Today, chances of a large-scale war in Lebanon are close to zero.
On November 22, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri temporarily suspended his resignation following an alleged request by the country’s president Michel Aoun to reconsider the decision. Hariri resigned announced his resignation in a televised speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on November 4. Hariri’s resignation sparked a new round of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon/Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon of “declaring war” on Riyadh by allowing Hezbollah “aggression” against the kingdom. Meanwhile, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accused Tehran of delivering missiles to Yemen’s Houthi forces for use against the kingdom that he described as “direct military aggression”.
On November 19, an emergency meeting was held between Saudi Arabia and other Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, calling for a united front to counter Iran and Hezbollah. In a declaration after the meeting, the Arab League accused Hezbollah of “supporting terrorism and extremist groups in Arab countries with advanced weapons and ballistic missiles.” In turn, the Lebanese authorities and Hezbollah said that Hariri was held captive in Saudi Arabia because he had not returned to Lebanon as he promised. On November 22, Hariri arrived the Lebanese capital, Beirut, and suspended his resignation. This marked a new stage of the political standoff between the sides.
Hariri is a compromise figure in the Lebanese politics.
He was born in Riyadh in1970 and served as the chairman of the executive committee of the Saudi construction company, Oger Telecom, from 1994 to 2005. Hariri also was the chairman of Omnia Holdings and a board member of Oger International Entreprise de Travaux Internationaux, Saudi Oger, Saudi Investment Bank, Saudi Research and Marketing Group and Future Television. He has deep business ties with the Saudi authorities.
His appointment as the Lebanese prime minister was de-facto supported by Saudi Arabia, the United States and some influential groups in Lebanon. This move had to serve to the “interethnic dialogue” in Lebanon.
However, the recent developments in the Middle East, including the nearing end of the conflict in Syria and the growing influence and military capabilities of Hezbollah, have changed the political situation in Lebanon. Hezbollah units de-facto fulfil functions of the presidential guard. Lebanese special services and the same services of Hezbollah are deeply integrated. Hezbollah’s victories in Syria and humanitarian activities in Lebanon has increased the movement’s popularity among the people.
This situation has appeared amid the developing crisis in Saudi Arabia where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a large-scale purge among the top officials, influential businesspersons and princes under a pretext of combating corruption. According to experts, the move is aimed at consolidation of the power of the crown prince and his father, the king of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman. In general, the kingdom is seeking to shift its vector of development and to become a more secular state. In 5-10 years, it even can abandon Wahhabism as the official ideology. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is involved in a lukewarm unsuccessful conflict in Yemen and a diplomatic crisis with Qatar. This situation fuels tensions and a competition for resources among the Saudi clans. As a result, the Saudi regime and the Saudi state in general are now in a weak position.
Let’s look who is interested in the large-scale war in Lebanon.
On the one hand, the appearance of a new active enemy would allow to consolidate of the Saudi population and elites and to receive an additional support from the United States. Furthermore, if Israel enters the conflict, the kingdom can even reduce its risks in the direct military confrontation with Lebanon/Hezbollah.
On the other hand, Riyadh has a wide range of foreign and internal problems. Considering the current weakness of Riyadh, any push may lead to a fall of the colossus with feet of clay.
In case of the conflict in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia will be involved in a military and diplomatic standoff on 3 fronts:
- North – Hezbollah and Iran;
- South – Yemen;
- East – Qatar.
The conflict will also force the dramatic growth of the oil prices. According to various experts, $150 per barrel can be expected by the end of the first month of the conflict. Some may suppose this scenario is interesting for Saudi Arabia or clans that control Saudi Aramco, the largest oil exporter around the world. However, the expected guerrilla war, which will likely erupt in the Shia-populated, oil-rich part of the country, will level out the pros of this scenario. Additionally, there will be a chance that the main combat actions will be moved to the Saudi territory.
Israel and the West, in general, are not interested in the high oil prices. In turn, Russia and Iran, not involved in the conflict on its first stages, will receive an additional revenue from this scenario. The problem is that Tehran and Moscow are not interested in the new big war also. Such a conflict in the Middle East will pose a direct threat to their national security
Israel’s attitude is another issue. Tel Aviv believes that the growing influence of Hezbollah and Iran in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Lebanon, is a critical challenge to its national security. The key issue is that Israeli military analysts understand that Hezbollah is now much powerful than it was in 2006. Now, Hezbollah is a strong, experienced, tens of thousands strong military organization, which has the needed forces and facilities to oppose a possible Israeli ground invasion in Lebanon.
Iran has also strengthened its positions in the region over the last ten years. It has reinforced its air defense with Russian-made S-300 systems, strengthened its armed forces and got a combat experience in Syria and other local conflicts. Tehran has also strengthened its ideological positions among the Shia and even Sunni population of the region.
Thus, Israel will decide to participate in a large-scale conflict in Lebanon only in case of some extraordinary events. It is possible to suggest that in the coming months, a large-scale war in Lebanon will not be started. Nonetheless, Israel will continue local acts of aggression conducting artillery and air strike on positions and infrastructure of Hezbollah in Syria and maybe in Lebanon. Israeli special forces could also make operations aimed at eliminating top Hezbollah members and destroying the movement’s infrastructure in Lebanon and Syria. Saudi Arabia will support these Israeli actions. It is widely known that Riyadh would rather use means of proxy and clandestine warfare.
In own turn, Hezbollah still needs about 1.5 years to strengthen further its positions in Syria and to free additional forces, which could be used in other hot points. The movement will likely put an end to the separation of power in Lebanon. This would mean that Hezbollah and Lebanon would become bywords. Hezbollah also needs time to expand an agent network in the Shia-populated part of Saudi Arabia. The deeper Hezbollah involvement in the Yemeni conflict will likely change the balance of power there and to lead to further setbacks of the Saudi-led coalition.
According to estimations of analysts, Hezbollah will be ready for a new round of the big game in the Middle East in spring 2019.