BY: ROBERT MALLEY
BEIRUT—Lebanon has long been a mirror for the broader Middle East. The region’s more powerful actors use it, variously, as a venue for their proxy wars, an arena in which to play out the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a testing ground for periodic bouts of Saudi-Iranian coexistence. It’s where the region wages its wars and brokers its temporary truces. This past week, like in so many others, the Middle East has not been kind to Lebanon.
The news came on November 4 in the form of three back-to-back developments in a mere 10 hours. First, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, announced his resignation. That he made the statement from Riyadh told much of the story; that he delivered it with the genuineness of one forced to read his own prison sentence told the rest. The decision was announced by the Lebanese prime minister but it was made in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, had reason to want it to happen. Saudi-Iranian tensions are rising and bin Salman is determined to depict Tehran as the source of all regional evils. For Hariri to preside over a government that includes Hezbollah fundamentally undercut that core message: It meant allowing one of Riyadh’s closest allies to cooperate with Tehran’s most loyal partner. Hariri as prime minister created the impression that coexistence with Hezbollah and by extension with Iran was possible; his departure is designed to erase any doubt. He was asked to assume the prime ministership a year ago, at a time when the goal was to inoculate Lebanon from Saudi-Iranian rivalry; with him gone, Lebanon now is fully exposed to it. It has joined the camp of Saudi Arabia’s enemies.
As for the new Saudi leadership: Bin Salman is convinced that Iran for too long has viewed Saudi Arabia as a punching bag, and that Saudi Arabia for too long has obliged. He sees Tehran possessing far less money, military equipment, or powerful international allies than Riyadh, yet nonetheless on the ascent, exerting or expanding control over Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa. He believes that only by more forcefully and aggressively pushing back—whether in Yemen, Iraq, or Lebanon—can Saudi Arabia and its partners halt Iran and turn the tide. And so far he has shown, from the military misadventure in Yemen to the diplomatic misstep of seeking to isolate Qatar, a stronger propensity for getting into crises than for ending them.
As for the U.S.: Unpredictable and inconstant in so many ways, President Trump has been consistent in one regard at least, which is a belligerency toward Iran that has become the hallmark of his administration’s Mideast policy. U.S. officials evoke his willingness to take action against Iran to restore the U.S. credibility and deterrence he feels his predecessor (who I advised on Mideast matters) frittered away. In this, his approach appears to be very much of a piece with bin Salman’s: dismissive of diplomatic engagement with Tehran and persuaded of the need to establish a new balance of power, making him less likely to check bin Salman’s instincts than to embolden them.
Missing from this picture is any hint of diplomacy—between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran and the U.S., or Saudi Arabia and the Houthi; rather, the region faces a free for all in which the only operative restraint on one’s actions is nervousness over what it might provoke. That’s hardly reassuring. Here in Lebanon, people are uncertain about who might take the first strike; who (of Iran or Hezbollah) might be its target; when or where (in Lebanon, Syria, or Iran) it might occur; and what it might look like. But they sense something will happen. And they fear that this time again, the Lebanese mirror inevitably will shatter.