon, Riyadh is readjusting its policy in Lebanon, aiming to weaken Hezbollah.  The killing of Rafic Hariri in 2005 marked the rising dominance of Hezbollah and its patrons, Iran and the Assad regime.

The new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has assumed a much more assertive posture toward Iran and Hezbollah.  Riyadh is also encouraged by the Trump administration’s more aggressive stance toward Iran’s nefarious activities across the region. 

The imminent defeat of ISIS in Syria is enabling Hezbollah to transfer its fighters from Syria to Southern Lebanon, where they aim to provoke Israel into a war.  Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, is simply waiting for a green light from Tehran to open hostilities.  The Saudis would like nothing better than for Israel to engage Hezbollah militarily.  For its part, the Hezbollah leaders are well aware of the fact that provoking a war with Israel might cost them their dominance in Lebanon.

With Hariri out, the legitimacy of the Lebanese government is questionable. It makes it easier for the U.S. and Israel to target Hezbollah, already considered by both countries as a terrorist organization.  Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, seemed to bemoan Hariri’s departure since it takes away the legitimacy of the Hezbollah dominated government, and it also breaks the Sunni-Shia consensus that appeared to exist.

To understand Hariri’s decision to resign, one must consider the larger context that goes beyond Lebanese politics.  Lebanese parties are simply proxies of the two leading Muslim powers in the region…Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, whose rivalry is at a focal point in Lebanon.  The Saudis, and for that matter, the U.S. and Israel, seek to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran from building a bridge to the Mediterranean Sea through the control of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.  That may very well be one explanation as to why Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh rather than Beirut.

Another reason is Hariri’s attempt to strengthen his political base in the upcoming parliamentary elections next year.  Hariri’s forged alliance with Hezbollah and Aoun carried a heavy burden.  His Sunni constituents in Lebanon resent the fact that Hezbollah is killing their fellow Sunnis in Syria.  As a result, many Sunnis have found an outlet in joining Islamist groups.  The Sunni electorate is frustrated with its leadership, including Hariri, in its inability to challenge Hezbollah.  That may very well be the other reason for Hariri’s leaving his post. Finally, Hariri believes that he might be able to repeat the success he had in 2005, when he formed an anti-Syrian bloc and led it to victory in the legislative elections that year.