The new Saudi alliance in Lebanon consists mainly of the far-right Lebanese Forces and the Arab Tribes. The goal is to escalate against Hezbollah, then engineer an electoral victory.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has all but declared open war against Lebanon, severing their bilateral diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level, halting Lebanese imports, and threatening to stop flights to and from Lebanon.
But the hits just keep on coming – it has now threatened to prevent financial transfers to the Levantine state, and is pushing for the creation of a new Arab lobby, loyal to Riyadh, which would tighten the screws on Lebanon and isolate it from the Arab world.
While these are some of the official Saudi measures against Lebanon, more serious ones are taking a covert shape.
In a nutshell, Saudi Arabia intends to disrupt the Lebanese security arena and foment an escalation of sectarian strife inside the country. Security assessments from multiple sources suggest that a number of Lebanon’s traditional fault lines and vulnerabilities will be activated and exploited to this end.
These point to possible escalations between Ain al-Rummaneh and Chiyah (Christians versus Shia), between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh (Alawites versus Sunnis) and between Qasqas and Tariq al-Jadida on the one hand versus Chiyah on the other (Sunnis versus Shia). This is ultimately intended to culminate in a conflagration in Khaldeh, a highly strategic location for the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, as it is the main transit route for the Shia to southern Lebanon.
Sources close to Hezbollah express concern that Saudi Arabia will exploit last summer’s clashes in Khaldeh to escalate tensions in the streets today. The Lebanese judiciary doled out harsh sentences against 18 young Arab tribesmen, after at least four Shia men were killed, in what appeared to be organized, targeted attacks in July and August.
The sources say this assessment comes from intelligence Hezbollah has gathered on the association of several tribal elders with Riyadh’s ambassador in Beirut, Walid al-Bukhari, who began holding meetings with key tribal leaders following Saudi Arabia’s 2017 kidnapping of the former Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri.
Reports of Riyadh’s displeasure with Hariri emerged at the time, coinciding with leaks about Hariri’s relationship with Chief of the Royal Court Khaled al-Tuwaijri, who was accused of plotting against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The reports stated that Hariri’s refusal to confront Hezbollah and push for its disarmament had upset the Saudis. Saudi Arabia has now recalibrated its alliances in Lebanon and will replace Hariri and his Future Movement political party with the Arab tribes, who are armed, prepared to fight, and have already demonstrated willingness to clash with Hezbollah.
Despite ongoing mediation between Hezbollah and the tribes by Lebanese Army Commander Joseph Aoun – under the auspices of army intelligence director Tony Kahwagi and with the blessing of Dar al-Fatwa – assessments indicate that this mediation will fail due to the Saudi push for escalation on the ground.
Riyadh is not looking for a way out; it seeks to entirely upend the security balance in Lebanon and set the street on fire for its own objectives. And to get this job done, Saudi Arabia is now placing its bets on both the far-right, exclusively-Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party and the Sunni, pro-Saudi Arab tribes to confront Hezbollah and its allies.
There will be others drawn to this odd alliance. Saudi-Lebanese businessman Baha Hariri, the eldest son of slain Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri – who has many supporters in Tariq al-Jadida and Tripoli – is said to have paid up to two million Lebanese pounds (US $100) per head to any who partakes in the Saudi-backed fight against Hezbollah. Included in this new ragtag alliance is Ashraf Rifi, former head of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) and former minister of justice, who looks set to back the Saudi agenda.
The Saudi escalation is currently being matched by pushback against its efforts from Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia’s recent demand for the resignation of Information Minister George Kordahi for his mild remark on the injustice of the war on Yemen, was dismissed by Hezbollah and its allies, in support for Kordahi’s stance.
The resistance group’s Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem has also railed against Riyadh’s provocations, saying it had “initiated an aggression against Lebanon and it should apologize for its unjustified aggression.”
Qassem explained the current crisis in its geopolitical context, pointing out that “Saudi Arabia can no longer bear its losses in the region, so its aggression against Lebanon came as a reaction,” and rejecting “Saudi Arabia’s interference in the government.”
According to the Hezbollah deputy leader, “the timing of the Saudi aggression on Lebanon is related to Marib and the resounding loss of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, as it wants to divert attention from the battles there by imposing pressure on Lebanon.”
Qassem added that “the Lebanese forces carried out the Tayouneh ambush on behalf of America and Saudi Arabia, with the aim of besieging Hezbollah by trying to ignite strife, as Saudi Arabia can no longer tolerate what is happening in Lebanon.”
In short, the Arab tribes and the Lebanese Forces ‘passed a Saudi test’ this year – to attack and kill Hezbollah affiliates – respectively, in Khaldeh and Tayouneh. The practice drill, so to speak, gained them the Saudi blessing for the real race, up ahead.
The consensus among both Hezbollah and the Lebanese security services is that Saudi Arabia seeks an on-ground escalation in the Lebanese theater. Sources believe that this escalation will intensify with the approach of Lebanese parliamentary elections scheduled for March next year, and that Saudi Arabia intends to use the elections to form a government more aligned with its objectives.
The current altercations come in the wake of Lebanon’s economic collapse, which has caused mass desertions in the security and military services.
Estimates indicate that several thousand soldiers and security personnel have abandoned their service due to the loss of their national currency’s purchasing value; their monthly salary today not exceeding 65 US dollars.
With these vital institutions and security forces – the pillars on which the state rests – exhausted from within, how will Lebanese security and military forces face the upcoming turmoil? The commitment of security forces will constitute a major challenge for Lebanon’s stability and its future.
In this context, talk of political assassinations is especially dangerous and can heighten sectarian tensions ahead of the parliamentary elections. In the face of all this, it would be madness to believe that parliamentary elections in Lebanon can possibly take place on time.
Despite the emphasis of Lebanese political parties that the parliamentary elections will proceed as planned, security sources now believe they are likely to be postponed.
The last thing Lebanon needs in its vulnerable state is to allow a foreign agitator, which is openly engineering both electoral interventions and security escalations, the ability to carry out its plan in broad daylight.
If Beirut cannot halt the Saudi aggression, then perhaps it should deny it the prize it seeks.