While America churns in a frenzy of Trump-related news, the Middle East may be quietly devolving into further chaos. In the days since Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri announced his surprise resignation this past weekend, one question has moved quickly to the fore: Is another war brewing in the region?
The question comes, in large part, because of the strange circumstances surrounding Hariri’s resignation on Saturday. In a televised address from Saudi Arabia, Hariri said that he was stepping down because he feared that he would suffer the same fate as his father, Rafic, twelve years ago. In 2005, during his own term as prime minister, the elder Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb in Beirut by operatives alleged to have been working with Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria, both of which have strong connections to Iran. For obvious reasons, Saad Hariri has long had a contentious relationship with Hezbollah, which now holds 17 seats in the Lebanese Parliament, and he is known to have significant business ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional rival. (He also holds Saudi citizenship.)
But analysts were also quick to note that Hariri’s political party, the Future Movement, agreed last month to form a governing coalition with Hezbollah, their erstwhile political opponents. That rapprochement was preceded by a tactical alliance between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army to fight ISIS on Lebanon’s northern border, but it was understood to have displeased Saudi Arabia. This unhappiness, along with the fact that Hariri’s speech was delivered in Saudi Arabia, made some wonder whether Hariri had been forced by the Saudis to step down, and on what terms. For their part, Lebanese officials are maintaining that Hariri is being held against his will.
Joseph Bahout, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, told me that up until Saturday, Hariri “was more or less finding his place in this deal with Hezbollah. Okay, things were not completely rosy, but they were doing deals, and it was working.” For this reason, he believes that Hariri’s resignation was not voluntary. “I think all the info and analysis we have points that Saad was not really willing to resign. He was summoned to Saudi Arabia, given this letter of resignation, and he read it.”
Further complicating the picture, Hariri’s speech in Riyadh took place just as a massive political purge in the Saudi government was getting underway. Over the weekend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, commonly known as MbS, consolidated power by arresting dozens of powerful businessmen and members of the royal family, whose assets he also seized in what the Saudi government has described as anti-corruption initiative. The purge received the explicit endorsement of Donald Trump, who wrote on Twitter that MbS and his father, King Salman, “knew exactly what they were doing.” (It is possible, too, that Trump knew about the crackdown ahead of time: Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, made an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia a few days before the purge.)
Trump was not the only one to weigh in on the situation via social media. After Hariri’s speech, the Israeli defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, took to Twitter to denounce Hezbollah and Iran. “Lebanon = Hezbollah. Hezbollah = Iran. Iran = Lebanon,” he wrote. “Iran endangers the world. Saad Hariri has proved that today. Period.” Lieberman’s words made it clear that Israel would stand with Saudi Arabia in opposing Iran and Hezbollah - at least politically.
“Hezbollah doesn’t want war, but we are prepared.”
Whether that political alliance will translate into a military alliance remains to be seen. But the shocking events of the past weekend, along with a deteriorating security situation on the Lebanese-Israeli border, have led to a growing apprehension that Hariri’s resignation is the first step in a chain of events that will end with war between Israel (aided tacitly or openly by Saudi Arabia) and Hezbollah. Since Hariri’s resignation, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have warned their citizens to leave Lebanon, further stoking fears.
“It’s clear that the Saudis have taken a big decision to topple the table in Lebanon and start a kind of confrontation with Hezbollah and Iran in the Lebanese theater,” Bahout told me. “The question is: what are the means and the tools that the Saudis could use? The only rational thing that they could have in mind is that they are betting, or they are aware - because there are contacts between them - that the Israelis are preparing something.”
Bahout’s suggestion of an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel was echoed by a local Hezbollah official I spoke to in south Lebanon not long after Hariri’s resignation. I met the official, who insisted on anonymity, at his house in the dense green hills of south Lebanon. He believes that as prime minister, it would have been impossible for Hariri to make an allegiance with Israel against Hezbollah at the behest of Saudi Arabia. “The Saudis told him to resign. They don’t want him in the government so that in any upcoming war, he won’t take sides against Israel.”
The official also told me that Hezbollah is already well into the process of moving fighters and weaponry from Syria, where they were used in the group’s fight against ISIS, to South Lebanon, in anticipation of a conflict with Israel. “Everybody is coming back to the South,” he says. “The Hezbollah Special Forces are in Lebanon now. Every day, Hezbollah is bringing missiles, the big ones, including the S-200,” a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. “Hezbollah doesn’t want war,” he said, “but we are prepared.”
“If the Israelis think they can keep it up, good luck.”
A Hezbollah fighter I spoke to recently, who was stationed near the Israeli border and wore a face mask to hide his identity, told me that he and his fellow militiamen had been instructed to stay on full alert by Hezbollah’s leadership. “All the fighters are deployed,” he said. “At any minute, war with Israel could break out. We want Israel to make a move in order to show what we have for them. They are going to pay a big price.”
In Dahieh, a southern suburb of Beirut, a Hezbollah commander chuckled grimly when I asked him about Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, which have been occurring with increasing frequency in recent months. “If the Israelis think they can keep it up, good luck,” he says. “We will find the medicine for that, God willing. Everyone will go crazy when we bring down an Israeli jet over Lebanese territory, which is sure to happen in an upcoming war.”
Yet for all the bravado of Hezbollah’s rank-and-file, the group’s leadership must know that its prospects in a war against Israel, whose military remains vastly superior, remain dubious. In a speech today in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, gave a speech that departed significantly from his usual fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. Nasrallah said that while he believes that Saudi Arabia is trying to incite Israel to strike Lebanon, he also thinks that the cost of such a conflict will deter such a move. As Nasrallah knows well, a new war could easily spark a massive ethnic and sectarian conflict in Lebanon and in the region. What’s more, Israel has been clear that it considers the infrastructure of Lebanon fair game in any conflict, which will put Lebanese civilians at great risk.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and the CEO of the Soufan Group, a security intelligence firm, told me that any movement of fighters and weapons from Syria to Lebanon would suggest that Hezbollah and its allies “are comfortable about the situation in Syria, especially after recent gains.” At the same time, he said, preparing for war may be Hezbollah’s means of trying to prevent it. “Moving troops is also sending a message: that we are ready for a conflict, and that can be a form of deterrence in itself.”
The most recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, in 2006, was widely viewed as unsuccessful for Israel. But since hostilities ended, Hezbollah has grown exponentially in military might. Israel has made no secret of its concern about the group’s increasing power, and has always maintained that another war with Hezbollah was ultimately inevitable. According to a former deputy head of Israeli intelligence, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, “Israel used to formulate its position by saying its aim is to deter Hezbollah. This has changed: Israel's target now is to defeat Hezbollah.”
But Randa Slim, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, another Washington D.C.-based think tank, says she’s not certain Israel would risk starting a war right now, especially given the damage Hezbollah could inflict upon Israeli civilians. “The problem is going to be the calculus vis-a-vis the cost in Israel,” Slim told me. “They are afraid about Hezbollah's missiles targeting their infrastructure. They know that Hezbollah missiles have become much more accurate. The political cost of this war for [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his leadership may be too high for him to bear in the absence of a quick pathway to a victory over Hezbollah.”
The Hezbollah official in south Lebanon is not so sure. When I asked him if there’s any chance of avoiding war through diplomacy, he laughed. “All efforts at peace are now drained,” he says. “There is no more room for peace. This war will be decisive; it is going to end here.”
With additional reporting by Jack Moore.
Sulome Anderson is a print and multimedia journalist based in Beirut. Her award-winning book The Hostage's Daughter was published in 2016.
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