Saudi Arabia and Israel: Looming Threat of Regional War

My thanks to Middle East Eye for running a condensed version of this piece earlier this week:

Over the past three days, the drumbeat of war in the Middle East has risen to a fever-pitch. Saudi Arabia has provoked both an internal domestic, and a foreign crisis to permit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to realize his grandiose vision of the Saudi state. Internally, Salman suddenly created an anti-corruption commission and within four hours it had ordered the arrest of some of the highest level royal princes in the kingdom, including at least four sitting ministers and the son of a former king. The most well-known name on the list, and one of the world’s richest men was Alaweed bin Talal.

Just a few hours earlier, after being summoned to Saudi Arabia for consultations, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri told a Saudi TV audience that he was quitting his job due to “death threats” against him from Hezbollah. Why the prime minister of a country would resign in the capital of a foreign nation is inexplicable. Coverage I’ve read of Hariri’s statement noted that he spoke haltingly into the camera and looked off-camera several times, indicating that the statement may’ve been written for him and that he may’ve delivered it under duress. Given the strong-arm tactics used by bin Salman to both secure his own title as Crown Prince, and the subsequent arrest of scores of prominent Saudis deemed insufficiently loyal to him, it would not be at all out of character to summon the leader of a vassal state and offer an ultimatum: either resign or we will cut you off (literally).

Middle East Eye editor, David Hearst agrees:

…It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that when he left Lebanon, Hariri had no intention of resigning, that he himself did not know that he would resign and that this resignation had been forced on him by the Saudis.

Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called Hariri “our prime minister” in his own address to the nation after the “resignation.” This doesn’t sound like a man who wanted Hariri dead. Lebanon’s president announced he would not accept Hariri’s resignation till he returned in person to affirm it. Further, Saudi Arabia announced that Hariri would not be returning to Lebanon due to the so-called threats on his life. Something doesn’t smell right.

Crown Prince Bin Salman and new bromance partner, Netanyahu

The Hariris: Squeezed to Within an Inch of Their Lives

Both Hariri and his late father, earned their wealth thanks to Saudi largess. They also owed their own leading role in Lebanese politics to Saudi patronage. The assassination of Rafik Hariri by Hezbollah came after threats levelled against him by Bashar al Assad, which explains lingering hostility between the Syrian regime and the Saudi royal family. This hostility likely was a prime factor in Saudi Arabia becoming the principal financier of the Syrian resistance, including some of the most bloodthirsty Islamists affiliated with ISIS and al Qaeda.

After losing in Yemen and Syria, bin Salman appears willing to try yet a third time, turning Lebanon into a political football to even scores with foreign enemies. Unfortunately Hariri, like his father before him is being squeezed to within an inch of his life. This time, by the Saudis instead of the Syrians.

The Saudi Crown Prince appears eager to ratchet up the conflict with Iran. Like Bibi Netanyahu, his new ally, he’s willing to exploit and manipulate hostility to a foreign enemy in order to bolster his own domestic stature. Given that he’s hellbent on establishing his own dominance in Saudi internal politics, such an enemy is very helpful in holding rivals at bay. bin Salman also noted that Israel, with Saudi financial backing, orchestrated attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities and assassinated five Iranian nuclear scientists. This is the sort of decisive, brutal action the future Saudi monarch likes.

Israel has responded in kind. Today, the foreign ministry sent an urgent cable to all diplomats demanding that they mouth a pro-Saudi line regarding the Hariri resignation. Israel Channel 10’s diplomatic correspondent, Barak Ravid, tweeted the translated contents of the cable:

1 \ I published on channel 10 a cable sent to Israeli diplomats asking to lobby for Saudis\Hariri &against Hezbollah https://t.co/AbeLPC35GP

— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) November 6, 2017

This indicates that Israel and Saudi Arabia are developing the sort of “no-daylight” relationship that Israeli leaders used to tout with their American counterparts. Together, with their combined military might and oil wealth, these two countries could pose a highly combustible commodity.

In the Hebrew version of his article, Ravid reveals an even more extreme demand by Israel: that Hezbollah must play no role in any future Lebanese government. This position is clearly a non-starter. Not even Hezbollah’s domestic enemies would agree that this is a realistic demand. It seems much like the series of thirteen demands Bin Salman drew up against Qatar and summarily disseminated as if it was a divine decree.

Can anyone imagine Iran or Hezbollah or Hamas or the PA demanding that a particular Israeli political party be excluded from Israel’s Knesset or governing coalition? The very thought of such a demand would drive any self-respecting Israeli into a paroxysm of national fury. Perhaps this indeed what the Israelis and Saudis wish regarding: to incite their enemies into further verbal fisticuffs that could lead to an all-out war.

Israel also expresses full support for the Saudi war against Yemen. The MFA statement further points to the missile launched from Yemen as proof that the Iran nuclear deal failed by not explicitly prohibiting Iran from building or testing ballistic missiles. Once again, Israel attempts to shoehorn into the deal a subject that was never meant to be part of it. Even if Iran is responsible for that missile (and there is evidence that it was not directly involved), Israel has no more right to demand Iran cease missile testing than Iran would have the same right to demand Israel stop its missile testing.

Further, it’s rich that Israel is complaining about Iran’s intervention in Lebanon and the dominant role of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics given that Israel did almost the same thing for the two decades in which it occupied most of southern Lebanon along with its Christian proxy army.

Bin Salman May’ve Learned from Israel’s Failure to Enlist U.S. in Iran Attack

Bin Salman may’ve also learned another lesson from Israel. That it is fruitless to seek the help of outside powers in waging such conflicts. He saw Netanyahu spend years fruitlessly begging two U.S. presidents to join him in a military adventure attacking Iran. His new alliance with Israel might provide the military punch he needs to forge a successful series of attacks on regional enemies.

Both the Saudis and Israelis watched ruefully as the Obama nuclear deal, which was negotiated over their strenuous opposition, removed this card from their political deck. Bibi had played the card for years in drumming up opposition to Iran’s purported nuclear program. He was furious he could no longer use it to defang domestic political challenges or invoke national crisis.

Over the past few months, both countries have lost another critical regional “card:” their Syrian Islamist allies have folded under a joint onslaught from the Syrian regime and its Iranian-Russian backers.

A few years earlier, Netanyahu had joined Saudi Arabia in intervening in Syria, attacking military facilities associated with Iran or Hezbollah. He pursued this policy as a method of deterrence, to diminish the arsenal available to the Lebanese Islamists during the next war with Israel. But he acted no less in order to bolster his security bona fides among security-obsessed Israelis.

But with the civil war winding down and Saudi-Israeli proxies having failed, Netanyahu can no longer offer the Syrian bogeyman to Israeli voters. He has four major corruption scandals facing him. More and more of his closest confidants are being swept up in the police investigation. He desperately needs a distraction. War against Lebanon is just the ticket. It would do wonders to unite the country just long enough to see the charges evaporate into thin air.

But there would be a major difference in this coming war between the last ones Israel fought against its northern neighbor in 1982 and 2006. Then it was Israel against Hezbollah (in 1982 the enemy was the PLO). Other frontlines states remained on the sidelines and patron states (like the U.S. for Israel and Iran for Hezbollah) played only a peripheral role once fighting began.

Next time, all bets will be off. Saudi Arabia will join this fight specifically to give Iran a black eye. So attacking Lebanon will be only part of its agenda. Attacking Iran directly will be the real Saudi goal. With Israel joining the fight, the two states could mount a regional war with attacks launched against targets in Lebanon, Syria, Iran; and possibly counter-attacks against Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Gulf states.

In that event, the blowback will be fierce. It will make Sabra and Shatilla, in which Christian Phalange fighters brutally murdered thousands of Palestinian (Sunni) refugees, look almost like a (bloody) picnic. This time, it will be Sunni fighting Shia from Lebanon to Iran, from Saudi Arabia to Iraq and everywhere in between. Imagine the Lebanese civil war, but multiplied 1,000 times in fatalities and mayhem.

We should also expect that such an attack against Iran will force its leadership to re-evaluate its commitment to the P5+1 nuclear deal. It very well might renounce the agreement and resume the uranium enrichment and other research that could lead to an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Despite Donald Trump’s campaign warnings to avoid U.S. military adventures, once two of his closest Middle East allies join the fight, it will be exceedingly hard for the U.S. to remain on the sidelines. On the other side, Iran and Hezbollah hold a trump card of their own: Russia. They’ve all fought a successful battle in Syria. If Russia either feels its own regional interests threatened, or that its closest regional allies are in danger, there is every chance it will intervene.

Despite the fact that most of the outside parties who intervened in the Syrian war managed to avoid direct conflict with each other (except for discrete incidents which were largely managed among the parties), a larger scale conflict like the one that could erupt in Lebanon, could change all the rules and draw two of the world’s major military powers into direct conflict.

Salman and Bibi Exploit External Threats to Rally Domestic Support

As I mentioned above, Salman appears to have learned a critical political lesson from his Israel: you need a foreign enemy in order to instill fear in your domestic constituency. You must build that enemy into a lurking, ominous force for evil in the universe. That’s one of the reasons bin Salman is intervening in the Yemen civil war. Despite a Saudi air offensive and blockade inducing mass starvation and epidemic, bin Salman has been able to invoke Muslim schisms in order to paint Iran as the Shiite aggressor and threat to Saudi interests.

More recently, he declared his neighbors in Qatar to be persona non grata for not siding fulsomely enough with the Saudis against Iran. With bin Salman, you are either with him or against him. There is no middle ground. Fortunately, most of the rest of the human race seeks that middle ground. Those who eschew the middle end up being dictators or madmen like Adolf Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. That seems to be the direction in which the Saudi royal is headed.

In Lebanon, his strategy seems to be to provoke a political and financial crisis. Saudi Arabia provides a huge level of financial and commercial support to Lebanon. Bin Salman seems to believe that if he withdraws such support, it will force the Lebanese to rein in Hezbollah. Though it’s not clear how Lebanese are supposed to restrain a political movement that is one of the largest and most popular in the country.

With the new campaign against Hezbollah and Iran, the Saudi prince is trying the same strategy which so far failed with Qatar. There he declared a boycott. He strong-armed all the Sunni states which relied on him for largesse to declare a blockade. Borders were closed. Flights were cancelled. Trade was halted. But instead of folding, the Qataris (with Iranian encouragement no doubt) have taken their case to the world and fought back. They show no signs of folding.

It’s unclear how the Saudi believes he will force a much larger and distant state like Lebanon to submit. He can turn off the spigots and declare a boycott. Indeed Bahrain, one of the Saudi vassal states ruled by a Sunni minority monarch, directed its citizens to return from Lebanon and declared a travel ban like the Qatari ban. All this will only strengthen Hezbollah’s hand. It will also serve as a tacit invitation to Iran to play a much larger role in Lebanon. When there is a vacuüm, it will be filled.

What Would Russia Do?

There is an even larger power looming behind this all: Russia. The stalemate in Syria between the Saudi-funded rebels and Assad, permitted Putin to intervene decisively and effect the eventual outcome of that conflict. If Putin perceives a similar Saudi strategy in Lebanon, it’s possible Iran and Russia might team up in the same fashion to support their allies on the ground.

It’s interesting to note that King Salman made the first ever visit by a Saudi royal to Moscow this past month and held talks with Vladimir Putin. Wouldn’t one like to know what they discussed? It certainly had to have involved Syria and Lebanon, since those are the two places in which Saudi interests either conflict, or potentially conflict with Russia’s. Perhaps the Saudi king warned Putin not to take advantage of chaos in Lebanon as he did in Syria. I doubt that Putin would be much intimidated given the Saudi failure in Syria. Russia’s future actions will be determined by how much Putin feels he has to gain if he were to side with Hezbollah and Iran in a future conflict in Lebanon.

It’s important to remember that during the days of the Soviet Union it was, with the U.S., a dominant force in the region. It supported most of the frontline Arab states in their conflict with Israel. Today, Putin is well-known for seeking to restore the former glory that was the Soviet empire. No doubt, it would please him no end to engineer a full-fledged Russian return to power and influence in the Middle East.

Israeli-Saudi Joint Attack on Iran and Lebanon?

The elephant in the room is Israel. It borders Lebanon and has fought two major wars there, along with a 20-year failed occupation of the south. Hezbollah is Israel’s sworn enemy and Iran, the Shiite movement’s largest backer, is also one of Israel’s chief adversaries. Given that Bibi tried desperately to peddle an attack against Iran with the U.S. (and failed), he may now have a far more willing partner in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have the financial wherewithal to support a protracted conflict in Lebanon (they also spent $1-billion in support of Israel’s sabotage campaign against Iran). They may be more than willing to bankroll another Israeli invasion.

For their part, the Saudis may be willing to create yet another Lebanese government cobbled together by collaborators and bought-off politicians; while shutting Hezbollah out of political power. Similarly, the history of Israeli intervention is filled with such sham political constructs. In the West Bank, they created the “village councils.” In south Lebanon, they created the South Lebanese Army. And in Syria, they funded the al-Nusra rebels fighting the regime in the Golan.

Many find it difficult to believe that either country would directly attack Iran, an adventure so reckless, and so fraught with danger for their own population when it counter-attacks. If so, it’s more likely such conflict will be played out in a more restricted zone involving Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Nevertheless, a conflict today with similar antagonists to the 2006 Lebanon war would wreak far more devastation than that limited conflict did (1,100 Lebanese dead, 110 Israeli dead over one month’s time). Hezbollah has three times the number of rockets and missiles it had then. And Israel presumably has determined ways to inflict ever greater damage of southern Lebanon should there be renewed war.

One can only hope that the military strategists in Riyadh and Tel Aviv aren’t mad enough to contemplate such a scenario. But given the gruesome history of Lebanon, and its role as a sacrificial lamb in conflicts between greater powers, one cannot rule it out.

Egypt’s military dictator, al-Sisi, for his part, wants little to do with a Sunni war against Iran and Hezbollah:

“Our point of view when it comes to new troubles with either Iran or Hezbollah or any other issue is that we have to deal with with great care so as not to add to the challenges and troubles of the region,” Sisi said in a news briefing in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Seikh.

Ironic to have a brutal mass murderer (of his own citizens) be the adult in the room on this particular question.

Finally, the U.S., which had played a decisive role in preventing an Israeli attack on Iran for years, is now led by a president who’s quite enamored with both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump’s first foreign visit as president was to Saudi Arabia. His warm relations with Netanyahu and support for Israel’s most extreme policies are also well-known. No one should expect this administration to restrain either the Saudis or Israelis. If anything, they may goad them on.

Here’s an excellent example of warmongering from Obama’s former Israel ambassador, Dan Shapiro, published in Israel’s so-called “liberal” newspaper, Haaretz:

Israeli leaders have been preparing for the next war with Hezbollah since 2006. Iran’s increasing assertiveness across the region makes clear that, even more than the last war, it will be a fight to diminish the Iranian threat on Israel’s borders. Israel and Saudi Arabia are fully aligned in this regional struggle, and the Saudis cannot help but be impressed by Israel’s increasing assertiveness to strike at Iranian threats in Syria.

When the moment of truth arrives, Israel’s allies, with the United States in the lead, should give it full backing. An act of Iranian or Hezbollah aggression may well be the spark, as their malign intentions are perfectly clear.

Given that Trump’s security triumvirate, H.R. McMaster, James Mattis and John Kelly are all known for their “extreme prejudice” against Iran, it seems unlikely the current president will offer any resistance. But even if by some miracle, Trump sought to play a constructive role, his administration is so dysfunctional it’s doubtful it could.