It is one of the eternal cornerstones of foreign policy doctrine. Whenever there is rapid change in the balance of power, wherever the geopolitical status quo is in flux, one spark may ignite the fires of international and intranational strife. Whether a new superpower emerges or another secedes – when scales shift, weights may fall, crushing those caught in the way. The economic resurgence of Germany pre WW2, the crumbling political stranglehold of the Soviet Union in the late 80s or the inception of defence juggernaut Israel after the Second World War – small changes in power, much like an avalanche, draw bigger changes in power.
This seemingly immutable law, the ever-present underlying danger of change had foreign policy hawks up in arms and international relations pundits scramble for pen and paper (or, more likely, a laptop and coffee) at the prospect of the Iranian nuclear deal being implemented. Saudi Arabia and Israel – the previously unchallenged regional leaders in all matters military and economy alike fiercely opposed the gamechanger. The prospect of reintegrating Iran into the global market was a blow especially to the Saudi Kingdom. Riyadh relies on its oil – accounting for 90% of exports and 80% of the budget revenue. The rich resource havens of Iran, now accessible to the global community, have the power to undermine the economic force of the Saudi Kingdom. Furthermore, as the icy relations with Teheran are thawing worldwide, King Salman and his government see political influence fade – Saudi Arabia is no longer the sole dominant powerbroker in the Arab world.
Proxy wars, religious resentment and geopolitical ambition
The two countries proceeded to engage in a PR war – with high profile moves on the chessboard of the Middle East dominating the global media circus. But the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr in the Kingdom was only the tip to the mountain of hostilities. The measured verbal aggression and deliberate political provocation are both diplomatic continuations of clashing proxies: Last year, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels rose up in insurgency against the Yemeni government – King Salman’s leadership responded decisively and with a hard hand, lashing out with force and drawing criticism of rights groups for its alleged disdain for human rights. On March 15th, Human Rights Watch reports, a Saudi airstrike in the town of Mastaba targeted a crowded market, killing 97 civilians.
And yet, the conflict in Yemen is only one of many proxy wars – from a strategic point of view, both parties attempt to divide the Middle East along the Sunni-Shia line, placing themselves at the forefront of such a block. While geopolitically expedient especially for Saudi Arabia (aiming to spearhead the vastly larger Sunni population), the propagated religious polarisation has placed secular and fundamentalist governments alike in a fragile balance. Religious leaders in Iran and Saudi Arabia both promote the necessity of choosing – with Iran or against Iran, with Saudi Arabia or against Saudi Arabia. Attempting to align national identity with the political implications of Shia or Sunni faiths respectively, the two superpowers are fuelling religious resentment while pursuing purely political interests. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics condemn the multiple-prophet belief of the Shia faith as non-Islamic while Iranian religious leaders evoke hatred by blaming Sunni Muslims for the murder of who they consider the true successor to Mohammed – prophet (or not a prophet, according to the Sunni faith) Hussein. Any acts of violence across the religious rift are propagated as religiously motivated violence and said religious rift widens. Secular states, such as Syria, which are prone to the influence of both states, consequentially are shaken by violence between competing fundamentalist groups.
Saudi Arabia itself is in a precarious position – having painted the Shia minority as an unbelieving sect for years, the Kingdom is partially paralysed in its ideological response to IS-affiliated terrorism in Saudi Arabia. The self-professed ‘Islamic State’ primarily targets Shia institutions and Mosques – any condemnation of such attacks seem hypocritical. But despite their mutual disdain for Shia Muslims, any claim of ISIL attempting to get cosy with Riyadh are pure fiction. Despite allegations of individual Saudi contributors fuelling the genocidal organisation, the terrorist group sees the monarchical person-cult of the Wahhabist monarchy as unislamic. With the growing danger posed by Daesh as well as growing pressure from international allies, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have adhered and agreed to the cessation of hostilities in Syria.
Syria – silence before the storm?
For the moment, the internationally brokered ceasefire seems to hold. But Syria is still in disarray. Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force stood and stand behind Assad’s Baath government – while the latter is reportedly withdrawing at least partially, Iranian military advisors have been augmenting the military adventures of Bashar al Assad. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia lobbied for an Arab Sunni coalition to oust and replace the president, an effort endorsed and backed by Erdogan’s Turkish leadership. Israel looks on with disapproval and discontent – Hezbollah’s mere presence in Syria is not viewed very favourably from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to put it lightly.
The ‘situation’ in the Syrian Arab Republic currently resembles somewhat of a mixture between gridlock and powder-keg. No party seems ready to grant the concessions demanded by the other side. Assad and the Alevite-dominated Baath party insist on their willingness to negotiate, but simultaneously do not express any wish to compromise with regards to the governance of Syria. The US-backed opposition stands by its aim to oust the President completely while the – once again, US-backed – Kurdish population demands autonomy in both Iraq and Syria, a call that has the Turkish government in a state of high alert. With no party garnering the political upper hand to make a power play and no intersection of interest beyond the destruction of ISIL and al-Nusra in sight, Syria hangs in a frail balance. The cessation of hostilities is one spark of light, a spark of hope in a state that has seen nearly 400,000 civilians killed and 10,000,000 displaced. But despite this ray of sunlight, a spark of more malign nature could reinvigorate the flames of the fractured, chaotic civil war.
But the spark that could realise the frightening potential of this barrel of gunpowder could come from outside the Syrian Arab Republic.
Lebanon – still on razor’s edge
A month ago, I outlined the history of Lebanon’s fragile political balance. The two party umbrella system, has been a source of alienation since its inception. In its present form established as Syrian troops left the country after decades of effective occupation, binary politics have caused violence on both the Saudi backed March 14 and the Hezbollah aligned March 8 group. The assassination of Rafik Hariri and the ongoing inefficiency of Saudi favoured governments slowly turned the tides toward March 8
Hezbollah and Iran. Under the current rule, however, little has changed for Lebanon’s citizens. The country – having been without a president for a year now – according to the World Economic Forum ranks in the bottom three of 144 countries with regard to public trust in the government, satisfaction with the government and public trust in politicians. This dissatisfaction flares up in Lebanon – a recent mass protest, with the memorable motto of “you stink” gained international traction. But to little avail. Beirut’s streets were blocked by rubbish for months. This is no metaphor. Lebanon’s government – literally- can’t take its own trash out, to the point of said garbage obstructing traffic. While this story excels in comedic value and striking symbolism, there is little to laugh at when considering the potentially very dark prospects of Lebanese politics. The country, while struggling with an inefficient leadership, hosts more than 1.5 million refugees. Lebanon itself has 4.5 million citizens. The government itself has not taken any significant steps to organise, accommodate or register any of these one and a half million people – imaginably causing significant discontent amongst many displaced citizens of Syrian or Palestine.
A Saudi retreat – has Iran won in Lebanon?
From a purely Lebanese standpoint, the Arab League’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation comes at a terribly inopportune time. Government and the Iranian proxy are more closely interwoven than ever before. Any conflict with Hezbollah directly draws March 8 and therefore Lebanon’s leadership into the line of fire – a prospect that sounds eerily familiar to the setup of regional powers roughly a decade ago – when in 2006, a clash with Israel left 1,200 Lebanese civilians dead. Now however, Hezbollah exerts more influence over the leadership in Beirut than ever before. A fight between Hezbollah and Israel would be the first step on the way towards a war between Israel and Lebanon. And this threat is not fading away. Shortly after the Arab League made its unexpected decision, King Salman’s leadership inadvertently strengthened Iran’s influence over Lebanon. For years, Saudi Arabia had sent grants of 4 billion US dollars towards the small country, including significant subsidies for the Lebanese military. The army had long served as a counterbalance to Hezbollah’s own fighting force. Withdrawing founding in effect strengthened the foothold of March 14’s radical branches – not a favourable prospect for Israel, the ideological arch enemy of the Islamist group.
Along with its founding, the Kingdom seemingly is cutting all ties to its former proxy state on Syria’s doorstep. Al-Arabia is currently closing its Beirut office, yielding the remnants of the once dominant media machine. This comes as an anti-Saudi sentiment has increasingly not only taken hold of politics, but public opinion. Last week, protesters in Beirut raised a caricature of the Saudi Arabian flag, displaying a sword ready to decapitate a captive. The characteristic writing read “The deadly house of Saud”.
Why has Saudi Arabia decided to yield its claim to Lebanon?
Lebanese politics are a quagmire and Lebanon itself is balancing on razor’s edge. By choosing to no further keep the Iranian influence in check, king Salman’s administration may be preparing for an anticipated escalation of disagreements in Lebanon. Citizens of the small state are not shy to voice discontent with political leadership – and historical precedent for impactful protest isn’t rare: it were such protests that put an end to decades of Syrian occupation and civil unrest led to the granting of veto rights to Hezbollah – the political move that started the rise to power of Iran’s proxy. By withdrawing all influence, Saudi Arabia may be looking to let Hezbollah and March 8th run the country into another state of mass demonstrations – which would backfire onto Iran, worsening the geopolitical standing of the rising regional power.
At the same time, yielding resistance to March 8th and indirectly weakening the state military strengthens Hezbollah’s standing, at a time when both the Islamist group and the state of Israel are upping their polarizing rhetoric. Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing leadership has not hidden its complete disdain for Hezbollah, and has made clear that the IDF and the Israeli military would not be hesitant to launch a counter-operation to aggression originating from Lebanese soil. Saudi Arabia is withdrawing influence before a potential clash, staying out of the (potential) fray and allowing for the further radicalisation of Lebanese politics. Whether intentionally steering towards conflict with Israel or not – any large-scale military involvement would, once again, backfire against Iran, alienating Khomeini’s leadership in the eyes of the international community.
The explosive barrel is laced in oil – and the political balance prone to fall apart at the slightest sign of conflict. Lebanon is overburdened with refugees (making up roughly 30% of all persons in the state), has been without a prime minister for a year, is severely indebted (over 140% of its own GDP) and its citizens, since the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation are severely restricted in their travel through the Arab world (as a consequence to ‘suspicion by association’). The prospects are not rosy, and it is unlikely that the government could bounce back if it is hit. King Salman and his advisors may have given up on tilting Beirut and Tripoli back into favourable conditions, hence doing away with the extensive founding. Four billion dollars annually are no small expense – especially for a nation that is facing new, unfavourable economic realities. Meanwhile, cutting this founding may have sealed the fate of socioeconomic stability (or the remnants thereof) in Lebanon. With a crushing debt, inefficient governance, plummeting international relations, growing tension with a powerful neighbour state and radicalised, polarised politics, Lebanon is unlikely to find its own way out of the mess.