Hariri’s resignation postponement offers Lebanon fragile reprieve
Beirut- The decision by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to put his resignation on hold has, for now, eased a crisis that threatened to send Lebanon back into protracted political deadlock. But it remains unclear what the Iran-backed Hezbollah is willing to concede to Hariri to ensure that he continues in office.
Hariri returned to Beirut on November 22, more than two weeks after his shock resignation announcement, to mark Lebanon’s independence day. He announced that he would suspend his resignation. Sources close to the prime minister say it is conditional on Lebanon maintaining close ties to other Arab nations and all Lebanese parties abiding by the policy of disassociation from meddling in the affairs of other countries.
“Now we must fortify our relations with all our Arab brothers by having Lebanon’s interest as the basis and not harm our Arab brothers or any other country,” Hariri said on his return to Beirut. “We do not want to harm a country for the interest of another, but we are within an Arab system that we should preserve. Disassociation is the basis in the ministerial statement, and this is what we must emphasise and apply and not just say.”
The comments on disassociation are directed squarely at Hezbollah, which is involved in at least three conflicts in the region. Hezbollah has admitted to deploying forces to Syria and Iraq but continues to deny any role in the war in Yemen.
In 2012, the Lebanese government agreed to a policy of disassociation to keep the country out of the conflicts roiling the region, particularly in neighbouring Syria, which was descending into full-blown civil war at the time. However, a year later, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that his fighters were operating in Syria to preserve the regime of President Bashar Assad. Since then, Hezbollah has played a key role in helping Syrian government forces crush the rebels and safeguard Assad’s rule.
It is in Hezbollah’s interest that Hariri remain as prime minister. He is regarded as a credible and moderate Sunni leader in Lebanon who is well thought of internationally. Since he took office a year ago as head of a coalition government that included Hezbollah, Lebanon has enjoyed some welcome stability. But Hariri’s compromising behaviour was seen by Riyadh as a fig leaf for Hezbollah to dominate Lebanon and pursue its Iran-guided policies across the Middle East. That apparently led the Saudis to strong-arm Hariri into resigning.
But what can Hezbollah offer to satisfy Hariri’s conditions and appease the Saudis? Perhaps Nasrallah pointed the way in a speech on November 20 in which he said he was prepared to withdraw his fighters from Iraq now that the territorial battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) was over.
“We consider that the mission has been accomplished, but we are waiting for the final Iraqi victory declaration,” he said. “If we find that it is over and that there is no need for the presence of these brothers, they will return to be deployed in any other arena that needs them.”
Hezbollah dispatched about 250 trainers and advisers to Iraq following ISIS’s takeover of Mosul in 2014. Their role was to assist the 150,000-strong Popular Mobilisation Forces, the Shia militia conglomerate, rather than to participate in the fighting against ISIS.
In Syria, the war is entering a less intensive phase that may give Hezbollah some latitude to reduce its footprint in the country. Hezbollah has lately withdrawn some of its fighters, including special forces units, from Syria and deployed them in Lebanon in reaction to heightened concerns about a looming war with Israel. Nasrallah could possibly spin the redeployment of fighters from Syria as a commitment to the disassociation policy, although it is inconceivable that he would agree to a full withdrawal.
Yemen is a more thorny issue and also Saudi Arabia’s main bone of contention with Hezbollah. Hezbollah continues to deny any role in Yemen. However, sources close to the party have admitted that some fighters are operating in a training and advisory capacity with Houthi tribesmen in the war-torn country. Additionally, wounded Houthi fighters have been treated in Hezbollah-run hospitals in Lebanon and others have received advanced training at Hezbollah camps in south Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, the sources said.
“Hezbollah is responsible for all the training in Yemen and the firing of ballistic missiles and special operations,” a source said.
Hezbollah’s alleged role in the occasional firing of ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, other than annoying the Saudis, may have the ancillary benefit of allowing the missile teams to hone their skills on advanced systems under battlefield conditions ahead of a future war with Israel, according to a Western intelligence source. Hezbollah is widely believed to have amassed a rocket arsenal that includes variants of the solid-fuelled Fatah-110, some of which are fitted with inertial guidance systems and have a range of up to 700km.
“The Yemen war is a good opportunity for Hezbollah to tinker with payload and guidance systems to help improve range and accuracy. That’s a useful experience for any future war with Israel,” the intelligence source said.
Nevertheless, it would be difficult for Nasrallah to agree to end Hezbollah’s involvement in Yemen when he denies his forces are there in the first place.
Much will depend on the ongoing stance of Saudi Arabia towards Hariri, Lebanon and Hezbollah. It seems evident that the Saudis miscalculated with their Hariri resignation ploy, but that does not mean the kingdom will soften its attitude concerning Hezbollah and Lebanon if Nasrallah is unwilling to concede anything to Hariri. The crisis may have dissipated with Hariri’s return to Beirut, but it could be far from over.