Fireworks are frequently used throughout the Middle East: at every wedding, birth and major event one hears them going off; but more than often these bangs are due to real gunfire.
In these days, the protagonists are making themselves heard and nothing they are saying is encouraging. Today, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned earlier this month, will meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. Macron (intervening personally in the crisis) has extracted Hariri from Riyadh, where he was staying in a voluntary declared exile along with his family since November 3. Now Hariri says that after a visit to the Arab countries he will return to Beirut to step down in person.
Hariri – a Sunni Muslim, is the son of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri who was assassinated in a massive car bombing attack probably orchestrated by Hezbollah in 2005 – explained on Saudi TV that he feared the same fate of his father if he remained leader. He also directly accused Iran of meddling in the region and for undermining Lebanese sovereignty. Were his words prepared along with the Saudis? Probably, but nonetheless they were true. Immediately, Lebanon’s reaction, a country plagued by the Sunni-Shiite conflict, demonstrated that Hariri’s abandonment could be the start of sweeping chaos, and the chorus of demands for his immediate return to Lebanon have become deafening amid allegations that the prime minister has been kidnapped.
Sure, his resignation bears the mark of the ruling family’s diplomatic activism: it says that recent Iranian imperialism has unsettled Sunni nerves. The Arabs can’t stand the Persians, whom they view as historical enemies and the Persian have the millennial habitude of trying to dominate them.
Hariri is helping to create albeit willing or not, a Saudi-led pan-Sunni alliance (in a country where he has a huge business stakes, especially construction) and France itself here has an interest in the Sunni cause currently underway by Hariri and the Saudis in order to curb further chaos. The French intervention is a result of this, plus the shaking presence on the scene of 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman’s with his recent massive purge to consolidate his power, while the old sovereign Salman is, it’s rumored, about to leave the throne. Also, on November 4th, an Iranian made ballistic missile destined for Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport was intercepted, and this was considered an act of war from Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
There’s a real war going on, and Saudi Arabia is taking decisive steps: another move is the interview that came out in a Saudi newspaper (not Israeli, therefore outside the habit of boasting about good relations with the Arabs) with Gabi Eisenkot, the Chief of General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces. Eisenkot explained, “We are ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to confront Iran.” He also added, “Under US President Trump there is an opportunity to form a new international alliance in the region… a strategic plan to stop the Iranian threat”.
In short, the conclusion of this phase of the Syrian War now in its sixth year, leaves Iran, together with its proxy Hezbollah, not only with unprecedented strength along Israel’s border, but also with its legs firmly planted in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. This has led to an explosive situation in which the Saudis are shocked and exacerbated, they feel they must take action now like never before.
In the backdrop of the interview you can see the Saudi Peace Initiative, which Trump said he would gladly support, while advancing his own proposals to solve the israeli-palestinian conflict. Eisenkot’s benevolent stance makes us realize that, in fact, something connected to it is now being discussed.
Nevertheless Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Iran’s presence in Syria is legitimate, adding that Russia never promised the United States that Iran and Iranian-backed forces would withdraw from Syria. What has shaken the Saudis and Israel too is that the American administration hasn’t expressed any opinion on this statement. The impression in the House of Saud therefore in these days is that maybe those red carpets on which Trump walked during his visit in May have been consumed in vain and that the Arabs must confront Iran alone. Israel can be the natural ally.
Now there is a possibility that a Saudi-led embargo similar to that of imposed on Qatar since June will be implemented vis-à-vis Lebanon. And also that Israel can accept some version of the Saudi peace initiative that Trump would like to resume. The circle would close on a more decisive American initiative about Iran in Syria.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal
This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale (November 18, 2017)