The seesaw in the Middle East

Politics in the Middle East is a complicated game where one needs to look behind the obvious in order to decipher the facts. The speech given last week by Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah is a good example.

By Claude Salhani (View from Washington)

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Published: Sat 20 Nov 2010, 10:22 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

The vast majority of the Lebanese and foreign press who reported on the event made a big point of quoting Nasrallah as saying he would “cut off the hand of anyone trying to arrest” any members of his party in connection with the findings of the international tribunal established to investigate the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Yet the more interesting news item was to be found in just one line uttered by the Hezbollah chief and that went largely unreported.

“The Saudi-Syrian efforts are very serious and there are big hopes pinned on it,” said Nasrallah. He went on to add: “Any results the Lebanese State agrees to will also be endorsed by the Islamic republic of Iran.”

The fact that Nasrallah praised the Saudis indicates two possible changes in the kingdom’s politics in regards to Lebanon. First, it is a clear indication that some headway has been reached between Saudi Arabia and Syria over the Lebanese crisis as it relates to the killing of Hariri and the work of the tribunal.

And second the mention of Iran by Nasrallah shows that there are wider regional implications to the Lebanese crisis.

Indeed, sources in the Lebanese capital Beirut said that Saad Hariri has been coming under much pressure from the Saudi’s to accept Syria’s (and Hezbollah’s) conditions to put to rest the question of suspected Hezbollah involvement in the Hariri killing.

But this change of tactics is not well received in the eastern sector of the capital where forces loyal to Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea are following the situation with much trepidation.

The Saudi royal family has traditionally supported the Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri. If indeed it turns out that Riyadh chooses to realign its Lebanon policy in favour of Hezbollah that in turn could translate as a major victory for Tehran and another serious loss for Washington. The United States and its Western allies were already routed from Lebanon in 1983 when attacks on the US Marines and French military compounds killed respectively 241 US servicemen and 58 French paratroopers. The outcome of the attacks redesigned the map of US involvement in the region for the next 30 years.

What leads one to conclude that there could very well have been some sort of agreement or memorandum of understanding between the Lebanese Shia group and the Saudis to try and resolve the crisis in Lebanon is that this is change of attitude is not unilateral. If the Saudis have opened up to the Shia, the leader of the militant group in turn has shown a milder approach towards the Saudis as was reflected by Nasrallah’s speech last week.

The next few months will tell if the threat of a reshuffling of the cards ¬and the redrawing of new boundaries in Lebanon ¬ holds real threats or not. Nasrallah warned, “the Lebanese have entered a very crucial stage regarding the fate of the country.”

The big question being pondered in the Lebanese capital these days is if Saudi Arabia ¬ perhaps the sole remaining guarantor of Lebanon’s independence—is starting to have second thoughts about its Lebanon policy?

Claude Salhani is a political analyst based in Washington, and is presently visiting Beirut

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