Saudis, Turks Bid to Open Lebanon Front
By Finian Cunningham
March 07, 2016 “Information Clearing House” – “SCF” – With a series of blatant measures, Saudi Arabia and its regional allies are evidently trying to destabilize Lebanon. The development is apiece with how Saudi Arabia and Turkey have both sought to undermine the ceasefire in Syria and to escalate that conflict to a region-wide level.
A New York Times report this week poses a rather naive conundrum: «Diplomats and analysts have spent several weeks trying to understand why the Saudis would precipitously start penalizing Lebanon – and perhaps their own Lebanese allies – over the powerful influence of Hezbollah, which is nothing new».
Well, here’s a quick answer: Russia’s very effective squelching of the covert war for regime-change in Syria. That has sent Saudi Arabia and Turkey into a paroxysm of rage.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria to defend the Arab state from a foreign-backed covert war involving myriad terrorist proxy groups, has dealt a severe blow to the machinations of Washington, its NATO allies and regional client states.
While Washington and its Western partners seem resigned to pursue regime change by an alternative political track, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are stuck in the covert-war groove. They are betting that the terrorist proxy armies they have weaponized can somehow be salvaged from withering losses inflicted by Russian airpower in combination with the ground forces of the Syrian Arab Army, Iranian military advisors and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
Hence, the immediate breaches of the cessation called a week ago by Washington and Moscow in Syria. Turkish military shelling across the border into northern Syria is not just a breach. It is an outrageous provocation to Syrian sovereignty, as Moscow has pointed out.
Simultaneous Saudi military mobilization, including Turkish forces, on its northeast border with Iraq, as well as the reported deployment of Saudi fighter jets to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase opposite Syria’s northwest Latakia province can also be viewed as calculated moves to undermine the tentative ceasefire. The logical conclusion of this reckless aggression by both Saudi Arabia and Turkey is to precipitate a wider conflict, one which would draw in the US and Russia into open warfare.
The series of Saudi-led initiatives towards Lebanon should be interpreted in this context. In the past week, Saudi Arabia and its closely aligned Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The word «anachronistic» comes to mind, belying an ulterior motive.
The Saudi rulers, led by King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, also announced that they were canceling plans to grant Lebanon $4 billion in aid. Most of the aid was to be in form of military grants, to be spent on upgrading the Lebanese national army with French weaponry and equipment.
Without providing any proof, the GCC states – Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman in addition to Saudi Arabia – issued travel warnings to their nationals intending to visit Lebanon. The GCC also claimed that Hezbollah was interfering in their internal affairs and trying to recruit Gulf nationals into the organization to fight in Syria. The GCC has even threatened to deport Lebanese expatriate workers, some half a million of which work in the Gulf.
There were also regional media reports last week of a large cache of weapons having been seized by Greek authorities, stowed illicitly onboard a cargo ship sailing from Turkey to Lebanon.
The cumulative intent seems patent. The Saudis and their regional allies – who have been pushing for regime change for the past five years against the Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah-allied government of President Bashar al-Assad – see the escalation of regional instability as the best way to salvage their covert war in Syria.
Washington, London and Paris probably have sufficient cynical intelligence to realize that the covert war involving terrorist proxies is no longer a viable option – given the formidable forces arrayed in support of the Syrian state, not least Russian air power.
The Saudis and the Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to be inflexibly wedded to the covert war agenda. For these powers anything less than the outright removal of Assad would be seen as a grave blow to their despotic egos and, for them, an unbearable boost to their regional rival, Shia-dominated Iran.
The GCC criminalization of Shia-affiliated Hezbollah is obviously a fit of revenge-seeking given how the militia has ably helped the Syrian army retake major areas from the regime-change Sunni extremist insurgents, in conjunction with the Russian air strikes. The steady shutting down of border crossings in Latakia, Idlib and Aleppo has cut-off the terror brigades from their weapons supply routes via Turkey. This is partly why the Erdogan regime has responded by cross-border shelling in order to give re-supply efforts a modicum of artillery cover.
Moreover, the Saudi-led campaign to sanction Hezbollah is also aimed at destabilizing the sectarian fault lines inside Lebanon. Hezbollah may be denigrated by Washington and some other Western states as a «terrorist group» and of presiding over «a state within a state» due to its military wing which exists alongside the Lebanese national army.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah has constitutionally recognized legitimacy within Lebanon. This is partly due to the militia’s primary role in driving out the US-backed Israeli military occupation of the country in 2000 and again in 2006. For many Lebanese people, including Christians and Sunni Muslims, Hezbollah is held with pride as an honorable resistance force to US-led imperialism in the region.
The party – which Russia also recognizes as a legitimate national resistance movement – comprises about 10 per cent of the Lebanese parliament and holds two cabinet positions in the coalition Beirut government.
So the Saudi-led proposal to sanction Hezbollah seems nothing more than a gratuitous bid to open up sectarian fissures that have cleaved Lebanon in the recent past during its 1975-1990 civil war. The provocation of labeling a member of government in a foreign state as «terrorist» – seemingly out of the blue – has to be seen as a tendentious bid to destabilize. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah this week condemned the Saudi bid to inflame sedition in Lebanon, and it is hard to disagree with that assessment.
There are still pockets of extremist Sunni support within Lebanon that the Saudis and Turkey appear to be trying to incite. During the Syrian conflict, there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence in the cities of Sidon and Tripoli by Salafist elements with close links to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Now those same elements are being incited to take to the streets again.
It is not clear if Lebanon can hold together. A government minister linked to a pro-Saudi faction has resigned in recent weeks over what he claims is «Hezbollah domination» in Lebanese politics.
Many Lebanese are discontent over social and economic problems dogging the country. A refuse-collection backlog over the past year has left large parts of the capital overflowing with putrid waste. The tiny country of four million is also feeling the strain of accommodating some one million Syrian refugees.
The thought of re-opening old wounds and re-igniting the horror of civil war is a heavy burden on most Lebanese citizens that may be enough to make them baulk at malign pressures.
But what can be said for sure is that the role of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab monarchies is absolutely unconscionable and criminal. They seem fully prepared to plunge yet another neighboring country into a sectarian bloodbath in order to gratify their illicit regional ambitions.
Finian Cunningham is a former editor and writer for major news media organizations. He has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages
TAP – Will Russia be able to provide air cover to Hezbollah in Lebanon? Or will they have access to Russian air defence equipment provided by Iran? Hopefully enough of the former Lebanese sectarian opponents will read the game and join together against a common enemy to their country.