Lebanese sit in front of giant posters bearing portraits of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon's militant Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah (L), the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (R) and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (C) on March 1, 2016, in the southern town of Kfour, in the Nabatiyeh district during the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter, Mohammed Hassan Nehme, who was killed while fighting alongside Syrian government forces in Syria. Mohammed Hassan Nehme was killed in the Syrian town of Khanasser, near Aleppo. The Syrian army retook the strategic town from the Islamic State group on February 26, 2016, paving the way for the reopening of its sole supply route to main northern city Aleppo. / AFP / MAHMOUD ZAYYAT

Is Lebanon a New Front In the Proxy War?

Having lost control of Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon to Iran by turning on the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring revolutions, Saudi Arabia now seeks to regain its influence over the Middle East.

The Syrian civil war continues to drag the Middle East into a deeper political crisis and Lebanon, which has failed to elect a new president for two years, finds itself in a particularly tough position. Since Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group, joined the forces loyal to Bashar Assad and Iran in 2013 to eliminate the Syrian opposition, Lebanon’s relations with Gulf nations have steadily worsened.

Last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a political and economic union of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, formally labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The member states believe that the group has been not only destabilizing Syria, Yemen and Iraq, but also sponsoring terrorist groups in GCC territories. Having urged their citizens to leave Lebanon, GCC member states are expected to take new steps to neutralize Hezbollah.

To be clear, the GCC decision reflects growing tensions in the Middle East.

When an angry mob torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric, the Arab League issued a statement to condemn the government of Iran. Lebanon was notably absent when the organization voted in favor of Iran’s condemnation, which led the Saudis to retract a $4 billion military aid package. On Feb. 21, Lebanese Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi resigned from the cabinet, saying Hezbollah “is dominating the government’s decisions [and turning] Lebanon into a base to be used for animosity of Arab states.” Finally, the March 14 alliance, a coalition of Lebanese political parties opposed to the Assad regime, called on Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, as Saad Hariri, a friend of Saudi Arabia, returned to Lebanon after five years in exile. In light of the most recent developments, the GCC decision took the crisis to the next level.

Earlier this month, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of perpetrating a massacre in Yemen and sponsoring bomb attacks in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Saudis seek to weaken support for Hezbollah by destabilizing the country, he argued, indicating Lebanon, caught in the middle of a turf war between Riyadh and Tehran, finds itself on the verge of political turmoil.

Having lost control of Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon to Iran by turning on the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring revolutions, Saudi Arabia now seeks to regain its influence over the Middle East.

In truth, the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Lebanon dates back to the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Since then, the country has been a political battleground between the pro-Iran, pro-Assad March 8 Alliance and the pro-Gulf March 14 Alliance. In recent years, Iran’s sectarian-expansionist foreign policy coupled with Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has fueled tensions between the two organizations.

As Marwan Bishara, Al-Jazeera English’s senior political analyst, recently pointed out, the current escalation is a result of Hezbollah’s alliance with the Assad regime and Iran in Syria as opposed to Syrian meddling in Lebanese politics.

The question is whether the GCC decision and Saudi Arabia’s economic sanctions will convince the Lebanese government to limit Hezbollah’s influence over the country’s affairs. At this point, the scenario seems unrealistic. Hezbollah took a huge risk by siding with Iran and the Assad regime and paid a heavy price for interfering in the Syrian civil war by watching Nasrallah, once a popular figure, fall out of favor with Muslim warriors. The March 14 Alliance, furthermore, does not seem to have enough power to crack down on Hezbollah, whose top priority has been to ensure the Assad regime’s survival. Simply put, the political crisis in Lebanon will deepen over the next months. Riyadh’s efforts to strong-arm the Lebanese government by imposing economic sanctions, moreover, might extend the presidential crisis into the prime ministry. Lebanon’s economic survival, after all, heavily depends on the Gulf.

Lebanon, which is home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, is on the brink of sectarian violence and a proxy war. It would appear that the fire will continue to spread across the Middle East until concrete action is taken to end the Syrian civil war.

[Daily Sabah, March 7, 2016]

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