Hezbollah’s foreign adventures could provoke regional backlash
Tunis- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation speech left little doubt over who he said was to blame for his departure. Iran, he said, was guilty of planting “sedition, devastation and ruin” in Lebanon and the wider Arab world and Hezbollah was the “arm of Iran not only in Lebanon but also in other Arab countries.”
Hezbollah has grown from its founding by Iran in the early 1980s. Established as a specifically Shia response to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, the group is one of the most significant military forces in the region, projecting its power to devastating effect in Syria and extending its influence into war-torn Yemen and even Kuwait.
However, in seeking to extend its reach throughout the region and, in doing so, buttress Iranian influence, the Army of God has incurred the ire of Saudi Arabia and risked inviting the wrath of some of the region’s most significant players.
The extent of Hezbollah’s reach was acknowledged by Hariri when, eight days after announcing his resignation, he suggested his decision could be reversed if Lebanon, and by extension Hezbollah, would return to its policy of dissociation — observing conflicts unfold without involvement or favour.
His concerns are not without foundation. In Syria, Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime antagonised both the West and Israel. In Yemen, Hezbollah’s backing of the Houthi rebels placed it in direct opposition to the country’s government. In Kuwait, alleged Hezbollah activity incurred the emir’s ire. In all those countries, Hezbollah has confronted and subsequently flouted Saudi Arabian ambitions; in effect, placing an Iranian proxy blade at the kingdom’s throat.
Cast in this light, Hariri’s resignation, most likely taken at Riyadh’s behest, looks to be a turning point in the kingdom’s willingness to confront Iran and its Lebanese proxies.
“The most important Iranian tool in the region is Hezbollah,” Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, told AFP.
That Hezbollah has played a vital role in preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is beyond dispute. However, the benefits have not flown in just one direction. Six years of conflict in Syria transformed Hezbollah from an effective guerrilla group into a potentially devastating conventional military force, increasing the threat it poses to its opponents and displacing even more diplomatic and political water as a result.
Yemen and the threat of Saudi sanctions adding to the United States’ punitive economic measures on Lebanon were the issues Hariri evoked, asking during his second speech after his resignation: “Did the kingdom have any position towards Hezbollah before the war in Yemen?” He suggested that a Hezbollah retreat from Yemen may be enough to spare Lebanon the worst of Saudi retaliation.
Certainly, an economic blockade of Lebanon of the type instituted against Qatar and the expulsion of thousands of Lebanese citizens employed in the Gulf would devastate the country’s fragile economy. There are thought to be 120,000- 299,000 Lebanese citizens residing in Saudi Arabia. Their return would likely place an intolerable strain on the Lebanese economy, already struggling to accommodate 1.3 million Syrian refugees.
However, it is the threat of renewed conflict with Israel, a prospect Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of orchestrating, that could pose the far more significant risk.
The possibility of renewed conflict also sounded in Tel Aviv, with Eldad Shavit, a former Israeli military official, suggesting to the Times of Israel that Gulf Cooperation Council frustrations over Qatar’s resistance to its sanctions could push Saudi Arabia to demonstrate its regional influence remotely.
Shavit said the possibility of conflict was unlikely. He pointed to the absence of any mass call-up of Israeli reservists, as well as previously bitter experience of Israel confronting Hezbollah.
It is becoming clear that Hezbollah, within a dramatically altered regional landscape, has exposed Lebanon to the unfriendly scrutiny of its donors and allies. Whether domestic or regional forces will curtail that ambition is unclear.