Lebanon: Microcosm of the Middle East

  • Özgür TOMAKİN
  • 13 Nov 2017

The resignation of Lebanese PM Saad Hariri has paved the way for renewed conflict across the region. Lebanon has often served as a microcosm of the Middle East, and has been used as a proxy by other governments.

Saad Hariri said he is afraid of an assasination attempt against himself. ( Reuters )

The Middle East has long suffered from ethnic and religious conflicts resulting in civil wars, terror attacks, assassinations and refugee crises, that have left hundreds of thousands of people dead or displaced.

Regional and international players have wielded their political and military powers, creating proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya. The region became more volatile after the Arab uprisings erupted in 2010.

Since its independence in 1943, Lebanon has served as a sort of microcosm for the region, being home to most of the region's ethnic and sectarian groups.

The Taif Agreement, signed in 1989 to end Lebanon’s civil war, was designed to divide the government's power structure among the nation's different religious and ethnic groups. But this also opened the door to influence and meddling by external players.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun (C) meets with Prime Minister-Designate Saad al-Hariri (R) and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon on December 18, 2016.(Reuters)

Hariri’s resignation: Free will or Saudi-imposed?

Lebanon has long been in conflict with neighbouring Israel and Syria; both countries having invaded parts of Lebanon before. It has also been caught in the middle of disputes between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The recent resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and a political and business ally of Saudi Arabia, has sparked a new power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran.

Last week, Hariri traveled to Saudi Arabia and unexpectedly announced his resignation from the Saudi capital, pointing to growing influence by Hezbollah and its main supporter, Iran. He also cited fears of an assassination attempt against him. His father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in 2005 when his motorcade was targeted.

Christian Maronite President Michel Aoun, who is backed by Hezbollah, says that Hariri’s freedom is being restricted in Riyadh. Hezbollah, the main Shia group based in the southern part of Lebanon, says his resignation was Saudi-imposed and is therefore illegal.

Only one day before his resignation, on November 3, 2017, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met with Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at the government House in Beirut, Lebanon.(AP)

France’s diplomatic efforts

On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saad Hariri has accepted French President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to Paris with his family, while Lebanese officials’ accuse Riyadh of “detaining Hariri”.

“He will come to France, and the prince has been informed,” Le Drian said, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with whom he held talks late Wednesday.

Macron flew to Riyadh from the nearby United Arab Emirates on November 9.

The Hariri family has longstanding ties to the French political class. The assassinated former prime minister Rafik Hariri was a close friend of former French president Jacques Chirac.

Lebanon's PM Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned, is seen in a Future television interview, in a coffee shop in Beirut.(Reuters)

Riyadh’s anti-Hezbollah approach

Days before Hariri's trip to Riyadh, Lebanon hosted Ali Akbar Velayeti, the senior adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader, in a move that angered the Saudis. Velayeti met with various officials during his visit, including the Lebanese parliament speaker, foreign minister, Hezbollah secretary general and PM Hariri.

Hours after Hariri's resignation, Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired from Yemen targeting Riyadh’s international airport. Saudi officials said it was “an Iranian missile, launched by Hezbollah, from territory occupied by the Houthis in Yemen.” 

Following the incident, Saudi State Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, who met with Hariri before his resignation, also issued a warning to Hezbollah. Sabhan, in an interview with Al Arabiya TV, said Hezbollah's "acts of aggression" on the Kingdom "were considered acts of a declaration of war against Saudi Arabia by Lebanon and by the Lebanese Party of the Devil."

Days after the resignation, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE ordered their citizens to leave Lebanon immediately. And with Hariri still in Riyadh, there's been growing pressure on the Saudi government, but Hariri says that he is free to move around in Saudi Arabia and that he will return to Beirut in a matter of days. 

Sources close to the prime minister told Reuters that Saudi Arabia pushed Hariri to leave office because he was unwilling to confront Hezbollah. But Hariri had argued that such a move would destabilise his country. The same sources said that “officials in Riyadh did not like what they heard.”

Saudi impact on the Hariri family

Saudi Arabia has had major influence on the Hariri family since Rafik Hariri was in office. Most of the family's businesses are connected to Saudi economic circles.

Saad Hariri holds dual Lebanese and Saudi citizenship, and has extensive business ties with Riyadh. One of his deals is with the Saudi Oger construction company that closed down on July 31, after 39 years in operation. 

The owners of the company were accused of corruption in 2015, plus with a downturn in the Saudi economy, Riyadh cancelled numerous construction contracts with Saudi Oger, leading to its eventual closure.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on November 6, 2017 in Riyadh. (Saudi Press Agency)(AP)

Israeli influence

With the recent events unfolding in the Middle East, Israel has not lost its opportunity to capitalise on the situation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement warning the international community of “Iranian aggression that is trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon.” Hezbollah’s strong involvement in the Syrian war and support for the Syrian regime has stoked Israeli concerns about the Shia militia along its borders, especially since it is backed by Iran, Israel's biggest rival in the region.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have increased co-operation in an attempt to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon.  Reports emerged of a Saudi prince visiting Israel in early September, amid speculations of growing collaboration between the two countries over their common interest in weakening Iranian influence. 

Israel has also been preparing for a possible war with Hezbollah along its northern border. In September, Israeli soldiers simulated a 10-day war against the militia group, which has only grown stronger with its involvement in the Syrian war.

It has also been reported that Hezbollah withdrew some of its troops from fighting in Syria and repositioned them back along the Lebanese border with Israel. 

Meanwhile, Hussein Sheikh al-Islam, an advisor to Iran's foreign minister, said Hariri's decision to resign was "dictated" by US President Donald Trump and Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It is not the first time regional powers have meddled in Lebanese politics.

A Palestinain woman pleads with Christian militia in Beirut while a man tries to take children to safety during the Lebanese civil war, January 19, 1976.(Getty Images)

Lebanese civil war and Syrian intervention

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was forced to leave Jordan for Lebanon after confrontations between Palestinian militias and the Jordanian army between 1970 and 1971. Many Palestinians migrated to Lebanon in what was called “Black September.” This came after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that also forced thousands of Palestinians to flee to Lebanon. This influx changed the demographic structure of Lebanon.

Just four years after “Black September,” a week-long confrontation between Palestinian forces and Maronite Christians in the country led to the start of a 15-year civil war in Lebanon, eventually involving all the different ethnic groups in the country. In 1976, tens of thousands of Syrian troops entered the country to back Hezbollah. 

Meanwhile, PLO fighters kept up their fight against Israeli forces along Lebanon's southern border, leading to the Israeli invasion of 1978. Following peace talks, Israeli troops were replaced by a UN peacekeeping force in order to restore stability along the border. The UN peace force still exists in the border area today.

Israel invaded Lebanon again under the leadership of General Ariel Sharon in 1982, after accusing the country of hosting PLO members. The Israeli army killed nearly 18,000 people, mostly civilians, in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Negotiations resulted in most of the PLO members leaving Lebanon.

Israel occupied southern Lebanon many times due to conflict with Hezbollah along its northern border.(Reuters)

That September, Israeli-backed Christian Phalangist leader and Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated at his headquarters in eastern Beirut. In response, Christian militiamen attacked Palestinian refugee camps, killing more than 2,000 civilians.

In 1983, nearly 63 people were killed in an attack on the American embassy in Beirut. That same year, the US marine barracks was attacked and 241 marines were killed. Shortly afterwards, French paratroopers were also attacked, leaving 58 French soldiers dead. 

In 1987, Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami, a Sunni Muslim, was assassinated when a bomb exploded in his helicopter. He was succeeded by Selim al Hoss.

Taif Agreement, new political structure and its aftermath

During its civil war, Lebanon was governed by two rival governments, one Sunni Muslim and the other Maronite Christian. The Christian government based its headquarters in eastern Beirut with army commander General Michel Aoun as its prime minister, and the Muslim government was in western Beirut led by Dr. Selim al Hoss as its prime minister.

In 1989, General Michel Aoun declared “a war liberation” against Syrian occupation. Six months later, Lebanese and other Arab leaders met in the Saudi city of Taif. Saudi Arabia and Lebanon were represented by Rafik Hariri. After the Taif Agreement, Christians lost their majority in parliament when Muslims and Christians both gained equal representation. 

Lebanon is still being governed by the political system brokered by the Taif Agreement. But the deal could not solve the ethnic and religious rivalries in the country, or keep any outside influences at bay. 

Only one year after the Taif Agreement, Syrian forces stormed Michel Aoun’s presidential palace. Damascus got the green light from the US and France after Syria joined their coalition against Saddam Hussein, forcing Aoun to take refuge in France where he remained until 2005.

Lebanon's infrastructure was severely damaged after the Israeli occupation in 2006.(Reuters)

Israeli occupation in 2006

Since the beginning of the civil war, Israel routinely continued to breach Lebanese airspace, waterways, and borders. The acts were illegal, violating Lebanon's territory and United Nations Security Council Resolutions 425 and 1701.

The conflict continues to this day along the Israeli-Lebanese border. On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah launched  rocket attacks on Israeli military positions in Israeli border villages, demanding the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel, in exchange for the release of Israeli soldiers they had captured. 

War broke out after a heavy firefight between Hezbollah militias and Israeli soldiers. More than a thousand people were killed, and fighting continued until a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect on August 14, ending 34 days of fighting. 

Since the war in 2006, Israeli involvement in Lebanese affairs has continued. Meanwhile, Hezbollah militias returning to Lebanon after backing the Assad regime in Syria along with the Iranian-backed militias, are coming back having gained more military experience. 

Resigned PM Saad Hariri's father, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in Beirut in 2005.(AP)

"The country of assassinations”

Assassinations also continued in the country, along with foreign involvement. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing in 2005, along with 21 other people in his motorcade, including his bodyguards.

After an investigation, the Lebanese Internal Security Forces Intelligence Branch pointed to evidence accusing Hezbollah of conducting the attack.

But on October 16, 2016, in an interview with POLITICO, Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee and the senior United States Senator from Iowa, said otherwise. He pointed to newly obtained documents revealing Rafik Hariri's assassination was orchestrated by Israel with the help of Saudi Arabia.

One of the reasons stated by Saad Hariri for his resignation was fears of an assassination attempt against himself. His message was aimed at Hezbollah and Iran, but was announced from the Saudi capital.