A new phase in the conflict in the Arab mashriq (Levant) has begun, and it is Lebanon, as ever, where the message has been delivered.
After several deadly car bombs in Beirut and Tripoli over the past year designed to terrorize ordinary civilians and destabilize the country, a prominent politician has been assassinated. Mohamad Chatah, a well-respected senior advisor to the anti-Syrian political coalition in Lebanon, March 14, was murdered on December 27 by a car bomb in the downtown area of Beirut.
Various Western and Lebanese media sites immediately re-produced Chatah’s final anti-Hizbullah tweets and, posthumously, an open letter he was writing to Iran—in which he called for its assistance in ending Hizbullah’s military role in Syria and the disbanding of its weapons—as apparent evidence that Hizbullah must have been involved in this heinous crime. Prominent March 14 politicians quickly pointed the finger at Hizbullah and its regional patrons, the Syrian regime and Iran. Indeed, Fouad Siniora, head of the March 14 parliamentary bloc and Lebanese Prime Minister during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the inter-Lebanese sectarian war of 2005 to 2008, announced March 14’s intention to ‘liberate’ the country of Hizbullah’s large stockpile of weapons.
Chatah was laid to rest in the temporary mausoleum containing the remains of other senior March 14 victims including their patriarch, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri whose own assassination in February 2005 sparked the March 14 movement and is the subject of an on-going international criminal investigation that has so far indicted five members of Hizbullah. Adamant that it was the Syrian regime and Hizbullah that were behind Hariri’s murder, March 14, and their regional and international sponsors, , are now seeking to add Chatah’s case to that of the Hariri’s in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
During the funeral of another of the car bomb’s victims—Mohamad Shaar, a desperately unlucky high school student whose selfie moments before the blast revealed the golden Honda CRV carrying the bomb in the background— an angry mob trapped the Grand Mufti of Lebanon in the mosque and accused him of collaboration with Hizbullah against Sunni interests.
Meanwhile, several katyusha rockets were fired from southern Lebanon into Israeli territory. Israel quickly blamed Hizbullah and retaliated with a barrage of missiles across the border and angry rhetoric, with the clear objective of reminding the Lebanese that Hizbullah’s presence poses a constant threat to Lebanon’s security and sovereignty.
So what is going on and what has changed? Has Hizbullah finally lost its nerve and decided to go all out by assassinating rival politicians, reactivating the southern front with Israel, blocking the formation of new Lebanese government, and fighting a war in Syria alongside the regime all at once within the space of a few days?
On the surface, it may appear that not much has changed. Car bombs, assassinations, wild political accusations, and inconclusive investigations have long been the norm in Lebanon, alas. The anti-Hizbullah, anti-Iran posturing by March 14 and Saudi Arabia is not new, nor is Hizbullah’s reflex defensiveness reliant on anti-resistance and anti-imperialist conspiracy theories.
The Syrian civil war has, however, changed the political and strategic battlefield in the mashriq. The impetus for the current political assault on Hizbullah and the Syrian regime is largely regional in nature, unlike its previous iteration of 2004-2008, which was framed within the US-led ‘war on terror.’ The US has since retreated from the region, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings that initially produced democratic rebellions against US-supported authoritarian regimes and, later, violent internecine conflicts as various counter-revolutionary forces in the region joined the battles to fill political voids. In both cases, regional state and non-state players have emerged as genuinely autonomous actors that cannot so easily be controlled by great power politics.
After taking a backseat to Qatar’s newfound military zeal beginning in Libya in early 2011 but ultimately failing in Syria in mid-2013, Saudi Arabia has taken direct leadership responsibilities. It has loudly denounced the US’s weakening resolve to break the Syrian regime, giving up its elected seat in the UN Security Council in protest; and attacked the US’s engagement in high-level diplomatic talks with both Syria and, worse, Iran. The US, during the same period, has denounced the unsavory Saudi-sponsored salafist and al-Qaeda groups that now lead the Syrian rebellion; de facto recognized the Syrian regime by negotiating the orderly destruction of Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal; negotiated a provisional nuclear deal with Iran; and agreed to the participation of a Syrian regime delegation to the upcoming “Geneva 2” meeting scheduled for mid-January 2014.
It is in the context of this apparent divergence of interest between the US and Saudi Arabia, exploited adroitly by Iran and Russia on the one hand, and non-state actors from Hizbullah to the al-Qaeda groups on the other, that we must read the latest developments in Lebanon.
Given its massive political and rhetorical investment in the rebellion against the Syrian regime and Hizbullah’s involvement there, the Saudis feel they have the most to lose with a regional settlement since it will lead to yet more Iranian influence in what they see as a zero-sum power game. Through this lens, a stronger Iran sits atop a formidable arc connecting it politically and economically to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and perhaps Palestine and even Jordan; while the Shi’a minority status in key resource-rich areas of the Gulf region potentially threaten the Gulf monarchies as witnessed in Bahrain. Indeed Saudi Arabia shares this fear of Iranian ambitions with Israel, which explains the strengthening of an informal alliance that began with the 2006 war.
For Saudi Arabia and Israel, the game has always been a geopolitical one with Iran: Lebanon and Syria’s destruction are merely collateral damage. The fact that the US is no longer interested in the events in a now broken Syria—except to ensure that al-Qaeda does not become too threatening to its regional interests—and is instead negotiating directly with Iran, means that it is left to Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser degree, Israel to try and scupper any momentum towards a settlement, both in Lebanon and Syria.
Accordingly, Saudi Arabia’s decision on Sunday, announced by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on national TV during the funeral ceremonies for Mohamad Chatah, to grant Lebanon an unprecedented $3 billion to support the Lebanese army, was soon followed by leaks suggesting that a new government will likely be formed in the coming days that will exclude Hizbullah. It is not difficult to see mischief in the timing of the Saudi military gift, nor in its apparent support for a controversial extension to the term in office of President Suleiman (mistrusted as he is by Hizbullah and its Christian allies) who would need to approve any government formation.
The assassination of Mohamad Chatah, tragic as it is, has thus created an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and March 14 to ratchet up the sectarian rhetoric, isolate Hizbullah further from national institutions, and provoke it into expending its energies and political capital inside Lebanon thus potentially weakening its resolve and capability in Syria. The sudden escalation along the southern border area points to an Israeli understanding of this strategy.
This does not at all suggest that the Saudis or Israelis are behind Chatah’s assassination in some cynical attempt to trigger a war; nor that Hizbullah, the Syrian regime, or Iran cannot possibly have been behind it. In all likelihood, as with most of the other assassinations in Lebanon, we will never have definitive proof one way or the other, and bitter, sectarian-fueled speculation will continue. But there can be little doubt that Chatah’s murder is more than a local settling of scores, or some absurd form of revenge against a series of tweets, but rather that it is connected to a larger conflict.
We seem to be entering a new phase of a regional war in which the Saudis will use any means necessary in Lebanon to postpone a settlement that it perceives will benefit Iran in the wider context. For its part, Hizbullah will hang on tightly hoping that Iran and Syria can strike a deal with the US that would preserve the status quo and reign back the hawks within the Saudi security establishment. In the meantime, it’s not clear who can contain the al-Qaeda genie that has been unleashed on the region.
This does not bode well for the new year.