Archive for the ‘Iran and Lebanon’ category

Israel and Saudi Arabia: a desert mirage or a new alliance?

November 21, 2017

Israel and Saudi Arabia: a desert mirage or a new alliance? | Anne’s Opinions, 21st November 2017

In the crazy world of Middle East wars, politics and shifting alliances, it is hardly surprising that relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are warming up from their deep freeze. In fact this is an alliance (“friendship” is too strong a word to use) that has been revving in the background for quite some time, ever since the rise of ISIS and more importantly, the tailwind given to Iran by our “friends” in the Obama administration and their European allies through the JCPOA, aka the Iran nuclear deal.

In the interim there has been some political upheaval in the kingdom, with princes and heirs to the throne being replaced at an eye-watering pace. The newest heir to the throne is determined to drag the medieval country into the 21st century, by whatever means:

(CNN)Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to inherit the throne from his 81-year-old father, is not a patient man. The 32-year-old is driving a frenetic pace of change in pursuit of three goals: securing his hold on power, transforming Saudi Arabia into a very different country, and pushing back against Iran.

Mohammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

In the two years since his father ascended the throne, this favorite son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz has been spectacularly successful at achieving the first item on his agenda. He has become so powerful so fast that observers can hardly believe how brazenly he is dismantling the old sedate system of family consensus, shared privilege and rigid ultraconservatism.
In the process, however, MBS, as the crown prince is known, is making a lot of enemies.
Much of the prince’s agenda is laudable and long overdue. He has no interest in democratic reforms, but he does want to introduce social reforms, and is making some progress on that front. That, too, is making him enemies among the old guard.
He has vowed to improve the status of women, announcing that the ban on women driving will be lifted next year, and limiting the scope of the execrable “guardianship” system, which treats women like children, requiring permission from male guardians for basic activities. He has also restrained the despised religious police. And just last month he called for a return to a “moderate Islam open to the world and all religions,” combating extremism and empowering its citizens.
On the economic front, bin Salman wants to reinvent an economy that became complacent from fantastic oil riches — only to see oil prices crash — and bring it into the 21st century with his ambitious Vision 2030 plan.
But the prince’s revolutionary changes require, above all, making sure he remains in charge, and he is letting nothing stand in his way.

The prince is not bluffing. That became startlingly clear last Sunday, when he unexpectedly ordered the arrest of some of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful men.

Read it all, it makes for a thrilling read, even though this is not fiction but real life with very real and dangerous potential consequences if it fails.

Meanwhile, the latest pronouncements and actions emanating from Saudi Arabia give us pause for a cautious hope, though with each country having an influence on the next, there is always the danger of a domino effect, or maybe we should call it the dangers of unforeseen consequences.

The Saudis called on Hezbollah to disarm, threatening to oust it from Lebanon:

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Thursday called on the Hezbollah terrorist organization to disarm, warning the group that regional efforts were underway to oust them from the Lebanese government.

At a press conference in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, al-Jubeir denounced Hezbollah as “a tool of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards” and “a first-class terrorist organization used by Iran to destabilize Lebanon and the region.”

Saad Hariri, (former?) PM of Lebanon

“Hezbollah has kidnapped the Lebanese system,” he said.

Al-Jubeir added that “consultations and coordination between peace-loving countries and Lebanon-loving countries are underway to try to find a way that would restore sovereignty to Lebanon and reduce the negative action which Hezbollah is conducting in Lebanon.”

The minister’s remarks came as the kingdom rejected accusations that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was being detained in Riyadh following his shock resignation earlier this month.

In response Hezbollah raised the alert across Lebanon, which further complicates matters for Israel:

The Hezbollah terror group has raised its alert status across Lebanon, fearing threat of attack by Israel and other nations, Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai reported Saturday.

The news came amid a political crisis between Beirut and Saudi Arabia, sparked by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s surprise resignation. Hariri cited Iran and Hezbollah’s meddling in the region as the reason he was stepping down. The November 4 resignation broadcast from the Saudi capital is widely believed to have been engineered by the Gulf kingdom.

The Kuwaiti paper further reported that Hezbollah leaders have instructed a halt to arms shipments sent to the group from Iran through war-torn Syria.

Israel is widely believed to have carried out airstrikes on advanced weapons systems in Syria — including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles — as well as Hezbollah positions, though it rarely officially confirms such attacks.

In August a former air force chief said Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes on weapons convoys destined for the Lebanese terror group over the past five years.

Al-Jubeir warned Friday that there will be no stability in Lebanon unless Hezbollah disarms.

The resignation of Saudi-aligned Hariri has thrown Lebanon into turmoil and raised concerns that the country could be dragged into a battle for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Indeed Israel has been watching Syria’s actions carefully and taking defensive action where necessary. On Sunday the IDF fired on Syrian targets fortifying positions near the demilitarized zone Golan heights:

The IDF fired upon Syrian army positions Sunday evening near the Israeli border in the Golan Heights on Sunday, the IDF spokesperson’s office reported.

IDF in a military exercise near the Syrian border

Syrian forces had been working to fortify a military outpost in the buffer zone, in violation of ceasefire agreements, and an IDF tank fired deterring shots in response.

A similar incident occurred on Saturday, when an IDF tank fired a warning shell near Syrian forces after identifying a Syrian army-built outpost in the demilitarized zone between Syria and Israel, similarly contrary to ceasefire agreements.

According to the IDF, the outpost was located close to the Druse village of Hader on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights.

Earlier this month, following intense fighting in the village, the IDF said it was willing to provide assistance and prevent the capture of the Druse village by anti-regime forces.

Meanwhile Israel is continuing its humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees. For the first time ever, the IDF permitted Israeli TV Channel 2 News to film the crossing of some refugees, and one Syrian mother of a sick child said “All Syrians want to come to Israel” – a mind-boggling statement considering that Israel and Syria have been deadly enemies since Israel’s establishment and even before:

Extraordinary footage showing Syrian mothers crossing into Israel with their sick children for medical care was broadcast by Israel’s Hadashot news (formerly Channel 2) on Sunday after the Israel Defense Force (IDF) permitted the channel to film for the first time operations part of its ongoing policy of providing care for civilians and select combatants injured in the country’s raging civil war.

In interviews accompanying the footage, several Syrian mothers expressed deep gratitude to Israel for providing medical assistance and said that many Syrians living near the border no longer view Israel as the enemy, while another said that “all Syrians” would come to Israel if given the opportunity.

“Israel was thought of as the enemy… Now that you are helping us, most [on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights] are with you. They love Israel. They see the true face… the reality,” one mother said.

Another added that the real enemies are “Islamic State, Hezbollah, Bashar [Assad]. They’re all the same.”

“I wish we could stay here for good,” another interviewee told the reporter. “I’d be the first to cross [if the border were open]” she said, adding that “all of Syria would follow me. All the civilians left in Syria would come.”

Read their heart-breaking stories of abuse, murder, executions and more at the hands of the various Syrian factions and the regime.

Watch the video below:

With this in mind, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman called on the Arab nations to make peace with Israel and confront Iran:

“After Daesh, Iran,” Liberman tweeted on Saturday, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic name. “[Late Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat was a brave leader, who went against the stream and paved the way for other Arab leaders to recognize the importance of strategic ties with Israel.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman looking through binoculars during a visit to the Israel’s northern border, November 14, 2017. Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)

“40 years after his historic visit to Israel, I call on leaders in the region to follow the path of President Sadat, come to Jerusalem and open a new chapter, not just in terms of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but for the whole region,” Liberman wrote.

Sadat famously flew to Jerusalem ahead of signing the Camp David peace deal with Israel, the first Arab leader to do so. Sadat was later assassinated for his actions.

“The Middle East today needs, more than anything else, a coalition of moderate states against Iran. The coalition against Daesh has finished its work, after Daesh, Iran,” Liberman wrote in remarks that appeared to be directed in part at Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has in recent days stepped up its efforts to counteract Iran and its proxies in Yemen, and the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

All these shifting alliances hold great potential benefit for Israel, especially Saudi Arabia’s turnabout, but Melanie Phillips wonders if it is all too good to be true:

According to the Turkish Anadolu news agency, reported here, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al Sheikh, has issued a quite remarkable religious ruling. Answering a question on TV about the Palestinian Arab riots over Temple Mount last July, he didn’t merely denounce Hamas as a “terror organisation”.

Much more significantly he actually issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, forbidding war against the Jews; and he said that fighting against Israel was inappropriate.

How can this be anything other than highly significant?

With a religious fatwa coming on the heels of a Saudi realignment as well as their internal political upheaval, it is probably good news – we will just have to be patient, to wait and see:

We can all obviously see the politics behind this. Saudi Arabia is in the fight of its life with Iran, to which end it has forged tacit and not-so-tacit alliances with Israel as well as the US. The new, reformist Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has not only supported this alliance with Israel but, more remarkably, has said that now is the time for the kingdom to get rid of Wahhabi extremism and revert to “what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions”.

… the fact that the Prince made such a statement about now getting rid of extremism, in public, followed by this fatwa from the Grand Mufti, in public, surely suggests that the tectonic plates might just be beginning to shift within the heartland of Sunni fundamentalism.

Too good to be true? Just more smoke and mirrors? Of no more significance than a temporary alliance of expediency? Maybe. Nevertheless, a religious statement goes beyond politics. Neither the Prince nor the Grand Mufti needed to open up the religious issue in public at all. Watch this space, eh.

I’m sure the Israeli authorities are proceeding with caution. כבדהו וחשדהו is what they say in Hebrew: Literally: respect him and suspect him. Verify and justify.

The Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah Connection

November 8, 2017

The Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah Connection, Gatestone InstituteKhaled Abu Toameh, November 8, 2017

Hamas has already stated repeatedly that it has absolutely no intention of laying down its weapons as promised for the “reconciliation” agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

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Now that the Iranians have sole control over Lebanon, their eyes are set on the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, for its part, is thirsting for Iranian resources. Hamas knows that it will have to pay a price.

Iran and Hezbollah are working with Hamas to establish a “joint front” against Israel.

The Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, has had enough. Last week, Iran finalized its takeover of Lebanon when Hariri resigned, and reportedly fled to Saudi Arabia.

Hariri, denouncing Hezbollah and its Iranian backers, said he feared for his life. Hariri has good reason to be afraid of Hezbollah, the powerful Shia terror group and Iranian proxy that effectively controls Lebanon.

Indications show that Iran and Hezbollah are also planning to extend their control to the Gaza Strip. Iran already provides Hamas with financial and military aid. It is precisely the support of Iran that has enabled Hamas to hold in power in the Gaza Strip for the past 10 years. It is also thanks to Iran that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another major terror group in the Gaza Strip, are in possession of thousands of missiles and rockets. It is Iranian money that allows Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to continue digging terror tunnels under the border with Israel.

Relations between Iran and Hamas have grown stronger in the past few weeks. Last month, a senior Hamas delegation visited Tehran to attend the funeral of the father of the senior Iranian security official, Qasem Soleimani. A few weeks earlier, another senior Hamas delegation visited Tehran to brief Iranian leaders on the latest developments surrounding the “reconciliation” agreement reached between Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA).

It was the first time senior Hamas officials visited Iran since relations between the two sides became strained in 2011. That year, Iran suspended its ties with Hamas over the latter’s refusal to support Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad, against his opponents in its civil war. The sudden rapprochement between Hamas and Iran has raised concerns among Abbas and his Palestinian Authority officials regarding Hamas’s sincerity in implementing the “reconciliation” agreement. President Abbas and his officials wonder why Hamas rushed into arms of Iran immediately after reaching the “reconciliation” accord under the auspices of the Egyptian authorities.

Iran and Hezbollah are no fans of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Abbas is terrified that Hamas is trying to bring Iran and its Hezbollah proxy into the Gaza Strip.

Abbas and his PA are eager to return to the Gaza Strip, but the presence of Iran there creates a serious problem. Like Hariri, Abbas would have good reason to fear for his life if Hamas brings the Iranians and Hezbollah into the Gaza Strip.

Abbas’s fear is also not unjustified. Earlier this week, a senior Hamas official, Musa Abu Marzouk, disclosed that his movement and Hezbollah were working towards strengthening their relations. “Relations between Hamas and Hezbollah were never cut off,” Abu Marzouk stated.

“We have ongoing contacts and understandings. But we preferred to keep them away from the spotlight. Hamas and Hezbollah are in one line in the fight against Israel, and we coordinate our positions regarding the Palestinian cause. Hamas will continue to cooperate with resistance groups that support the Palestinian resistance.”

The alliance between Hamas and Hezbollah is a direct result of the renewed relations between Iran and Hamas. With the help of Hezbollah, Iran has managed to take control of large parts of Syria. With the help of Hezbollah, Iran already controls Lebanon. Now that the Iranians have sole control over Lebanon, their eyes are set on the Gaza Strip. They know that the only way to access the Gaza Strip is through the Hamas door. Iran wants to see Hezbollah inside the Gaza Strip. Hamas, for its part, is thirsting for Iranian resources. Hamas knows that it will have to pay a price: allowing Iran and Hezbollah to set foot in the Gaza Strip. Judging from the remarks of Abu Marzouk, Hamas appears to be happy to pay the price.

Hariri, Abbas and many Sunni Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, felt betrayed by the Obama Administration’s policy of détente towards Iran — a policy that emboldened the Iranians and gave them a green light to meddle in the internal affairs of Arab countries to try to establish, as they seem to have done, a “Shiite Crescent” from Persia through Yemen and now Lebanon, clear to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Sunni Arabs are apparently particularly worried about the nuclear deal signed between the Obama Administration and Iran. They feel that the Obama Administration’s attempt to appease the Iranians has emboldened the country that is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Iran has since taken advantage of the nuclear deal to threaten and try to terrorize America, its friends and its Arab allies.

Abbas has multiple reasons to be worried about the Hamas-Hezbollah alliance. Here is another one: a recent meeting in Beirut between Hamas leader Saleh Arouri and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah was yet another sign of Hamas’s effort to pave the way for Iran and Hezbollah to infiltrate the Gaza Strip and meddle in the internal affairs of the Palestinians.

A recent meeting in Beirut between Hamas leader Saleh Arouri (left) and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (right) was another sign of Hamas’s effort to pave the way for Iran and Hezbollah to infiltrate the Gaza Strip. (Image source: Hezbollah via Al Manar)

Hamas has already stated repeatedly that it has absolutely no intention of laying down its weapons as promised for the “reconciliation” agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is prepared to cede to PA President Mahmoud Abbas limited civilian control of the Gaza Strip, but has been clear that it will never dismantle its security apparatus or military wing. Hamas wants to bring the Iranians and Hezbollah into the Gaza Strip to counterbalance pressure from Abbas and Egypt and other countries to disarm and hand control over to Abbas. If Abbas ever returns to the Gaza Strip, he will find himself sitting not only with Hamas, but also with Iran and Hezbollah, who consider him a traitor and puppet in the hands of Israel and the US.

Alarmed by the rapprochement between Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran, Saudi Arabia earlier this week summoned Abbas for urgent talks in Riyadh. The Saudis have been following with concern the visits by Hamas leaders to Iran and Hezbollah, and are worried that Abbas may face the same fate as Hariri.

Abbas may well wish to steer clear of the Gaza Strip: Iran and Hezbollah are working with Hamas to establish a “joint front” against Israel. Hamas’s decision to tilt towards Iran and Hezbollah discloses the truth: it is not headed towards moderation and pragmatism, but the very opposite. This does not bode well for the current Trump Administration’s efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Without stopping Iran and Hezbollah from spreading their influence and control to the Gaza Strip and Arab countries, the prospects of peace seem rather dim. In fact, the prospects of war seem pretty close, as Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad meet in the middle to discuss their plans for war against Israel. Failing to stop Iran and Hezbollah would mean that Abbas may soon find themselves hiding with Hariri in Saudi Arabia.

Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.

Iran: Destabilizing the Middle East Through Proxy Allies

May 11, 2017

Iran: Destabilizing the Middle East Through Proxy Allies, Clarion ProjectAmir Basiri, May 11, 2017

An Iranian Shiite militia in Iraq (Photo: Reuters)

It is a known fact throughout the region that the Islamic Republic of Iran founded the Lebanese Hezbollah as an offspring to expand its influence in the Middle East and gain a foothold on the shores of the Mediterranean.

U.S. National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster recently accused Tehran of imposing the “Hezbollah model” to gain influence over various Middle East states, destabilizing the region through the process.

Such a blueprint includes targeting vulnerable governments across the region through a variety of plots while, at the same time, backing armed militia groups stationed in those countries. Hezbollah has already managed to consolidate its influence over the government of Lebanon after Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, took control over the country’s presidency last year.

It has also become quite obvious that the United States, despite the highly flawed nuclear deal which supposedly aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear program, enjoys the leverage of pressuring Iran through the use of comprehensive sanctions. Tehran will likely not forget this obvious factor and knows the Trump administration can kick-start new sanctions whnever it deems necessary.

The new administration has already slapped the Iranian regime with two series of sanctions in the past three months and more can be expected.

The reference made by Trump’s national security adviser to “militias and other illegal armed groups” backed by Iran refers to the vast variety of Shiite militias in Iraq under the Baghdad-backed umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). These groups have their parallel in Yemen with the Houthis, who are focusing their efforts on ousting the Western-backed government.

British researchers discovered evidence indicating without a doubt how Tehran is deeply involved in keeping a “weapons pipeline” up and running for Houthis.

At the same time, Tehran continues to harass the Saudis from their southern border and threaten international shipping lines passing through the strategic Bab el Mandab waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

This goes in line with a conglomerate of Shiite foot-soldiers Iran has rallied from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries for the bloodbath raging on in Syria after six long years.

Iran has abetted the barbaric tactics of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, further demonstrating its ill intentions across the region. The PMU and Hezbollah have boosted Tehran’s efforts and role in keeping Assad in power. They have all been accused of having played atrocious roles in unspeakable war crimes, with the Khan Shaykhoun chemical attack by Assad in Idlib Province of northern Syria acting as yet another stark reminder of this reality.

Iran’s destabilizing role in nations across the Arab and Islamic worlds has been on the rise significantly with news reports seen in recent months.

The Iraqi Parliament legitimized the PMU last November through the adoption of a law aimed at maintaining this entity’s command structure and hierarchy. Iraqi Sunnis, alongside all minorities in the country including Christians, Yazidi and others, are now left extremely concerned, knowing how this measure can actually legalize the brutal retaliation measures conducted by the Shiite militias.

While Iran’s “medddling” has become obvious to the international community, officially Tehran has continued to deny its role of fueling these Middle East conflicts.

In March, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi denied “any intervention in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” The irony lies in the fact that despite such remarks, Alireza Zakani, known to be a close confidante of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is also known to have boasted in remarks dating back to November 2014 of Iran controlling four Arab capitals following the Houthis’ capture of the Yemeni capital. The list included Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus.

Following eight years of the Obama administration’s disastrous Iran engagement policy, it is high time to make it crystal clear to Iran that such a trend will no longer be tolerated and must come to an end.

Kuwaiti Daily: Missile, Arms Factories Built By IRGC In Lebanon Have Recently Been Handed Over To Hizbullah

March 14, 2017

Kuwaiti Daily: Missile, Arms Factories Built By IRGC In Lebanon Have Recently Been Handed Over To Hizbullah, MEMRI, March 14, 2017

The Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida reported on March 11, 2017, citing an aid to Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), that Iran established facilities for manufacturing missiles and other weapons in Lebanon and has recently handed them over to the management and oversight of Hizbullah. According to the daily’s source, the facilities are more than 50 meters underground and heavily shielded against aerial attacks. He also clarified that various parts of the missiles are manufactured in different factories and then assembled together.

The following is a translation of the report:[1]

The Al-Jarida report

With Iran facing growing pressures from the Donald Trump administration and the Israeli government under Binyamin Netanyahu, an aid to the IRGC commander told Al-Jarida that Iran has built factories [for manufacturing] missiles and [other] weapons in Lebanon and has recently turned them over to Hizbullah. In response to statements by Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan several days ago – who said that Hizbullah is capable of manufacturing missiles [that can] hit any part of Israel [but] gave no details or explanations – a knowledgeable source who wished to remain anonymous said that, after Israel destroyed an Iranian arms factory in Sudan several years ago that had supplied arms to Hizbullah, and after [Israel also] bombed an arms convoy that was intended to reach Hizbullah via Syria, the IRGC launched a project for establishing arms factories in Lebanon [itself]. [The source] also claimed that a special department has been established at the IRGC’s Imam Hossein University [in Tehran] to train Lebanese and other experts, and that hundreds of experts have already been trained.

“According to the source, the factories are more than 50 meters underground, and above them are several layers of shielding so that Israeli planes cannot hit them. Moreover, manufacture of the missiles does not take place in one factory; different parts are built in different factories and then assembled together. He added that the transfer of the factories to Hizbullah’s [management] was gradual but that they have been under full Hizbullah management and oversight for three months now.

“The source stressed that Hizbullah is able to manufacture several kinds of missiles, some with a range of over 500 km, including surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missiles; torpedoes launched from light high-speed boats; spy drones and [attack] drones armed with weapons and rockets; anti-tank missiles, and fast armored boats. He clarified that weapons produced in these plants have been used in the Syria war and were proved to be effective. Anti-tank missiles managed to destroy car bombs that targeted Hizbullah fighters. He [also] noted that Hizbullah manufactures cannon, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and various [other] missiles and bullets, especially armor-piercing ones…”

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[1] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), March 11, 2017.

Al-Hariri’s Choice Of Hizbullah Ally Aoun For Lebanese Presidency Is Another March 14 Forces Concession To Pro-Iran Axis

October 28, 2016

Al-Hariri’s Choice Of Hizbullah Ally Aoun For Lebanese Presidency Is Another March 14 Forces Concession To Pro-Iran Axis, MEMRI, E.B. Picali and Y. Yehoshua, October 28, 2016

Introduction

On October 31, 2016, the Lebanese parliament will convene and is expected to vote in Free Patriotic Movement leader and Hizbullah ally Michel Aoun as president of Lebanon; he is Hizbullah’s sole candidate. The move follows a deal struck between Aoun and former Lebanese prime minister Sa’d Al-Hariri, leader of the Sunni Al-Mustaqbal stream, under which Aoun, if elected, will assign Al-Hariri the task of forming the next government.

This move by Al-Hariri has significant implications for the intra-Lebanese political arena and for the regional power balance. Therefore it has encountered criticism both within and outside Lebanon. This move represents a surrender by the March 14 Forces, headed by Al-Mustaqbal, to Hizbullah’s will, and reinforces the position of Hizbullah’s patron Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia.

The following report reviews Al-Hariri’s decision, the reactions it has encountered, and what it means for Lebanon and the region.

Hizbullah Ally Aoun Expected To Be Chosen President

On October 31, 2016, the Lebanese parliament will hold its 46th presidential selection session since Michel Suleiman’s term ended two-and-a-half years ago.  That session is expected to choose Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, who is an ally of Hizbullah, as president. Aoun’s selection will end a two-and-a-half-year presidential vacuum that resulted from disagreement over Suleiman’s successor from among the country’s opposing streams – primarily Al-Mustaqbal, led by Sa’d Al-Hariri, and Hizbullah, which together with Aoun stymied the formation of the quorum that is necessary to elect a president. The breakthrough in the talks over the selection of a president came when Al-Hariri and Aoun reached an agreement under which Al-Hariri would support Aoun’s presidential candidacy and in return Aoun would task Al-Hariri with forming the new government, which would be a national unity government as stipulated in the agreement.[1] This constitutes an Al-Hariri surrender to Hizbullah, which sought an Aoun presidency. It should be mentioned that Al-Hariri’s support for an overt Hizbullah ally is not unprecedented; a year ago, Al-Hariri announced his support for another ally of Hizbullah, and of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, Suleiman Frangieh, for the post of Lebanese president.[2]

Al-Hariri announced his support for Aoun in an October 20, 2016 speech, saying that by supporting him he was aiming to save Lebanon from dangerous leadership and economic crises which could, in turn, lead to a new civil war.[3]

Two days later, on October 22, Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah announced that his party’s MPs, who had been boycotting presidential selection sessions, as had MPs from other parties including Aoun’s own Change and Reform bloc, would be attending the October 31 session and would be choosing Aoun.  Nasrallah added that Hizbullah had no objections to Al-Hariri’s serving as prime minister in the new government.

These statements by Al-Hariri and Nasrallah pave Aoun’s path to the presidential palace, even though obstacles and uncertainty remain, both in Lebanon and in the region, in this matter.

Various Lebanese Elements Oppose Aoun’s Appointment As President

The opposition to Aoun’s appointment comes mainly from Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, and from Suleiman Frangieh, who is running against Aoun in the presidential race. Both Berri and Frangieh are March 8 Forces members and open Hizbullah allies. Berri even announced that he would not be part of the government that would be established under the Al-Hariri-Aoun deal, and questioned the deal’s future, saying that it had been arrived at by two sides only, without taking into account the country’s main political elements, himself among them. Druze leader and centrist bloc member Walid Jumblatt, who is another major Lebanese political figure, has not yet expressed a position on this matter, but it is thought that he will back Aoun.

On the other side as well, some in Al-Hariri’s Al-Mustaqbal party and in the March 14 Forces in general   oppose this deal. Immediately after Al-Hariri’s October 20 announcement of support for Aoun, another former prime minister, Fouad Al-Siniora, the head of the Al-Mustaqbal party, (a component of Al-Hariri’s broader Al-Mustaqbal stream) announced that he would not join Al-Hariri in backing Aoun for president. Al-Siniora was joined by other party members, including parliamentary vice president Farid Makari, MPs Ahmad Fatfat and Ammar Houri, Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb of the March 14 Forces, and March 14 Forces secretary-general Fares Souaid.

Along with the opposition to an Aoun presidency within the Al-Mustaqbal party, other Sunni public figures also objected to the deal, among them Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, former director-general of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces and a former Al-Hariri supporter. Last year, Rifi harshly attacked Al-Hariri for his support for Hizbullah and Syrian regime ally Suleiman Frangieh. On October 22, 2016, two days after Al-Hariri’s announcement of his support for Aoun as president, Rifi organized an anti-Aoun protest in Tripoli called “Proud Tripoli Rejects the Candidate of Iranian Patronage.” The next day, October 23, a convoy of vehicles from Akkar in the north of the country made its way to Rifi’s home in Tripoli bearing posters of him and expressing support for his position on this matter. It should be mentioned that in the past year, Rifi has gradually chipped away at overall Lebanese Sunni support for Al-Hariri, as evidenced by his party’s landslide victory over Al-Hariri’s party in the mayoral elections in Tripoli, the city with the largest Sunni concentration in the country.

Many in the Al-Mustaqbal party, the March 14 Forces, and the Sunni public who oppose the Al-Hariri-Aoun deal see Al-Hariri’s support for Aoun as yet another concession to Hizbullah and the pro-Iran axis that backs it, and to Hizbullah as an armed state within a state.[4] They accuse Al-Hariri, inter alia, of seeking to become prime minister by selling out Sunni interests and the political legacy of his father Rafiq Al-Hariri, whose 2005 assassination, when Syria was the real power in Lebanon, is thought to have been carried out by five senior Hizbullah officials.

Addressing critics of his deal, Al-Hariri explained his support for Aoun as well as his previous support for Frangieh: “I am willing to take the risks a thousand times over, just as I am willing to risk myself, my people, and my political future, to defend Lebanon and its people.”[5]

Al-Hariri’s Choice Of Aoun Is A Political Victory For Hizbullah

Al-Hariri’s move to support the Hizbullah candidate and ally Aoun has major implication for the internal Lebanese political arena. It constitutes another successful attempt by Hizbullah to impose its wishes there and a further weakening of the country’s main Sunni force, the Al-Mustaqbal party. This triumph for Hizbullah comes at a time when it is mostly preoccupied outside of Lebanon’s borders, primarily with fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria, as well as elsewhere in the Arab world as a proxy of Iran. The organization has fortified its position within Lebanon by virtue of its network of political alliances in the country, as well as by virtue of the quantity of weapons in its possession.

Ibrahim Al-Amin, head of the board of directors of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar and a known Hizbullah supporter, argued that the March 14 Forces, including the Al-Mustaqbal stream, show “the symptoms of card-game addicts,” who delude themselves that they can win and are “unwilling to give up” even when it is clear that it is Hizbullah who is actually directing events on the ground.[6]

At the same time, Hizbullah’s success in pushing its own candidate through is also a result of the political weakness of its rivals, particularly the Hariri-led Al-Mustaqbal stream, who wants the premiership at nearly any cost in order to strengthen his own political status in the country and perhaps his economic status as well.

An Aoun presidency does not mean that the issues contributing to the vast schism between the sides in Lebanon will be resolved, among them the disarming of Hizbullah as demanded by the March 14 Forces – Aoun opposes the organization’s disarmament.[7] As president, Hizbullah ally Aoun would be in charge of a number of security and military portfolios, aggravating the tension between the sides and jeopardizing the army’s independence .

Additionally, the Al-Hariri-Aoun deal does not guarantee that Al-Hariri will actually succeed in forming a government, because of the opposition he faces both inside and outside Lebanon. The deal with Aoun could also harm Al-Hariri’s status among his traditional Sunni support base, thus weakening him in the upcoming spring 2017 parliamentary elections.

An Aoun Presidency: Ramifications For The Regional Power Balance – Down With Saudi Arabia, Up With Iran

Since Lebanon’s future depends on the regional political balance, with Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia the patrons of various local Lebanese political players, Al-Hariri’s move has regional ramifications. His surrender to Hizbullah’s wishes reflects the strengthening of Iran, which has exploited the Syrian civil war to deepen its penetration of the region and of Lebanon in particular. Electing the Hizbullah presidential candidate Aoun will definitely serve future pro-Iran interests in Lebanon at the expense of Sunni interests in Lebanon, and also at the expense of Saudi Arabia, which views itself as the protector of these interests.

Saudi Arabia has previously backed Al-Hariri’s past substantial political moves even if these moves haven’t always served Saudi political interests in Lebanon or elsewhere. It is still unclear whether his deal with Aoun has Saudi support, and the Lebanese press has published conflicting reports on the matter. As yet, there has been no official Saudi comment on this, but recent articles in the Saudi press indicate a lack of support for Al-Hariri’s deal with Aoun. However, following a lengthy Saudi silence, Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer Sabhan, who visited Beirut on October 27 said that his country would not intervene in the selection of Lebanon’s president and would support the president chosen by the Lebanese.[8]

There were also reports in the Lebanese press noting that Al-Hariri’s political status in Lebanon is declining, and that the Saudis no longer consider him the sole representative of the Sunnis in Lebanon, but only one such representative.

It should be noted that in previous years, Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the Sunni world, played a key role in the selection of Lebanese presidents, as did Syria, which together with Hizbullah’s patron Iran represented the resistance axis. Al-Hariri’s choosing Aoun for president without full Saudi backing reflects a decline in Saudi influence in Lebanon, and in Saudi Arabia’s regional status in general. In this context, a report in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, a known supporter of the resistance axis, claims that Egypt was involved in promoting Aoun’s prospects for the presidency.[9] A possible inference from this report is that Egypt is attempting to step into Saudi Arabia’s shoes in Lebanon in an attempt to restore its status in the Arab world, and particularly in the Sunni world.

Articles in the daily Al-Akhbar, known for its pro-Hizbullah line, addressed the regional implications of Al-Hariri’s gambit and gloated that the move reflected Saudi Arabian weakness. Al-Akhbar columnist Ghassan Saoud wrote that an Aoun presidency would be a manifestation of “Hizbullah’s ability to break the international will, and the Saudi will.”[10]

However, Ibrahim Al-Amin wrote in an Al-Akbar editorial that wars in the Arab region created a reality that was forcing the March 14 Forces to see the choice of Lebanese president differently, and that they needed to realize that the Saudis can no longer help them. As he usually does, he concluded his piece with implied threats, stating: “Anyone who does not want anarchy in Lebanon has no alternative but to choose Aoun for president.”[11]

 

*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research And Director of MEMRI Israel

 

Endntoes:

[1] One of the main political players pushing for an Aoun presidency is Samir Geagea, chairman of the Lebanese Forces. In January 2016, after a long period of talks, Geagea and Aoun, formerly bitter Christian political rivals, agreed that Geagea would support Aoun’s presidential bid. One of the main reasons behind Geagea’s decision to do so was Al-Hariri’s previous support for the presidential candidacy of Suleiman Frangieh – a fierce rival of Geagea who had been accused of killing several members of the Frangieh family during the country’s civil war.

[2] Similarly, in 2008, during another presidential interregnum, the March 14 Forces and Al-Hariri were forced to make concessions to Hizbullah, which was included in the newly formed Fouad Siniora government; this took place at the Doha conference. The most important concession won by the Hizbullah-led March 8 Forces, as stipulated in the government guidelines, was the legitimation of the Resistance (which allowed Hizbullah to operate as an independent armed force within Lebanon). Hizbullah also received enough cabinet seats to veto any government decision, and Hizbullah subsequently used this veto power against Al-Hariri’s government in 2011. Hizbullah obtained these concessions following the leadership vacuum, the lengthy Hizbullah siege on central Beirut, and the violent events of May 7, 2008.

[3] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 21, 2016.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1092, Al-Mustaqbal Losing Ground As Representative Of Lebanese Sunnis, May 19, 2014.

[5] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 21, 2016.

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 24, 2016.

[7] In an interview with Al-Akhbar, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is Aoun’s son-in-law and heads the Change and Reform bloc founded by Aoun, said that Free Patriotic Movement, to which the Change and Reform bloc belongs, supports Hizbullah’s retention of its weapons. Al-Akhbar(Lebanon), October 22, 2016.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 28, 2016.

[9] Al-Safir (Lebanon), October 25, 2016.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 27, 2016.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 24, 2016.