Lebanese intrigue opens new front in regional power struggle

14 November 2017

By Marcus Halaby

THE SURPRISE resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, announced from the Saudi capital Riyadh on 4 November, threatens to engulf yet another state in a vicious struggle for regional supremacy that has already carved an arc of devastation and triggered a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions.

Major political events in Lebanon rarely take place without the encouragement or approval of external powers. Whatever the exact circumstances of Hariri’s presence in Saudi Arabia, and whatever electoral calculations on his part his resignation may have reflected, that the timing and manner of his resignation were chosen under duress is not seriously in doubt.

But throw into the mix a politically unstable US President at loggerheads with his own State Department and intelligence services, the USA’s dangerous double game with all the regional players including Russia and the growing divisions between the “victors” over Islamic State, and the Saudi provocation risks becoming the spark that ignites a regional powder keg.

Lebanon’s sectarian political system favours communally-based parties and requires the President to be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister to be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament to be a Shiite, while imposing sectarian quotas for the composition of the cabinet. This creates numerous opportunities for outside parties to interfere in Lebanese politics, by fostering the rise (or fall) of politicians with an electoral base in confessional communities within which the governments of other states have some influence or prestige.

Thus Assad’s Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia all have irons in the Lebanese fire. And events in adjacent Syria, from which Lebanon was artificially separated under French colonial rule (and which occupied Lebanon for almost thirty years until 2005), are inevitably a part of this picture.

Saudi interference

Hariri, who holds dual Lebanese and Saudi nationality resigned from his post while on a visit to Saudi Arabia. In other circumstances this would be seen as a dogwhistle to Lebanese Sunni voters that he is the Saudi kingdom’s favoured candidate to return as prime minister in elections scheduled for May 2018. However, he has not returned to Lebanon since, and according to some reports was actually prevented from leaving the Saudi capital Riyadh for Bahrain.

Other reports have claimed that Hariri is under house arrest and was stripped of his mobile phone before being forced to read out a televised resignation statement that repeated Saudi accusations of Iranian infringements of Lebanese sovereignty through Iran’s support for Lebanon’s Shiite Hizbollah movement.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah have both rejected Hariri’s resignation as being invalid and possibly coerced, and have called for his return. Hariri himself suggested on 12 November that he might reconsider his resignation and claimed that he faced no obstacles to returning to Lebanon. He had however previously suggested that he would remain in Saudi Arabia because his life might be endangered by Hizbollah or by other pro-Iranian forces in Lebanon.

Moreover, this crisis comes at a time of turmoil within Saudi Arabia itself. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, appointed to that position by his father King Salman only in June, had announced a massive “anti-corruption” purge only days previously. This has seen the arrest of hundreds of people, including more than forty princes (with the suspicious deaths of at least two) and dozens of prominent businessmen, amongst them the influential billionaire prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.

On the same day as Hariri’s resignation statement, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused Hizbollah and Iran of having helped to smuggle missiles to Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen that have targeted Saudi forces in the course of a genocidal Saudi war in Yemen that the Saudis have consistently been losing, despite their overwhelming air superiority.

The notoriously corrupt Hariri himself is the son of the equally notoriously corrupt Lebanese-Saudi billionaire and former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. Rafic Hariri in turn was originally brought into power by Syrian and Saudi machinations in the 1990s, and was assassinated in February 2005 (most likely by Syrian agents) after the souring of Syrian-Saudi relations that followed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Given the large debts allegedly owed by the Saudi state to Hariri’s business interests, it would not be difficult for the new Saudi regime to include Saad Hariri in this “anti-corruption” drive, although it remains to be seen what political concessions they hope to extract in return for not doing so.

And it should not be forgotten that the deal between Hariri and Aoun that brought Hariri into government alongside Hizbollah (and that brought a previous two-year Lebanese political crisis to an end) originally took place with Saudi Arabia’s blessing and even to some extent on its initiative. By tearing asunder what they helped to put together in the first place, the Saudis probably hope to impress upon the USA their own indispensability in preserving “stability” in Lebanon.

But they are also signalling to US President Donald Trump their own impatience with the USA’s toleration of growing Iranian regional influence (symbolised by President Barack Obama’s agreement to the Iran nuclear deal) and probably hope thereby to force a change in US policy. Trump of course has repeatedly denounced this deal and has aligned himself more closely with Saudi Arabia and with Israel, Iran’s long-term adversaries in the region.

US policy and the rise of Iran

The Saudis’ impatience is therefore shared by the USA’s other major regional ally Israel, whose prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has started talking up the possibility of a new Israeli war on Lebanon to avenge Israel’s defeat by Iran’s Lebanese ally Hizbollah in July 2006. This has been accompanied by provocative statements from Israel’s far-right defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has indicated that the US-armed Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) could also be a target this time alongside Hizbollah. In addition, Israel’s former air force commander Amir Eshel claimed in a speech in June that “what we [Israel] could do in 34 days during the second Lebanon war [in 2006] we can now do in 48 to 60 hours”.

Bin Salman’s and Netanyahu’s impatience for a reversal of the policy that Trump inherited from the previous US administration is not without reason. Ever since the USA toppled the regime of Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein, once Iran’s principal regional enemy, the USA has had to watch as a newly emboldened Iran has increased its power and influence in the region, largely at the expense of Israel and of Saudi Arabia. After years of impotent sabre-rattling and sanctions under President George W Bush failed to stop Iran’s rise, his successor Barack Obama signed a deal with Iran in July 2015. This deal not only lifted US sanctions on Iran that had been in place since 1979, but also effectively conceded to Iran a US-approved role in maintaining “regional security”, in particular in Iraq.

This deal “made sense” from the standpoint of a majority of the US capitalist class. Iran had effectively already acquired a role in helping to stabilise an Iraq under US occupation even during Bush’s reign, and has since become an indispensable US ally in containing and rolling back the advance of Islamic State both in Iraq and in Syria. Indeed the priority given to improving US relations with Iran was a major factor in Obama’s decision to leave the Syrian rebels to their fate at the hands of a genocidal Russian aerial bombardment and a massive Iranian-led ground intervention in Syria in support of the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. This culminated in the fall of Syria’s largest city Aleppo to the Assad regime in December 2016, at almost the same moment as Trump’s US Presidential election victory.

By recognising what already existed, US imperialism under Obama was able to readmit Iran to the “international community”, if not quite as an ally then at least as a potentially friendly power with whom it could do business. And by continuing to sponsor an Israel and a Saudi Arabia that remained quite hostile to Iran, the USA could reprise British imperialism’s age-old “divide and rule” policy in India under the Raj, positioning itself as the indispensable arbiter between quarrelling parties competing for its favours.

This deal however was not universally popular within the USA’s political class, and has been extremely unpopular with the USA’s traditional regional allies to put it mildly. Saudi Arabia fears economic competition from Iran following the lifting of sanctions and the growth of an Iranian-led “Shiite” regional bloc countering the Saudi-led “Sunni” bloc. On the other hand, Israel knows that its economic and military supremacy, necessary to make viable its project of settler colonisation, largely depends on playing off its neighbours against each other, and also on the extent to which it is a instrument of and not an obstacle to the advance of US (and to a lesser extent of European) imperialist interests.

Trump’s bellicose anti-Iranian rhetoric was seen by these powers (and by Riyadh’s pensioner, the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) as a sign that the USA under his leadership might change course. In June and July of this year, this rhetoric even provided Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates with an opportunity to try to settle scores with their Arab Gulf state rival Qatar, albeit not so much on account of Qatar’s supposed “closeness” to Iran as on account of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a common regional and domestic enemy of all three of these states.

The USA’s double-dealing

Nevertheless, US policy on the ground in Syria and Iraq has shifted very little, despite Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric. Despite minor skirmishes between them in the summer, the USA’s Arab proxy militia in southern and eastern Syria (the so-called “New Syrian Army”) has continued to fight alongside Iranian-led pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite militias against Islamic State. Similarly the USA’s Syrian Kurdish proxies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have continued to be part of the same coalition against Islamic State in the north of the country.

In October, the New Syrian Army even abandoned a 13,000 square kilometre region along the Syrian-Jordanian border to Iran’s proxy Iraqi militias. In the same month, the USA similarly tolerated Iran’s involvement in the seizing of oil-rich Kirkuk by Iraqi government forces from the control of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), following an Iraqi Kurdish referendum that returned a majority in favour of the KRG’s independence.

But a critical game changer could be the impending military defeat of Islamic State in the last of its major strongholds. As the saying goes, “victory divides the victors”. A scramble is underway between the unlikely allies ranged against Islamic State to secure the choicest morsels in carve-up of Syria that will follow. There have already been clashes between the Russian-backed Assad regime’s forces and the US-backed YPG and its allies in Deir Ezzor in the east of the country. Assad has since threatened to send his army to Islamic State’s former “capital” Raqqa in the north-east of the country since a YPG-led assault backed by a bloody US air campaign drove out Islamic State forces there over the summer and autumn.

Turkey too continues to angle for a role in policing Syria’s rebel-held Idlib region in the north-west of Syria, currently the site of a joint bombing campaign by the USA, Britain, Russia, France, Turkey and the Assad regime that has gone almost completely unnoticed by the Western anti-war movement.

This gap between the USA’s rhetoric and its actions can be seen as the product of the struggle taking place within the US administration, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster apparently keen to preserve the current Obama-era policy for as long as possible. However when combined with the likely race towards a carve-up and the resentment of the USA’s traditional allies at its accommodation of Iran, this also creates a temptation on the part of those allies to push their luck and see which way Donald Trump will jump. Saudi Arabia’s “coup” in Lebanon is one expression of this tendency; and Israel’s threats of war against Hizbollah are another.

The threat of new wars

It is unlikely that plotting and manipulation by the Saudis, the Israelis or Trump, even if they agreed to do it could unleash a new civil war in Lebanon in the immediate future. Quite aside from the fact that there is little appetite amongst the Lebanese parties for one, the material basis for it is simply not there.

Hizbollah’s armed power in Lebanon is such that none of the other sectarian parties’ private militias could seriously challenge it. The US-armed LAF is recruited from a social and sectarian milieu that is likely to be friendly towards Hizbollah, with a largely Syrian-trained officer caste that is likely to side with Hizbollah’s ally Aoun. On the other hand, Lebanon’s domestic Internal Security Forces (ISF), often seen as a Hariri fiefdom (where the army is seen as a fiefdom of Aoun and of Hizbollah), is not even remotely a match for these two forces combined.

What is a clear and present danger is that Israel could make good on its threats to take revenge for its defeat in Lebanon in 2006 by bombing a large part of the country. And this time around, a Hizbollah that is overstretched in policing Assad’s creaking statelet might find itself hard-pressed to offer any serious resistance to Israel’s bombardment. Israel, for its part, could quickly discover that a new bombardment of Lebanon will simply increase Iran’s and Hizbollah’s influence there, even if it dents their prestige by demonstrating their inability to defend Lebanon from Israeli aggressions. The risk that this could force Israel to escalate its war in order to “finish the job” is not a negligible one.

One reactionary by-product of an Israeli bombing spree might be the escalation into an outright massacre of the forced expulsions of the million or so Syrian refugees and migrants in Lebanon that Hizbollah, the LAF and the ISF are already involved in. Already Aoun and his allies are engaging in dangerous rhetoric about reintroducing conscription in Lebanon to counter the “security threat” posed by the Syrian refugees, on the basis that most of these refugees will have had military training as conscript soldiers in Syria, in an ominous echo of the pre-Civil War era rhetoric about Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee community. Hizbollah and its allies could easily inflict a Sabra and Shatila style massacre on Lebanon’s overwhelmingly anti-Assad Syrian population as a misdirected and racist form of “revenge” for an Israeli assault.

And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that both Turkey and the Assad regime, each for their own reasons, could take advantage of the diversion of a war in Lebanon to settle scores with the Kurdish YPG. This in turn could lead to the risk of a serious clash between the major powers if either Russia or the USA or both intervene in support of their various clients. Their policy so far has been to avoid such direct conflicts between themselves, but the scenario in which these could take place anyway despite their intentions is not so far off.

As we argued following the Saudi provocations of Qatar in June, both of these possible wars (in Lebanon and in Rojava) will involve attacks on people who will be entirely justified in their immediate defence of their own homes and lands. But the global and regional “camps” with which they are aligned and entangled remain entirely reactionary in their objectives when viewed in the bigger picture.

None of these camps – the USA with its temporary Kurdish allies, Russia with its dictatorial Syrian client regime, Iran with its Lebanese Shiite ally Hizbollah, Turkey with its remaining Syrian rebel proteges, let alone Israel – represent progressive or anti-imperialist objectives that deserve the support of the camp of the international working class.

Of course the competing imperialist camps will claim various progressive motives. The USA and its allies will claim to be defending “Kurdish self-determination” in Syria (even while they have betrayed this same principle in Turkey and in Iraq), while Russia and Iran (alongside Hizbollah the foreign occupiers in Assad’s rump statelet) will claim to be defending Syrian and Lebanese “sovereignty”.

Socialists and anti-war activists however should give no credence to either imperialist-led regional bloc’s lofty claims. Rather they should prepare for a global mass movement against this threat of war, one that argues for complete opposition to any involvement in any of these wars by the governments of their own countries. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in particular should pledge to withdraw the UK completely from the current US-led intervention in Syria and Iraq, and should state in advance its opposition to Britain’s support for any Israeli attack on Lebanon.

Given the presence in the mayhem of two nuclear superpowers and a nuclear armed Israel, an escalation into a global conflict is far from impossible. Once again the fight against imperialist war is coming to the top of the agenda and with it the only ultimate method of preventing it: socialist revolution.


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