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By: Rachel Bessette, Columnist
Lebanon, a key arena for Saudi-Iranian competition, has remained conspicuously quiet in spite of increasingly public spats between the two regional rivals. There is significant danger in mistaking this stasis for peace. Although Saudi Arabia and Iran appear committed to maintaining calm in Lebanon, escalating sectarian animosity has contributed to deepening the Sunni-Shia divide in Lebanon.[i] The heightened risk of conflict that this portends should not be ignored lest regional crisis reach even more devastating proportions.
Lebanon’s 15-year civil war and resulting confessional political system effectively institutionalized the external regulation of the Lebanese state.[ii] All Lebanese factions depend on outside powers for financial, diplomatic and military support. In exchange, foreign powers are afforded significant influence over political and security developments in Lebanon.
Hezbollah, Iran’s primary proxy in Lebanon, acts as an extension of the Iranian national security apparatus. Iran uses Hezbollah to regulate conflict with Saudi Arabia and Israel and protect its regional interests, as evidenced by Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.[iii] With Iranian support, Hezbollah has grown to exercise effective veto power over the Lebanese political system. By virtue of its success in forming strategic alliances with political parties from Lebanon’s other sects and its military strength that rivals the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), Hezbollah is generally free to act with impunity.
Saudi Arabia meanwhile has been a key backer of the Hariri family’s Future Movement and its purported ideology of “Lebanonism,” or support for a strong Lebanese state.[iv] By channeling funds to the Hariri’s and others, Saudi Arabia has sought to capitalize on the consolidation of the Future Movement at the helm of the Sunni community as a means to challenge Hezbollah, and by extension, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s professed archenemy.[v]
In the past, this proxy-rivalry has led to periodic instability and outbreaks of violence, as evidenced by Hezbollah’s 2008 invasion of predominantly Sunni areas of West Beirut. However, since conflict began in Syria in 2011, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have been reluctant to stir the pot. Instead, as their regional power mongering escalates to deleterious effects in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain, uneasy calm prevails in Lebanon.[vi]
The effective paralysis of the Lebanese state prevents regional strife from spiraling out of Saudi or Iranian control. For Iran, the outbreak of conflict in Lebanon would mean an already overstretched Hezbollah now occupied on two fronts, thus straining its ability to support the Assad regime.[vii] For Saudi Arabia, conflict in Lebanon risks upsetting a power balance in which it already finds itself on the losing side.[viii] Conflict in Lebanon would also risk drawing Israel into the fray.[ix] As the only nuclear weapons state in the region and an avowed enemy of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Israeli involvement could further escalate regional dynamics.
Yet in spite of a prevailing preference for peace, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is not at a standstill in Lebanon. Each country continues to take action deemed shy of what could trigger an undesirable escalation. Perhaps the best example of this is Saudi Arabia’s cancellation of $3 billion of aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and another $1 billion to the Internal Security Forces.[x] Though ostensibly a reaction to the Lebanese Foreign Minister’s refusal to condemn attacks on the Saudi embassy and consulate in Iran, the withdrawal of Saudi aid was also a strong signal that the party is fed up with its Future Movement allies’ impotency.[xi] As a result, while the aid cancellation may be of little consequence given the LAF’s lack of training to use the promised equipment, the move carries major symbolic significance.
The withdrawal of Saudi aid fuels perceptions among Lebanese Sunnis that Hezbollah and the Shia community writ large are an existential threat. Many Sunnis I spoke with on a recent trip to Lebanon assume there is an Iranian and Hezbollah plot to takeover the Lebanese state, a view also supported by Saudi Arabia.[xii] This is particularly evident in the growing belief that Hezbollah has infiltrated the largely nonsectarian LAF and uses its forces to protect its interests domestically.
Many Lebanese Shia likewise harbor deep fears of the Sunni community.[xiii] Retaliatory attacks against Hezbollah, such as the November 2015 bombing in a suburb of southern Beirut, have largely targeted Shia civilians.[xiv] Coupled with the growing popularity of Salafi Islamists in northern Lebanon, such attacks fuel fear and bolster support for Hezbollah.[xv]
Lebanese citizens are not ignorant of the relationship between sectarian insecurities and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. As one Future Movement official and former colonel in the Lebanese Armed Forces explained to me, “Lebanon is always in the heart of the fire.”[xvi] This awareness has not stopped people from framing their own sectarian rivalries with reference to Saudi Arabia and Iran. For instance, at the funeral of Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badr al-Din this May, mourners in Beirut’s southern suburbs gathered chanting “death to al-Saud.”[xvii] Meanwhile, the day after Saudi Arabia declared Hezbollah a terrorist group, streets in Tripoli were adorned with Saudi flags.[xviii] Increasingly uncritical perceptions of “the other community” as an existential threat diminish support for representative national institutions, such as the LAF, and contribute to support for alternatives like Salafi Shaykhs or Hezbollah.
This is not to say that an outbreak of conflict in Lebanon is likely in the near term. No major Lebanese faction has any interest in eliminating the country’s famously dysfunctional power-sharing system. Memories of the country’s 15-year civil war are still fresh, and few wish to go down that path again. Hezbollah’s clear military supremacy further discourages any would-be challengers.
However, Lebanese stability is also not assured. Lebanon already bears many of the hallmark catalysts of an insurgency—a recent history of armed conflict, ongoing conflicts in neighboring states, a youth bulge, government inability to provide basic services, and poor economic conditions.[xix] The remaining two oft-cited drivers—perceptions of inept or corrupt security forces and of a winner-take-all political system—are becoming more and more relevant the longer Lebanon remains “in the heart of the fire.”
[i] Salem, Paul. “Seven Reasons Why Lebanon Survives – And Three Reasons Why It Might Not.” Lawfare. August 28, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016. https://www.lawfareblog.com/seven-reasons-why-lebanon-survives-and-three-reasons-why-it-might-not.
[ii] Bahout, Joseph. “The Unraveling of Lebanon’s Taif Agreement: Limits of Sect-Based Power Sharing.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. May 15, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/05/16/unraveling-of-lebanon-s-taif-agreement-limits-of-sect-based-power-sharing/iy99.
[iii] Bruno, Greg. “State Sponsors: Iran.” Council on Foreign Relations. October 13, 2011. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://www.cfr.org/iran/state-sponsors-iran/p9362.
[iv] International Crisis Group (ICG), Lebanon’s Politics: The Sunni Community and Harri’s Future Current, Middle East Report N°96. May 26 2010. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://www.refworld.org/docid/4bfe2a762.html
[v] ICG; Khashoggi, Jamal. “What Does Saudi Arabia Want from Lebanon?” Middle East Eye. March 24, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/what-does-saudi-arabia-want-lebanon-454517562.
[vi] Salem, “Seven Reasons Why Lebanon Survives.”
[vii] Byman, Daniel, and Bilal Y. Saab. “Hezbollah Hesitates?” Foreign Affairs. September 14, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/israel/2015-01-21/hezbollah-hesitates.
[viii] Salem, “Seven Reasons Why Lebanon Survives.”
[ix] Abdo, G. “How Iran Keeps Assad in Power in Syria.” Retrieved September 14, 2016, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2011-08-25/how-iran-keeps-assad-power-syria
[x] Schenker, David. “Saudi Arabia Rethinks Its Commitments to Lebanon.” – The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. February 25, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/saudi-arabia-rethinks-its-commitments-to-lebanon.
[xi] Bahout, Joseph, Perry Cammack, David Livingston, Marwan Muasher, Karim Sajadpour, Tristan Volpe, and Frederic Wehrey. “Saudi Arabia’s Changing International Role.” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. April 18, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/04/18/saudi-arabia-s-changing-international-role-pub-63366#syria.
[xii] Evans, Dominic, and Angus McDowall. “Saudi Arabia’s Bitter Lebanese Divorce.” Reuters. April 05, 2016. Accessed September 15, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-lebanon-idUSKCN0X20DG.
[xiii] Masi, Alessandria. “Saudi Arabia And Iran Exacerbate Sunni, Shiite Divide In Lebanon.” International Business Times. March 11, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://www.ibtimes.com/saudi-arabia-iran-exacerbate-sunni-shiite-divide-lebanon-2334814.
[xiv] BBC News. “Beirut Attacks: Suicide Bombers Kill Dozens in Shia Suburb.” BBC News. November 12, 2015. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34795797.
[xv] Lefèvre, Raphaël. “Tackling Sunni Radicalization in Lebanon.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. December 24, 2014. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/12/23/tackling-sunni-radicalization-in-lebanon-pub-57592.
[xvi] Anonymous. Interview by author. June 21, 2016.
[xvii] Ghattas, Kim. “Iran-Saudi Tensions Simmer in Lebanon.” BBC News. May 20, 2016. Accessed September 15, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36335163.
[xviii] Masi, “Saudi Arabia and Iran Exacerbate Sunni, Shiite Divide in Lebanon.”
[xix] US Government. “Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency.” US Marines. 2012. Accessed September 14, 2016. http://www.mccdc.marines.mil/Portals/172/Docs/SWCIWID/COIN/Doctrine/Guide to the Analysis of Counterinsurgency.pdf.