Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Before and after Al-Hariri

The Arab League adopted a resolution last weekend condemning the Shia group Hizbullah and opening the way for Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri to return to Lebanon, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut


Al-Hariri met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo

اقرأ باللغة العربية

With the return of Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri to Lebanon on Tuesday night, many things are expected to change in this small Arab country, with many Lebanese hoping that the crisis will pass and the looming escalation between Saudi Arabia and the Shia group Hizbullah will fade.

Al-Hariri landing in Beirut on Tuesday night

Al-Hariri’s ability to return home follows the adoption of an Arab League resolution on Sunday condemning Hizbullah, a partner in the Lebanese government. According to Lebanese sources, the Lebanese government aided by some Arab states succeeded in softening the tenor of the original communiqué issued by the Arab ministerial meeting which could have targeted Lebanon itself.

According to the sources, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassel contacted some 10 Arab foreign ministers in advance of the ministerial meeting in order to emphasise Lebanon’s opposition to any intervention in the domestic affairs of the Arab states and to ensure that those drafting the Arab League statement would bear this stance in mind.

It was important to emphasise the nature of the domestic equation in Lebanon and Lebanon’s keenness to safeguard its Arab relations, the sources said.

They added that Bassel had sought to soften the tenor of the language referring to Hizbullah in the original communiqué. One source indicated that Lebanon would have no problem with wording condemning Iran, but it did not want to see a reference to Hizbullah, especially in connection with an accusation of terrorism.

According to the sources, Lebanese chargé d’affaires Antoine Azzam had explained to the participants at the Arab League meeting that Hizbullah represented part of the Lebanese people and that it was a partner in the Lebanese government. Any position taken against it would have a negative impact on Lebanon, Azzam said.

The Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati foreign ministers had earlier coordinated their positions, and during the meeting the Saudi, Bahraini and Yemeni participants distributed reports detailing the damage done by Iranian actions and containing proof of Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Arab League moved to notify the UN Security Council of the Iranian involvement, and Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit did not rule out the possibility of asking for a special Security Council session on the matter.

Although the Arab foreign ministers meeting produced a strongly worded statement, Abul-Gheit, on a visit to Lebanon, tried to reduce its impact. He said the meeting had not targeted Lebanon as a country but rather had been aimed primarily at the Iranian intervention.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun told the Arab League secretary-general that Lebanon was not responsible for inter-Arab or regional conflicts of other Arab states and that it had never attacked any country and should not be forced to pay the price for other parties’ conflicts.

“Lebanon cannot accept the suggestion that the Lebanese government is a partner in terrorist activities. The position stated by Lebanon’s representative at the Arab League expresses the Lebanese national will,” Aoun said.

“Lebanon faced aggression from 1978 until 2006. But it succeeded in liberating its territory. The Israeli threat to Lebanon continues, and the Lebanese people have the right to resist this and to thwart Israeli designs by all available means,” he added.

In a speech following the meeting, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah denied that his party had had any connection with the missile fired from Yemen into Saudi Arabia earlier this month. His remarks also appeared to be intended to reduce tensions.

“We have sent no weapons, no missiles or guns or other arms, to Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq or any other Arab country. We have sent weapons to Occupied Palestine, however, but the only missiles we have sent into Syria are those we have been fighting with,” Nasrallah said.

Al-Hariri, who has been absent from the country for more than two weeks, was back in Lebanon in time for the Independence Day celebrations on 22 November.

Commentators in the Lebanese media have suggested that Al-Hariri will need to review his position in the light of factors such as the positions taken by his own Future Movement during his absence in Saudi Arabia as well as the actions of long-term allies such as the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Parties.

According to some reports, the leaders of these two parties had been informed of the “planned scenario” for Al-Hariri during a visit to Saudi Arabia, raising questions about their relationship with the Future Movement.

Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Geagea was quick to accept the resignation speech made by Al-Hariri on television while in Saudi Arabia. He described Al-Hariri’s position there as “normal”, and rather than question the manner in which Al-Hariri had resigned he said that he had found it “strange” how long it had taken Al-Hariri to tender his resignation.

As if these remarks did not sufficiently nettle people close to Al-Hariri, Geagea also insisted that the Lebanese parliament should begin consultations over a successor to the prime minister as soon as possible. However, when it appeared that Al-Hariri would be returning to Lebanon and that the differences could be settled, he downscaled his demands in order to retain some possibility of retreat. 

Al-Hariri seems to have emerged from the crisis stronger, despite his scars, because of the solidarity the Lebanese people demonstrated when he announced his resignation. That solidarity also worked to safeguard the country’s stability, though Aoun and the speaker of the Lebanese parliament also played important roles in this regard.

An important role was also played by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt. Lebanese media sources indicate that he, together with Al-Hariri, objected to efforts to revive the agenda of the 14 March Movement and that he avoided meetings that could have had an escalatory effect against Aoun and Hizbullah out of fears that this could lead the government to collapse.

According to sources, three people were especially instrumental behind the scenes in defending Al-Hariri in Lebanon: his adviser Nader Al-Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, and interior minister Nohad Al-Machnouk.

Analysts believe that Al-Hariri will not now try to stir up trouble after he returns to Lebanon. Some form of coordination has taken place between the French presidency and Al-Hariri with an eye to creating circumstances in which he can withdraw his resignation. Part of this will entail the Future Movement giving Aoun the lead in using whatever means are available to pressure Hizbullah to offer concessions that would make it possible for Al-Hariri to save face with Saudi Arabia in order to facilitate a retraction of his resignation.

During Al-Hariri’s stay in France, his camp in Lebanon did not indicate the nature of the concessions it would want Hizbullah to make. They have left this task to Aoun. Although Al-Hariri himself has said repeatedly that Hizbullah’s weapons are “not a Lebanese issue”, this conflicts with the Saudi position which has called for “cutting off Hizbullah’s hands from Lebanon and the region.”

Al-Hariri’s position is now contingent on Hizbullah’s willingness to understand the situation he is in and the pressures he is under. It is also contingent on all the parties’ awareness that the longer the question of his resignation continues unresolved, the greater the risks of tensions in Lebanon.

Paris believes that it is not in Hizbullah’s interests to lose Al-Hariri as prime minister at this juncture and that the group will act in a manner that bears his situation in mind. However, the French are not sure how far Hizbullah will be prepared to go with its concessions, predicting that they may be restricted to the media.

The party will likely halt its rhetorical campaign against Riyadh, for example. But it is not likely to go so far as to make concessions that would alter the state of play in the region, such as reducing its support for the Houthis in Yemen or cutting back its role in Iraq and Syria.

In the event that Aoun fails to persuade Hizbullah to make sufficient concessions, Al-Hariri still has the option of remaining as acting prime minister until some change occurs at the regional level.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been directly involved in these efforts, having engaged in intensive telephone diplomacy with Aoun, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, US President Donald Trump, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi.

One senior Israeli official described the Lebanese army’s warning of a possible Israeli attack against Lebanon as “nonsense”. Commentators in the Israeli press have made it clear that Tel Aviv wants an escalation against Iran and Hizbullah, but it wants to see this led by the US.

 However, this does not preclude the possibility of Tel Aviv launching a “surgical” strike against Hizbullah and Iran, especially in Syria, in an attempt to curb Iran’s regional expansion. The Iranian influence in Syria was recently shown by the entry of pro-Iranian Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units into the town of Abu Kamal in order to back the Syrian army in its drive to expel fighters from the Islamic State group.

Significantly, this took place while the Arab foreign ministers meeting was in progress in Cairo.


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