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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Curbing and containing Hezbollah is a key focus

The aim is to isolate and contain rather than confront Iran's proxy

"Hariri wants excellent relations and a candid and trust-based understanding with Saudi Arabia."    AP
"Hariri wants excellent relations and a candid and trust-based understanding with Saudi Arabia." AP

If true, reports suggesting the US is encouraging Saudi Arabia to forge ties with Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri should be seen as part of a bid to keep Lebanon out of the regional confrontation. However, it does not mean that Washington is about to reduce pressure on Hezbollah outside Lebanon, including militarily in Syria and Yemen. From the Israeli side, declarations that it will not accept the presence of Iranian bases in Syria are being coupled with speculation that the Israelis are planning a swift and devastating invasion of Lebanon that would not stop at Hezbollah’s positions but would also somehow affect Beirut. Yet this hypothetical escalation is inconsistent with assumptions that the decision for now is merely to contain Hezbollah, although they are not completely mutually exclusive. Indeed, there are no indications at present that the US is about to shift pressure on Iran from Syria and Yemen to Lebanon and Iraq; in the latter, the priority for now is the general elections of May 12 and in Lebanon, the legislative elections of May 6.

The visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to London then Washington this month will inexorably tackle the rivalry between the two western capitals for Saudi Aramco’s IPO, expected to be the largest in history. But US President Donald Trump will also be anxious to discuss with the crown prince ways to empower the Arab Gulf countries to better confront Iran’s destabilising activities and defeat terrorism and extremism. The relationship between Mr Hariri and Hezbollah in the framework of the consensus government had troubled Riyadh in the past but the question now is how the US and Saudi Arabia can work together to gradually stymie Hezbollah at a time when Mr Hariri has to co-exist with the powerful party. For this reason, Mr Hariri’s visit this week to Riyadh carries important implications for the coming stage.

Mr Hariri’s vision is known and includes, according to my source, suspending any conflict with Hezbollah and maintaining good relations with both the Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his rival Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. Thirdly, Mr Hariri wants Saudi support at the donor conferences assisting Lebanon’s economy and shoring up its ability to cope with its refugee crisis. Fourthly, Mr Hariri, a Sunni leader, will not cave to any domestic blackmail or to oneupmanship from other Sunni politicians. Fifthly, Hariri wants excellent relations and a candid and trust-based understanding with Saudi Arabia.

This well-informed source insists that Saudi Arabia has no issue with any of these points. But how so, when Mr Hariri just wants to suspend the confrontation with Hezbollah at a time when the official Saudi position is to come down hard on the party? The source says that suspending the confrontation does not mean ending it; it means agreeing to disagree because the current regional conditions are not favourable for a confrontation with Hezbollah.

The new dynamic, then, will be about reaching a compromise. Now, the focus is on “isolating and containing, not confronting” Hezbollah, my source says. If there is a plan to isolate and curb Hezbollah, it will not happen through direct confrontation. If Saudi Arabia and the US want to tackle Hezbollah directly, it is possible they would do it in Syria instead but now they have shifted the confrontation away from Lebanon, according to the source.

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In an interview with David Ignatius in the Washington Post, the Saudi crown prince said Mr Hariri is “in a better position” in Lebanon, relative to Hezbollah. He characterised his push against corruption and extremism as “the shock therapy” his kingdom needed. Interestingly, Mr Hariri had used a similar expression when he spoke from Riyadh in November to characterise his resignation.

How can this be reconciled with the priority assigned by Riyadh to Mr Aoun’s rival Mr Geagea, once a close ally of Mr Hariri? By keeping minimal and formal ties with Mr Aoun and seeking an alliance with Mr Geagea.

Perhaps Saudi Arabia has really substituted its accelerationist policy with a policy of reaching out in Lebanon. Riyadh is aware that the US decision on Iran and Hezbollah in the Trump era is to curb and contain them, while keeping Israel as the joker card.

Lebanon remains part of the regional equation that is in the process of being sorted. Iran remains the priority, in Syria and Yemen. Surprisingly Berlin, alongside Washington, London and Paris, has condemned Tehran for violating the UN-imposed arms embargo in Yemen. This counts as a new development in the Yemeni issue, the result of both US pressures and the backlash against Russia’s endorsement of Iran’s incursions in Yemen, in turn a new development. Indeed, Russia had hitherto remained outside the Yemeni equation and the new involvement highlights Moscow’s ire with the West because of its increasing pressures on its Syrian deployments.

The situation in Syria is becoming even more dangerous and complex, raising concerns about a deterioration in western-Russian relations and the tragic implications for the people of Syria. Moscow has made up its mind, deciding to put the alliance with Damascus and Tehran at the top of its priorities, expanding the scope of the Iran alliance to include protecting it from accountability in Yemen. In turn, Washington has made up its mind, deciding it will not allow Iran to hold military bases that could link Tehran to Beirut via Iraq and Syria.

In light of all of this, the de-escalation in Lebanon may be tactical but it is not a permanent strategy. All those concerned must therefore take stock of this with vigilance and responsibility.