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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Hizbollah promises to leave Syria in exchange for Hariri continuing as Lebanese PM

Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s Prime Minister, has withdrawn his resignation from the role.

We have noted in some detail the situation surrounding Hariri’s resignation, but in short, Hariri resigned on 4 November, during a state visit to Saudi Arabia, on Saudi television.

No-one in Lebanon had expected the resignation, and within his speech he directly criticised Hizbollah, saying: ‘Arabs… will chop off the hand of those who try to… interfere in and disrupt our lives.’

The statement (and wider resignation) shocked even Hariri’s closest allies, who said it used language uncharacteristic of their colleague.

Combined with the relative difficulty people experienced in trying to contact him, and his relative unresponsiveness to those who managed to, in the days immediately after his resignation, speculation increased that Hariri had read a pre-prepared speech written by the Saudi Arabian government (which is the major opponent of Iranian influence in the region*) which had also placed him under house arrest.

*Saudi interest may of course go further. The Saudis have been strong opponents of Assad and had Hariri’s resignation, as well as the effective declaration of war the state made against Lebanon in the days that followed, caused a genuine constitutional crisis – as of course it could have done, by pitting Sunni against Shi’a in the state – it is at the very least likely that a significant portion of Hizbollah may have been pulled back to Lebanon from Syria (and, if Saudi Arabia is correct, also Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is engaged in a protracted war – though Hizbollah, which has a record of honesty about its actions, if not always their intent, says it is not fighting in Yemen) which in itself would have significantly weakened the Assad alliance in Syria, and the Houthi forces in Yemen (again, the latter only if Saudi Arabia is right, and Hizbollah is lying).

The political situation in Lebanon is complex, largely because of the state’s civil war, which ended only in 1990, after 15 years.

Under the Taif Agreement (which also ordered both Israel and Syria, who had each occupied parts of the nation, to leave), the state’s 128-seat parliament must be shared equally by Christians (Maronites, 34 seats; Eastern Orthodox, 14; Melkite Catholic, 8; Armenian Orthodox, 5; Armenian Catholic, 1; Protestant, 1; other Christian minorities, 1: 64 seats) and Muslims (Sunnis, 27; Shi’ites, 27; Alawites, 2; Druze, 8: 64 seats).

Further, the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker a Shi’ite.

This results, predictably, in coalition governments, and at present, the Shi’ites are represented largely by Hizbollah, which under the Taif agreement were allowed to remain armed, and now constitute an organised and battle-hardened (having fought alongside Assad and the Iranian army in the Syrian Civil War, despite Lebanon officially having no position on that war) militia, as well as the strongest Shia political force in Lebanon, while the Sunnis’ major party is Hariri’s Future Movement.

However, it also means that Lebanon’s response to regional events seldom pleases any of the state’s neighbours.

For example, inside Syria, Assad has welcomed the assistance of Hizbollah (Iran and Hizbollah’s major reason for taking part in the war is their shared fear of Sunnis taking power if Assad, an Alawite, is removed) but simultaneously angered by Lebanon consistently sheltering refugees fleeing his war machine.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, supports the official Lebanese neutrality, and its assistance to Sunni refugees from Assad, but has been enraged by Hizbollah’s work in propping Assad up and helping keep him in power.

This political balance – particularly in relation to Syria – is also important to the wider community because while Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and also a right-winger, is opposed to the 1.25m Syrian refugees remaining in the state, and is allied to Hizbollah on that matter, because the majority of those Syrians are Sunni Muslims, and Lebanon’s population is just six million people, so that the refugees mark a significant change in the make-up of Lebanese society, Hariri, as the political leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis, has been a strong defender of the Syrians’ right to remain in Lebanon, at least until it is properly safe for them to return.

Hariri returned to Lebanon on Wednesday 22 November, and agreed to meet with Aoun and Hizbollah’s leader Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah.

He has now announced that in those talks, because Aoun and Hizbollah agreed to renew Lebanon’s commitment to ‘disassociation’ (in effect, not fighting on Saudi Arabia or Iran’s behalf in foreign wars – this would include Syria, Yemen and Iraq), he had withdrawn his resignation.

For his part, Aoun promised that ‘Hizbollah will remove its fighters from Iraq and other countries once the fight against IS is over’.

As with all such political promises, if this is stuck to, it will have effects all over the Middle East, and the wider world.

The withdrawal of Hizbollah from Iraq may have no great effect – the war there is for now (assumed) to be mostly over. However, there is the possibility that without the Shi’a force, Iraq’s Sunni minority may once again attempt to gain greater influence in the state.

But in Syria, where Hizbollah has been arguably the most powerful – and certainly if not, the second-most powerful - ground force fighting for Bashar al Assad, and where Russia and the US have both declared the war against IS to be over, the impact could be far greater.

Russia, Assad, Iran and Hizbollah have been looking increasingly likely in recent weeks to prepare a series of strikes against the opposition to the Syrian dictator, which is looking increasingly weak.

But the withdrawal of Hizbollah, as the force perhaps best organised of all three ground forces, could change that picture significantly. In the event of its withdrawal, Russia’s presumed victory becomes harder to achieve, and this may see the state alter its position – though likely not by much – in response.

Certainly, a longer ground-war will preclude the ‘easy win’ Putin hopes to achieve, in which Russia not only crushes opposition to its ally Assad, but then also ‘oversees’/dictates the peace.

In Syria, it would not be surprising to see a prolonged attempt to keep Hizbollah in position, under the pretext of ‘guarding against’ an ‘IS uprising’ while Iranian and pro-Assad forces, and the Russian air force, fight Assad’s opponents

In Yemen, it is likely the removal of Hizbollah – if it has ever been there, which it denies – would see the collapse of the Houthi forces which have so far defended their gains in the state’s war, and are now being bombarded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

It is extremely hard to see how the Houthis can survive against two enormously wealthy states without outside help from somewhere, though Iran may choose to take a (more) direct role to assist them (Saudi Arabia and UAE claim Iran is already helping the Houthi forces, the Houthis and Iran say it is not).

Such a step would be an unusually open act of aggression in the proxy sections of the Middle Eastern wars (to date, in Syria, Iran has openly fought, while Saudi Arabia has ‘supported’ anti-Assad groups; in Yemen, Iran denies involvement, while Saudi Arabia is an open combatant).

In any case, for Lebanon, Hariri’s withdrawal of his resignation is not only good for the stability of the nation, but may well prove to be good for the ongoing safety of the refugee population

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