Case of missing Lebanese PM escalates Middle East tensions
BEIRUT: When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri made a sudden trip abroad last week, it was taken at first to be a routine visit with his political patron, Saudi Arabia. But the next day, he unexpectedly announced his resignation by video from Riyadh+ , the Saudi capital.
He has yet to return to Lebanon.
On Friday, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, part of his governing coalition at home, charged that the Saudis were holding him against his will , while the Saudis have said they were protecting him from an unspecified assassination plot. The Hariri case has become just one in a profusion of bewildering events — from Saudi Arabia's arrest of princes and wealthy businessmen last weekend to ordering its citizens out of Lebanon on Thursday — that are escalating tensions in the Middle East and fueling anxiety about whether the region is on the verge of military conflict.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Friday "against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country," a message apparently aimed at Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Even before the events of the past week, analysts and officials in the region had been increasingly anxious about what they see as a volatile combination: an impulsive, youthful Saudi leader escalating threats to roll back growing Iranian influence, an equally impulsive Trump administration signaling broad agreement with Saudi policies, and increasingly pointed warnings from Israel that it may eventually fight another war with Hezbollah.
Now analysts and diplomats are scrambling to figure out what the latest developments mean, whether they are connected and whether, as some analysts fear, they are part of a buildup to a regional war. Hariri, until he announced his resignation Saturday, had shown no signs of planning to do so.
Hours later, on Saturday evening, a missile fired from Yemen came close to Riyadh before being shot down. Saudi Arabia later blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the missile, suggesting that they had aided the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen to fire it.
Before the world had a chance to absorb this news, the ambitious and aggressive Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the arrest of hundreds of Saudis — including 11 princes, government ministers and some of the kingdom's most prominent businessmen — in what was either a crackdown on corruption, as Saudi officials put it, or a purge, as outside analysts have suggested.
It then emerged that the week before, Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser, who has been sent on missions both to Israel and Saudi Arabia, had visited Riyadh on a previously undisclosed trip and met until the early morning hours with the crown prince. The White House has not announced what they discussed but officials privately said they were meeting about the administration's efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
On Monday, Saudi officials said they considered the missile from Yemen an act of war by Iran and Lebanon, and on Thursday the kingdom rattled Lebanon by ordering its citizens to evacuate.
No one expects Saudi Arabia, which is mired in a war in Yemen, to start another war itself. But Israel, which fought a war with Hezbollah in 2006, has expressed increasing concern about Hezbollah's growing arsenal on its northern border.
On Friday, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said Saudi Arabia had asked Israel to attack Lebanon, after essentially kidnapping Hariri.
"I'm not talking here about analysis, but information," he said. "The Saudis asked Israel to attack Lebanon."
He provided no evidence of his claim, but Western and regional analysts have also said that, given all the confusing and unexpected events and unpredictable players, they could not entirely rule out such a scenario.
Israeli officials, however, have been publicly predicting another war with Hezbollah while also vowing to do all they can to postpone it.
"There are now those in the region who would like Israel to go to war with Hezbollah and fight a Saudi war to the last Israeli," said Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based analyst for International Crisis Group. "There is no interest in that here." Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long considered Iran to be Israel's foremost enemy, a potential nuclear threat as well as a strategic adversary seeking to convert postwar Syria into a staging ground for attacks against Israel or into a corridor to transfer missiles and other weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. So Saudi Arabia's stepped-up efforts to oppose Iranian influence in Lebanon drew measured applause in Jerusalem. But many Israelis fear that the aggressive actions by the Saudi crown prince could drag Israel into a war it does not want. Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, said Israel and Saudi Arabia were pursuing similar goals at sharply different speeds and levels of proficiency.
"I'm not sure they're aligned tactically," he said in an interview. Salman, he added, "seems very impatient to actually spark the confrontation."
There are no signs of war preparations in Israel. The country is not mobilizing troops on its northern border or calling up reservists, and Netanyahu has given no indication that he sees a conflict as imminent.