Monday, November 13, 2017

Quiet between storms - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue to deepen because the Saudis view the Iranian threat as an existential matter. These tensions, however, will not necessarily translate into open war.

The downing of an Iranian-made Syrian drone over the Golan Heights on Friday momentarily disrupted the calm that has characterized the Israeli-Syrian border area over the last week. It is clear, however, that the challenge facing Israel on this front, chiefly Iran's growing presence in Syria, is a long-term matter. The path Israel takes to confront this challenge, while continuing to target weapons convoys and facilities inside Syria, largely depends on Moscow and Washington.

These two superpowers, as evidenced by Friday's meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, have struck far-reaching understandings concerning Syria's future. Israel could be left to pay the price for these understandings, as they do not stipulate the removal of Iran from the border area.

In Lebanon, tensions came to a head over the weekend, albeit primarily consisting of psychological warfare and propaganda campaigns directed at the Lebanese public – be they the Sunni supporters of recently resigned Prime Minister Saad Hariri or Shiite supporters of the Hezbollah terrorist organization.

A three-pronged crisis is fueling the escalating turmoil in Lebanon, which reached a fever pitch with Hariri's sudden and unexpected resignation, accompanied by a vicious tirade against Iran and his former coalition partner Hezbollah, which he accused of perpetrating "a hostile takeover of Lebanon" and even of using "the power of its weapons to impose a fait accompli."

The first aspect of this crisis is the Saudi bid to curb Iran's growing influence and control in the Middle East. The Iranians have established footholds in Lebanon and Iraq, and now in Syria as well. More importantly, though, they have also secured a bridgehead in Yemen, Saudi Arabia's proverbial backyard.  It is from there that Iran, or perhaps Hezbollah operatives deployed by Iran to train and guide the Houthi rebels, are launching missiles at Riyadh and posing a threat to Saudi Arabia that is similar to the threat posed by Hezbollah to Israel.

The second part of the crisis is Saudi King Salman's efforts, alongside his his son, Crown Prince Mohammed, to ensure the latter's status as heir to the kingdom against the objections of rival family members. The young crown prince not only wants to secure his own position but also to push Saudi Arabia forward into the 21st century. To this end, and befitting his young age, he has implemented combative policies both domestically against his rivals and enemies, and abroad against Iran.

Finally, the upcoming general elections in Lebanon, scheduled to be held in the spring of 2018, comprise the third part of the crisis. Ahead of the elections, Hariri sought to bolster his status among his country's Sunni voters and adopted a contentious tone against Hezbollah and Iran. Twice in the past, however, after emotions and hard feelings waned in the wake of the elections in 2006 and 2009, Hariri agreed to form a coalition with Hezbollah. The upcoming elections could very well follow the same script.

Hezbollah, for its part, is fighting fire with fire. In Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's fiery speeches, the focus of his ire has shifted from Israel to Saudi Arabia, which has become the "great Satan" trying to push Israel, with a few billion dollars, into a war with Lebanon. Hezbollah officials have even accused Saudi Arabia of coercing Hariri to resign, alleging that he is being held against his will in Riyadh.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran will continue to deepen because the Saudis view the threat posed by Iran, through its actions and ambitions, as an existential matter. These tensions, however, will not necessarily translate into open war. Saudi Arabia does not possess the requisite military might for a power move against Iran, not in the Persian Gulf and not in Lebanon. In Yemen, where the Saudis have intervened militarily, they have encountered considerable difficulty.

The crisis in Lebanon will continue to intensify until the elections in a few months' time. But the political players in Lebanon, including Hariri, cannot alter the fundamental facts of their situation. In the long run, Hezbollah represents a threat to Lebanon as a home to all its ethnicities, and along with Iran, it is a growing threat to Israel as well.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


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