The Middle East Is Nearing an Explosion
Fear is the one thing preventing it—but could also precipitate it.
Robert Malley, Nov 8, 2017
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.
Act two was news that Saudi Arabia had intercepted a missile launched from Yemen and purportedly aimed at Riyadh’s airport. This was not the first missile that the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group enjoying Iranian and Hezbollah support, had fired at its northern neighbor, but its timing and unprecedented range could make it one of the more consequential. The extent of outside backing to the Houthis is a matter of some debate, though neither U.S. nor Saudi officials harbor any doubt that the dramatic progress in the rebel movement’s ballistic missile program could not have occurred without its two benefactors’ considerable training and help. Like Hariri in his act of self-immolation, Saudi officials quickly and publicly drew a direct line connecting the strike to Iran and Hezbollah; it was, they proclaimed, an act of war for which they held both responsible and to which they would respond.
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