Several months after recalling their ambassadors from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are poised to return their diplomatic representatives in the coming weeks. Media reports hint at a significant thaw in icy relations between the Gulf Arab countries and Lebanon.
The diplomatic row began on October 30, 2021, following old comments that were made by then-Information Minister George Kordahi, prior to his appointment as minister, criticizing the Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen and argued in favor of the Iran-backed Houthis’ right to defend themselves against such attacks.
Kordahi resigned two months after the initial crisis began, but not before Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Yemen all recalled their ambassadors from Beirut.
The comments were deemed a mere pretext for breaking off relations. Many viewed Hezbollah’s growing influence and power in Lebanon and the lack of any attempts by the Lebanese government to reign them in as the real reason for the severed ties. The Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, officially admitted it.
“I think we have come to the conclusion that dealing with Lebanon and its current government is not productive and not helpful with Hezbollah’s continuing dominance of the political scene, and with what we perceive as a continuing reluctance by this government and Lebanese political leaders in general to enact the necessary reforms, the necessary actions to push Lebanon in the direction of real change,” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble in an interview at COP26 soon after the diplomatic crisis began.
Five months after severing diplomatic ties with Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait seem to be ready to reverse, at least in part, their decision. The move comes following a phone call between Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah and a Monday statement by Mikati where the prime minister stressed the need for Lebanon to end all Lebanon-originated activity that threatens the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. The comments were welcomed by the Saudis who said that they hoped the statements would “contribute to the restoration of Lebanon’s role and status on the Arab and international levels.”
According to Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, the reappointing of the Saudi and Kuwaiti ambassadors is part of a new regional strategy to counter Iran’s regional influence.
“What we are seeing is a strategy, the emergence of a strategy in the Arab world, that looks to push back against Iran,” Young told NOW. “What’s emerging is a sort of very informal, de facto group of countries who, as they seek to advance their interests in the Levant, are going to end up, to a certain extent, limiting Iran’s options in the Levant.”
A change in tactics
Following the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, most Arab countries broke off ties with the Assad regime believing and, in some instances, in the hopes that Bashar al-Assad would be overthrown and replaced.
However, Iran saw the opportunity to further expand its role in the country, rather than just using Syria as a stepping stone to supply and fund its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iran came to the aid of Assad who was losing territory and supplied money and Hezbollah fighters to help lift the Syrian leader on the brink of defeat. With the help of superior Russian airpower, Assad was able to bomb the rebels back into submission and has since retaken the majority of the country, save for some pockets in the north like Idlib, which is still a rebel-held stronghold.
Since Iran is one of the few countries to continue working with and supporting Syria, Assad is forced to be reliant on the Islamic Republic, giving them unprecedented regional expansion.
Because of this, Young believes that the countries that had shunned Assad 11 years ago are now looking to normalize relations in the hopes of limiting Iran’s influence in the region since Assad would no longer be solely dependent on Iran for support. Restoring ties with Assad would also allow Syria to start rebuilding its network in Lebanon, also putting a limit on Iran and Hezbollah’s growth.
“The effort being made by the UAE and Jordan and others to bring Syria back into the Arab tent is, in a way, along these lines,” Young explained. “If you increase Syria’s stake in Lebanon, it will de facto reduce the Iranian’s stake in Lebanon.”
“If they’re normalizing with Syria or if they are heading in that direction, it’s not surprising to see them normalizing with Lebanon if they believe that, ultimately, they can expand the Syrian role in Lebanon,” he later added.
Most of the Arab states, in one way or another, have resigned themselves with normalizing with Assad.
The seriousness of some countries to reestablish ties with Syria became evident when Assad made a historic visit to the UAE on March 19, where the Syria leader met with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed as part of the increasingly friendly relations between the two countries and amid plans to strengthen economic ties.
Not all countries have been as openly optimistic about the prospect of renewing relations with Syria, with the Saudis seeming hesitant about doing so, although Young argues that this should not be taken as a reluctance by the Gulf country to do so.
“The Saudis are not holding out. They’re more cautious,” Young explained. “Most of the Arab states, in one way or another, have resigned themselves with normalizing with Assad.”
Iran, though, has not dismissed the threat that Syria normalizing with other countries poses to its interests. Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, made a visit to Damascus, reportedly to discuss the war in Ukraine and Syria’s ties to other Arab countries.
“The Iranians sense very much that there is something taking place,” Young said. “Here you have Bashar being received by Mohammad bin Zayed days before Mohammad bin Zayed goes and meets with the Israeli Prime Minister, Neftali Bennett. This is something that worries the Iranians.”
The Russians, although allied with Iran, would also like to see Syria break free a bit from Iran so that Russia would be able to operate in Syria without Assad needing to defer to the Iranians for approval.
However, Assad himself is probably the one who would like to limit his dependency on Iran, seeing an expanded Syrian role in Lebanon as a chance for Syria to return as a serious regional player.
The Syrian network
During Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 and the Israeli occupation of Lebanon from the 1980s until 2000, Syria physically had a presence in Lebanon with the Lebanese government acting in more of a ceremonial role. Hafez al-Assad, and later his son Bashar, were the ones really making the decisions.
When the Syrians were forced out in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, they still maintained their network and connections in Lebanon, although to a lesser extent than when they were physically in control of the country.
It was when the Syrian civil war broke out and countries broke off relations with Syria that its role and influence in Lebanon was severely crippled, also reducing Syria’s relevance in the region to that of a war-torn country.
Because of this, the possibility of rejuvenating its network in Lebanon and becoming more independent of Iran is something that appeals to Assad.
“Syria’s ticket to playing a larger role in the Arab world is Lebanon. This has always been the case. Syria without Lebanon is a tertiary power,” Young stated. “The only way that Hafez al-Assad could make Syria an essential country in the Middle East was basically to control other files.”
In Syria’s absence, Iran and Hezbollah have filled the hole that Syria left and, because of the civil war, Syria has had to become reliant on its replacement in Lebanon much to the dismay of Assad.
He wants an alliance with Iran and he’s not going to leave his relationship with Iran. But, at the same time, he doesn’t want to be suffocated by his dependency on Iran. He needs to maneuver independently.
This, according to Young, does not mean that Assad is going to break ties with Iran as soon as more countries normalize relations with the regime, but their relationship will likely become more limited and specific, especially as the two compete for influence in Lebanon.
“He wants an alliance with Iran and he’s not going to leave his relationship with Iran. But, at the same time, he doesn’t want to be suffocated by his dependency on Iran. He needs to maneuver independently,” Young said. ” He’s not happy to see that Iran has taken over Syria’s influence in Lebanon. He’s not happy to be completely reliant on Iran at home.”
While Gulf Arab countries may not be happy with an expanded Syrian role in Lebanon, to these countries, it is a far better alternative to the status quo where Iran is able to continue unimpeded and, right now. Allowing a return of Syria seems like the best possibility at challenging Iran.
“The thinking is along these lines: they need to bolster Syria so that there is less Iranian influence. The way to do so is a revived Syrian role in Lebanon,” Young stated.
Normalization with Syria is bound to be a slow process, however, and Syria will not be able to rejuvenate its network in Lebanon right away. With parliamentary and presidential elections fast approaching, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have an interest in trying to make sure that Hezbollah and its allies do not go unopposed in Parliament.
In previous elections, Hezbollah and its allies faced opposition from Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, and his Future Movement and its allies.
Although Hariri’s influence had decreased over the years, his party remained the main Sunni party in Lebanon, coupled with the Christian Lebanese Forces, acting as the main opposition to Hezbollah.
However, on January 24, Hariri announced his and his party’s retirement from Lebanese politics, sending a massive shockwave and opening a large void that Hezbollah and its allies are all too happy to fill in the upcoming May 15 parliamentary election.
Even though the Gulf countries cut ties with Lebanon in the hopes that the government would clamp down on Hezbollah and its ever-expanding power in Lebanon, almost the opposite has occurred, with Hezbollah continuing unimpeded.
Without any serious opposition in the coming elections, Hezbollah is focusing on supporting its allies and making potential gains in areas once thought not possible for the Shiite Party of God, such as in Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli.
Certain Gulf countries might try to progressively establish their position in Lebanon to make sure that Hezbollah does not turn out making a breakthrough in the Sunni communities in places like Beirut and Tripoli
Because of this, Saudi Arabia and other countries may now see a need to change their strategy. Rather than watching from the outside and trying to pressure the Lebanese government to take action, which has proven unsuccessful up to this point, they see a need to take a more active role from inside Lebanon.
“Macron has been trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to reengage Lebanon and to make sure that the Sunni void that has been created by Saad Hariri’s decision to not take part in the elections, to make sure that the Sunni void does not end up benefitting Hezbollah and its allies,” Karim Bitar, an associate professor of international relations at Saint Joseph University, told NOW.
In order to prevent these gains by Hezbollah, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait could potentially use their ties and influence in Lebanon’s Sunni communities to make it harder for Hezbollah to fill the gap left by Hariri and his party.
“Certain Gulf countries might try to progressively establish their position in Lebanon to make sure that Hezbollah does not turn out making a breakthrough in the Sunni communities in places like Beirut and Tripoli,” Bitar said.
Young also argues that the Gulf is now viewing Lebanon through a different lens and believes that it is no longer worth punishing Lebanon for Iran and Hezbollah’s activities in the country and that there is more to gain from reengaging.
“Nothing has really changed, but they have all basically gone back on their initial decision. They are looking at Lebanon through a different lens,” Young stated.
“This is not just a small decision to satisfy Macron. This is more along the lines of a broader decision. ‘Let’s not make Lebanon pay for the presence of Iran and Hezbollah.’ This is sort of the calculation. Basically, [their previous tactic] was like shooting the hostage.”
Nicholas Frakes is a multimedia journalist with @NOW_leb. He tweets