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Friday, 01 March 2024
A lesson for Lebanon from 1957 Syria
Sami Moubayed
Three Gulf states have withdrawn their ambassadors from Lebanon, objecting to pro-Houthi remarks made by the country’s Information Minister George Qordahi. The crisis began with Saudi Arabia last week, which expressed fury over remarks made by Qordahi during a television interview filmed on 5 August, one month before he was named minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Qordahi, a television host-turned politician, called the Yemen War “absurd,” equating all sides for “aggression.” That struck a particularily raw nerve in Riyadh, given that Qordahi had made his name and fortune on the Saudi channel MBC. They swiftly withdrew their ambassador and closed down MBC offices in Lebanon, prompting the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to follow suit.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan then explained his country’s position, saying: “I think we have come to the conclusion that dealing with Lebanon and its current government is not productive and not helpful with Hezbollah’s continuing dominance of the political scene.” He added that severing diplomatic ties with Lebanon aims at pushing the country “in the direction of real change.”

An uphill battle

It is hard to see how Saudi Arabia can impose that change, however, if it is no longer financially capable of bankrolling Hezbollah opponents, and nor is it diplomatically present in Lebanon. Far from bringing about change, the Gulf walkout will only strengthen the hands of Iranian allies in Lebanon—namely Hezbollah—who already control the presidency through their ally President Michel Aoun, and the speakership of parliament, through their other ally Nabih Berri. In addition to commanding arsenal of sophisticated weapons, which makes them stronger than the Lebanese Army, it currently holds a parliamentary bloc of 13 seats and is represented in the Lebanese cabinet with two portfolios.

Hezbollah is expected to either maintain that representation, or raise it in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for next March. Seven months later, they plan to nominate their ally Suleiman Frangieh to the presidential seat at Baabda Palace, once Aoun’s term expires in October 2022. Scion of a leading Maronite political family and grandson of a former president, Frangieh is a ranking member of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition who nominated George Qordahi for the Ministry of Information last September. With no physical presence in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia has little hope of influencing that election.

Over the years, Saudi Arabia has to clip Iran’s wings in Lebanon, with no avail. It supported their opponents in Lebanese politics, starting with the Future Movement of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri onto the Lebanese Forces of Samir Gagegea. In 2006 it voted for UNSCR 1701, which calls for monopolizing arms in the hands of the Lebanese state and pushing all non-state players away from the Lebanese-Israeli borders. In 2008, it backed then-Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora, who tried to dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network at Rafik al-Hariri International Airport, only to suffer a violent backlash from Hezbollah. At the time, Hezbollah militants stormed the Lebanese capital, picking up the handful of armed men who had shown up on the streets to confront them, while Hasan Nasrallah famously threatened to “cut the hand” of whoever tries to hamper with Hezbollah arms.

Lack of reliable partners

Once of the reasons why none of the above worked was because Saudi Arabia had no reliable Sunni Muslim ally in Lebanon after the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. His son and political heir, Saad al-Hariri, has proven too weak to stand up to Hezbollah and on the contrary, sometimes found himself leaning on them for support in Lebanese domestics. Last year, for example, they supported his candidacy for the premiership, against the will of their allies in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). More recently they found a common enemy in Lebanese judge Tarek Bitar, who is handling investigation into the Beirut port explosion of August 2020, which killed over 230 people and tore down half of the Lebanese capital. Bitar drew up a list of suspects all accused of “criminal negligence” that led to the port explosion, which included ex-Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk (a Hariri protégé) and Ali Hasan Khalil and Ghazi Zuetier (members of the Amal Movement allied to Hezbollah). Both Hariri and Nasrallah see eye-to-eye when it comes to Judge Bitar, calling for his removal, giving them plenty of room to collaborate within the complex web of Lebanese politics.

For lack of better alternative, the Saudis have continued to work with Hariri, albeit reluctantly. It is an open secret in Lebanon that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) thinks poorly of him and has repeatedly refused to grant him an audience. Meanwhile Riyadh has tried building bridges with other Sunni figures like General Ashraf Rifi, former director of Internal Security and current premier Najib Mikati, who is a lifelong friend of Saudi Arabia. Rifi agreed to take on Hezbollah, but lacked the manpower, support base, and money for such an undertaking, whereas Mikati simply refused to confront the Iran-backed party, realizing that he is no match for them. In fact, it was Hezbollah’s last minute approval that had brought him to power twice, first in 2011 and now in 2021, giving him no reason to complain.

Gagegea: An unorthodox ally

The Saudis also tried to support Shiite dissidents like Hezbollah’s former secretary-general Subhi Tufayli, who tried and failed to penetrate Hasan Nasrallah’s powerbase in southern Lebanon and within the Shiite community at large. Others Lebanese came up and offered their services to Saudi Arabia, like Samir Gagegea, who has steadily been marketing himself as their ally in Christian politics, with an axe to grind with Hezbollah. Last month his forces came to blows with Hezbollah in Ayn El Rummaneh, the old neighborhood of Beirut from which the Lebanese civil war back in 1975. Six people were killed, all being Shiites. Gagegea made two points clear: that his men were armed, and that they were ready for battle, and if needed, another civil war to fight Hezbollah.

But unless they receives funds and weapons to fight, whether from Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, Gagegea’s supporters stand no change in a military confrontation since they are no match for Hezbollah fighters. They are far less organized, armed, and indoctrinated, and would easily been annihilated in any head-on confrontation.

A lesson from Syria, 1957.

Saudi Arabia’s walkout might signal another approach, however, being complete disengagement from Lebanon so that the country sinks into total chaos, allowing Hezbollah and Iran to shoulder blame for its collapse and responsibility for its resurrection, which will take years. It will also take plenty of money, which Iran does not have.

That’s what the Americans did with Syria after all, not today, but back in 1957. At the time, the Eisenhower Administration raised red flags over Syria, claiming that the country was inching dangerously close to becoming a Soviet satellite. A communist MP had just been voted into parliament, becoming the first communist parliamentarian in the Arab World, while Syria’s president had visited Moscow and its defense minister had signed off a $700 million economic and military agreement with the Soviet government. The Syrian government had also exchanged ambassadors with communist China, signed economic deals with Romania, and was sending students to study in East Germany. The CIA tried staging a coup to turn the tide and topple pro-Soviet politicians in Damascus, and when that failed, it decided to severe diplomatic relations with Syria.

The American ambassador James Moose was withdrawn and his Syrian counterpart Farid Zayn al-Din was expelled from Washington DC. That was just months after Damascus had expelled the British and French ambassadors over the 1956 Suez Canal War. As a result, only one embassy remained open and active in Damascus, being that of the Soviet Union. Soviet influence reached its apex during the late 1950s, accumulating with an ill-fated union with Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt in 1958, a staunch ally of the USSR. Far from encouraging democracy, free trade, and economic liberalization, the union republic introduced socialism and authoritarianism to Syria, positioning it permanently within the Eastern Bloc for what remained of the Cold War.

The same might happen to Lebanon…

by: Sami Moubayed

Sami Moubayed