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Hariri has pushed Lebanon into a new phase

On Saturday, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation. After a year and a half, although sudden, this was not a surprise. Following significant developments in the country and the context of Hariri's strategy to strengthen his leadership, the Iranian influence has managed to contain his camp, pushing him to the edge. The reasons for this move are evident, and the future challenges that Lebanon and Hariri camp will face are pivotal.

The context

For almost two and a half years, Lebanon had no president. The negotiations between opposing parties to agree on a candidate met numerous dead ends. Saad Hariri eventually agreed to back General Michel Aoun, the former head of the Free Patriotic Movement, in return for becoming Prime Minister again. On 31 October last year, the Lebanese Parliament duly elected Aoun as President, marking a turning point in Lebanon's political dynamics.

Hariri offered significant compromises in return for his support for a long-time ally of Hezbollah. However, he needed to re-emerge as a robust Sunni leader after risking defeat in the local municipal election in 2016. He also needed to regain the trust of Saudi Arabia, which had cut diplomatic ties with Lebanon due to Hezbollah's influence in the country.

Since 2013, when Hezbollah openly acknowledged its involvement in Syria, the movement posed significant challenges to Hariri's advancement. Whether regrading donations from the West or diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, the now former Prime Minister has had to justify the presence of, and interaction with, the focal point for Iran's influence in the region, with the given that Hezbollah is a core entity in external support for Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria.

Read: Lebanon too weak for Hariri resignation

After emerging as Prime Minister in 2016, Saad Hariri worked on strengthening the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the fight against terrorism, not least because of the presence of Jihadi groups on its borders. He travelled to the United States in January this year to argue with the US administration about the importance of funding and support for the LAF in terms of military equipment and training. This hit several obstacles as the army coordinated activities with Hezbollah to combat Daesh in Jroud Arsal near the border with Syria. Washington has been sceptical about Hezbollah's influence over Lebanon's security apparatus. During the Fajr Al-Jroud operation, the Lebanese army coordinated with Hezbollah, which cooperates with the Syria Arab Army. In August 2017, and before the LAF could terminate the operation, Hezbollah struck a deal with Daesh which included the return of refugees and passage for its militants to Syria in return for captured Hezbollah and Iranian personnel in Syria. The events weakened Saad Hariri's credibility over stopping Hezbollah from interfering with the military, which undermined the LAF's ability to influence and call the shots on the border.

On the economic front, the US expanded its sanctions against Hezbollah-affiliated institutions, organisations and companies. The measures will have a negative impact on the dwindling economy and banking sector in Lebanon.

Although Hariri also called-in support for refugees, President Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement headed by Gebran Bassil, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President's son in law, launched an aggressive campaign in favour of their return to Syria. Playing on citizen's grievances, the dire economy and the nationalist card, the anti-refugee rhetoric dominated Hariri's attempt to safeguard the refugees' return through the UN.

Using the refugee argument, the Hezbollah bloc called for restoring ties with Damascus to improve economic collaboration and negotiate the refugees' return. Hariri refused to communicate with the Assad regime in any shape or form; this was in line with Lebanon's neutrality policy adopted since 2011. However, several violations of this policy were recorded.

Read: Lebanese PM resigns, by phone from outside the country, saying his life in danger

During the 72rd session of the UN General Assembly, Gebran Bassil met with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Al-Moaalem, to discuss the return of refugees, in breach of official Lebanese policy. Furthermore, during the Damascus International Trade Fair, the Ministers of Agriculture and Industry attended not in their government capacity but as members of political parties and "to implement the agreements signed between the two countries in terms of agriculture and industry," according to Ghazi Zaiter, the Amal Movement representative in the Lebanese government. Finally, on Saturday, 28 October, Hariri and President Aoun appointed an ambassador to Syria. The move provoked a severe backlash due to Hariri's history in opposing the Syrian regime and Bashar Al-Assad.

On the social, economic, political and military front, even as Prime Minister, Hariri could not act as a bulwark against Iranian influence and Hezbollah's strength. After facing the fact that Russia has the upper hand, and to avoid contacting Damascus, he visited Moscow to discuss refugees and the economic strengthening of Lebanon. This followed the growing links between Saudi Arabia and Russia to counter the Iranian presence by the former posing as a critical player in the region. The Saudi monarch's historic visit to Russia resulted in a $3 billion arms deal as well as expressions of cooperation and positive negotiations.

Last month, Saudi Arabia's Minister of State for Arab Gulf Affairs, Thamer Al Sabhan, lashed out at the Lebanese government's inability to curb Hezbollah after the movement's Nawaf Musawi MP attacked the Kingdom during a rally in the south of Lebanon. Two days later, Hariri met with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Moreover, the now ex-Prime Minister travelled to the Kingdom for the second time in less than five days, following a visit to Beirut on Friday last week by Ali Akbar Velayati, the international affairs advisor of Iran's Supreme Leader, where he met Hezbollah's Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah. It was on Saturday, 4 November, while visiting the Kingdom, that Saad Hariri announced his resignation in a highly aggressive, Saudi-tailored speech attacking Hezbollah and Iran's meddling in the Arab world.

What's next?

The next phase is a test for Hariri's power and influence on the political scene. After his Riyadh speech, Hezbollah is unlikely to give in to Hariri-Saudi pressure. A stalemate over the formation of a new government in Beirut is probably inevitable. If Hezbollah and its allies succeed in getting a Sunni Prime Minister outside the Hariri camp, then Saad Hariri is likely to utilise the opportunity to strengthen his popular support for the upcoming elections. If not, he will still regain some popularity due to his resignation and refusal to accept the expansion of Iranian influence. The reality remains, though, that Hariri only took this step under the supervision of Saudi Arabia, the support of which he needs to fund his election campaign.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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