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Lebanon, Palace Intrigue And Risks Of The Next Proxy War

Saad Hariri resigned as Lebanon's prime minister on Nov. 4
Saad Hariri resigned as Lebanon's prime minister on Nov. 4


Lebanon can be seen as a microcosm for the entire Middle East: intractable sectarian conflict, economic potential, terrorist threats and a labyrinthine web of competing national interests. These days, it seems, the small nation of just over six million inhabitants risks again becoming the live theater for the region to play out its many rivalries with the next proxy war.

The surprise resignation one week ago of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has indeed had repercussions well beyond Beirut, not least because it was announced from the Saudi capital. A Sunni Muslim with dual Lebanese-Saudi nationality, Hariri had been leading a national unity government that included the Shia party/military organization/terror group Hezbollah, a close ally of Iran, Saudi Arabia's archrival. In his strongly-worded resignation speech, Hariri — whose father, former Prime Minister Rafik, was assassinated in 2005 allegedly by Hezbollah — said he feared for his own life, and attacked both the organization and Tehran, saying that "Iran's arms in the region will be cut off."

The move quickly fueled speculation that Hariri had been at least pressured, if not detained, by Saudi Arabia, as part of the kingdom's broader strategy against Iran. Hariri's televised interview Sunday, in which he said he would "soon" return to Lebanon to formally hand in his resignation that President Michel Aoun has so far refused, will have done little to contradict this perception, as The New York Times noted.

Saudi Arabia is trying to "move its confrontation with Iran from Syria to Lebanon."

French journalist Jean-Pierre Perrin of the investigative website Mediapart offers further suspicions of foul play by Riyadh. The journalist noted the virtually simultaneous news of Hariri's resignation and the wave of highly-politicized arrests led by Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Perrin reports that Hariri and his construction company Saudi Oger (which closed in July) allegedly played an important role in laundering money for Mohammed bin Salman's rivals, many of whom were arrested in what critics have described as a purge. Seen from this angle, a trapped Hariri provides the Crown Prince with the stone that could kill two birds: reinforce his hand domestically and increase the pressure on Iran.

Beyond that, these moves might also serve to show, as former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote in Haaretz, that Saudi Arabia is trying to "move its confrontation with Iran from Syria to Lebanon," with Iran's ally Bashar al-Assad "clearly having survived the challenge posed by Saudi-backed rebels." And some observers are worried that by shifting the focus to Lebanon, Riyadh is trying to draw Israel into the conflict and get it to "do its dirty work."

Writing for Hebrew-language website Walla, Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff plays down the risk of an escalation because of Hariri, but he observes nonetheless that "it's been a very long time since the Sunni-Shia split was this sharp and clear. The removal of the Islamic State from the scene also removes the common interest of the Iranians and the Saudis, leaving an unbridgeable gap. This is a basic religious gap, a conflict more than 1,400 years old, which has reemerged."

In Beirut meanwhile, La Stampa"s Giordano Stabile reports that most people believe the theory of Hariri as "a prisoner of Riyadh" and that the fear of yet another war is on everybody's minds. In his editorial for the Lebanese French-speaking newspaper L'Orient-Le Jour, Elie Fayad urges the country to "get out of the mess it finds itself in. ... Because if Saudi Arabia has shot itself in the foot, as some seem to believe, Lebanon should avoid aiming at its own brains."

One can only hope. But sadly, for both the people of Lebanon and the entire Middle East, it again looks like the gun is in the hands of others.

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The Last Boss: Messina Denaro's Death Marks The End Of An Era For The Sicilian Mafia

Eight months after being arrested, following 30 years on the run, Matteo Messina Denaro died Monday. The son of a mobster and successor of Sicily's notorious boss of bosses, he had tried to transform Cosa Nostra into a modern criminal enterprise — with only partial success.

photo of Matteo Messina Denaro

Matteo Messina Denaro after his arrest

Carabinieri handout via ZUMA
La Stampa Staff

Updated Sep. 25, 2023 at 4:45 p.m.


PALERMO — Matteo Messina Denaro, who for more than a decade was the Sicilian Mafia's "boss of bosses," died on Monday in an Italian hospital prison ward. His death came eight months after being captured following decades on the run as a fugitive from justice. His arrest in January 15, 1993, came almost 30 years to the day after Totò Riina, then the undisputed head of the Corleone clan, was captured in Palermo.

Tracing back in time, Messina Denaro began his criminal ascent in 1989, around the first time on record that he was reported for mob association for his participation in the feud between the Accardo and Ingoglia clans.

At the time, Messina Denaro's father, 'don Ciccio', was the Mafia boss in the western Sicilian city of Trapani — and at only 20 years of age, the ambitious young criminal became Totò Riina's protégé. He would go on to help transform Cosa Nostra, tearing it away from the feudal tradition and catapulting it into the world of would-be legitimate business affairs.

For 30 years he managed to evade capture. He had chosen the path of ‘essential communication’: a few short pizzini - small slips of paper used by the Sicilian Mafia for high-level communications - without compromising information by telephone or digital means.

“Never write the name of the person you are addressing," Messina Denaro told his underlings. "Don’t talk in cars because there could be bugs, always discuss in the open and away from telephones. Also, take off your watches.”

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