Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Riyadh’s message behind GCC designation

Arab Gulf states designated Hizbullah a terrorist group three years ago, and then again, last week, Amira Howeidy reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

A statement by the six state members of the Gulf Cooperation Council designated the Lebanese Hizbullah group a terrorist organisation last week. GCC Secretary General Abdel-Latif Ben-Rashed Al-Zayyani said the decision was adopted due to the continuation of Hizbullah’s “hostile” activities to recruit youth in GCC states to execute “terrorist” attacks, smuggle arms and explosives, incite sedition, chaos and violence. This in addition to Hizbullah’s “terrorist” activities in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, said Al-Zayyani, pose a threat to Arab national security.

In vaguer statements, Al-Zayyani added that necessary measures would be taken to implement this declaration as per anti-terror laws applied in GCC states and “similar” international laws.

The Gulf States’ designation of Hizbullah as a terrorist group is not new. In 2013, the GCC unanimously made the same declaration in June, citing its role in Syria. In the three years separating the first declaration and its rerun last week, the Saudi-Iranian competition for influence in the region had seen more wins for Tehran in Syria and what Riyadh considers a foothold in Yemen. Riyadh, under the new leadership of King Salman, adopted a new policy of leading a war in Yemen last year to reinstate their ally, President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, who was ousted by the Houthi group that has ties with Iran.

Tehran’s leverage in Iraq precedes its involvement in the Syrian civil war, where it gained a powerful foothold in the void created by the US-led invasion of 2003.

Evidence of Hizbullah’s role in the Syrian conflict and its efforts to rescue the Bashar Al-Assad regime by supplying thousands of fighters dates back to four years. The group’s casualties are estimated to be approximately 1,000 and their growing recruitment efforts are no secret, but are not to be accredited for tilting the balance in Al-Assad’s favour, despite some successes, which Russia’s aerial military intervention in late September 2015 achieved.

In this context, the GCC’s new-old designation of the group appears less associated with its role in Syria and more of a pressure card on its Iranian ally.

The move resonates with the fallout caused by Riyadh’s execution of prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr (among 47 others) only two weeks before decades-old sanctions on Iran were lifted in mid-January. In response, Iran’s Supreme Leader condemned the execution in strong words, while rioters in Tehran set fire to the Saudi embassy. Riyadh reacted by severing all ties with Iran; so did the three GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar) followed by three Arab capitals.

Seeking broader Arab consensus, an emergency ministerial level Arab League meeting convened 10 January upon Riyadh’s request to condemn Iran, issuing a statement, which Lebanon and Iraq abstained from voting for. Justifying his country’s refusal, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Basel specified that the statement mentioned Hizbullah and described its activities as of a “terrorist” nature. The organisation, said Basel, is represented in both the Lebanese parliament and government.

Hizbullah was officially founded in Lebanon in 1985, but had existed before that, since Israel’s invasion in 1982. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran had already resonated within some sectors of Lebanon’s Shia community, mainly the constituency and followers of prominent Shia scholar Hussein Fadlallah, the group’s founder. In its founding statement in February 1985, Hizbullah affirms its commitment to the dictates of Iran’s leadership. Its birth, however, was a direct response to the Israeli occupation and since its inception Hizbullah considered itself primarily a resistance movement. It has since received military training, weapons and funding from Iran in addition to political and logistical support from Syria.

Hizbullah evolved and expanded over the years into a sophisticated albeit largely secret organisation with political and military wings, with members in parliament and Lebanon’s government. It is Lebanon’s biggest and strongest political group, with more than three decades of social and educational services primarily focused on the south.

The group established its popularity in the Arab world when Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 was attributed to its resistance efforts. It was then that some calls within Lebanon and elsewhere to disarm the group where first heard and rejected by its leadership which associated its raison d’etre with the continued of Israeli occupation of the Shebaa Farms border area, near the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

In 2006, Israel launched a war on Hizbullah that lasted for 33 days and failed to defeat the organisation. The group considered itself victorious, as it remained intact, soaring its popularity further in Lebanon and the Arab world. The war revealed the transformation of the group from a paramilitary wing to an army that combines both non-traditional methods of warfare with the traditional modes of operation of conventional armies.

But Hizbullah’s historic, possibly irreversible, turning point came with its involvement in the Syrian conflict almost four years ago, if not earlier. Its support for Bashar Al-Assad’s regime that involved pointing its weapons for the first time against Syrians, not Israelis — the conventional enemy — shocked its supporters across the region. It no longer enjoys the cache of being the only resistance movement that defeated Israel. At best the group is viewed both as a controversial organisation and pawn of both the Syrian and Iranian regimes. At worst, it is slammed as a cold-blooded sectarian group.

Another turning point in the region has been the ascension of King Salman to power in Saudi Arabia, succeeding his brother in January 2015. Riyadh’s new leadership didn’t deviate much from its predecessor’s foreign policy, but applied different, less overt tactics to assert its perceived role as regional leader. Riyadh makes no secret of prioritising Iran’s growing regional influence in its confrontational strategy. And faced with economic challenges due to the sharp fall in oil prices, Riyadh had to announce plans to cut government spending to head off a record annual budget deficit.

Almost two weeks before GCC states designated Hizbullah a terrorist organisation, Saudi Arabia said it would stop $4 billion worth of aid money to the Lebanese army and security services as a direct result of Lebanon’s refusal to condemn Iran in January. It also advised Saudi tourists to stop visiting the country.

While this decision means that Saudi Arabia is abandoning Lebanon, its years long battleground against Tehran where it enforced a semblance of political balance in the multi-sect state, paving the way for more Iranian leverage, observers argue the move might be more calculated than it seems.

With an eye on depleting Hizbullah’s resources, Riyadh wants it to rely more on Iranian support. By doing so, Tehran will spread itself thin, given that it has many “hungry clients” in Yemen, Syria and beyond, said Mansour Almarzoqi, a Paris-based researcher on Saudi politics. If Iran doesn’t step up its support it will suffer a credibility loss and embarrass Hizbullah, he added.

On the other hand, said Almarzoqi, it doesn’t make economic sense for Saudi Arabia to continue to supply weapons to Lebanon’s military and security forces whose professional mobility favours Hizbullah.

More important is the message behind Saudi Arabia’s escalation, said Almarzoqi, not just to Lebanon but to the region: “Riyadh does not accept half-allies.”

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