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.