The crown in the gutter: Saudis, Lebanon, and Middle Eastern realignment

No, really. ALL bets are off in the Middle East.

The end of the year is a hard time to write about developing trends.  There’s a lot to say, long-term projections to be made, the natural urge to lay out the scope of likely developments over the next 365 days.  But there’s also the sense of endings, and a preference for brevity.  One wants to put the right period to the passage we have just made.

For now, I’ll go with brevity.  The Saudis have decided to fund a big arms buy for the Lebanese armed forces, to the tune of an unprecedented $3 billion.  The vendors will be French.  Specifically, the purchase is meant to beef up the non-Hezbollah, Lebanese national armed forces, at a time when Hezbollah – which effectively operates its own armed forces in southern Lebanon – is preventing the formation of a national unity government, and trying to keep its stronghold in Lebanon as fighting rages back and forth in Syria.

(Hezbollah, of course, has representation in the Lebanese parliament, and pulled off the “no-confidence” coup against the Saad Hariri government in January 2011, effectively kicking off the Arab Spring.  The terror group’s influence was behind the collapse of the Najib Mikati government in March 2013, since when the politician appointed to form a new government, Tammam Salam, has been unable to do so, because Hezbollah won’t cooperate.)

On 2 August, a rocket attack on the Lebanese presidential palace was attributed to Hezbollah.  Throughout the autumn, a sense has built among several factions that Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman (also spelled Sleiman), represents a rallying point for national unity and leadership.  He has on more than one occasion alluded clearly to Hezbollah as an entity whose activities abroad – i.e., in Syria – can’t be tolerated as part of the Lebanese political mix.

Suleiman’s term runs through 2014, when there will be a new presidential election (for which Suleiman may or may not be eligible).  On 8 December, he gave a landmark political speech in which he criticized Hezbollah as an obstacle to national unity and the full formation of a Lebanese state.  He also made an unusual and interesting reference to the importance of moving toward a “civil state,” as a model of national government (emphasis added):

[Suleiman] proposed developing the Taif Agreement [note: see here] to move Lebanon toward a civil state. The president did not talk about amending the Taif Agreement, but about developing it. The term “civil state” has become a slogan of historic proportions in light of the Arab revolutions that have been betrayed by religious movements. The latter failed miserably in Egypt, while in Syria they have become synonymous with war, fire and the other face of dictatorship.

The civil state may constitute a safety net for Arab societies, which have entered a phase of turmoil that may end in a democratic pluralistic system that resembles Lebanon’s, as the president liked to remind.


Lebanon-bound? (A French VAB armored personnel carrier. photo)
Lebanon-bound? (A French VAB armored personnel carrier. photo)

What is shaping up in Lebanon is a confrontation between Hezbollah and the less centrally organized forces, in Lebanon and the region, seeking to achieve the goal of a “civil state.”  Hezbollah will do what Hezbollah does: fight tooth and nail, using the means of terrorism, to hold onto its southern Lebanese redoubt.  Iran will support Hezbollah.  And it appears that the “civil state” project will have a face, Michel Suleiman; an army, headquartered in Beirut; and the backing of Saudi Arabia.

Where is the United States, with our clear interest in encouraging “civil states” and our long patronage of Lebanon and her non-Hezbollah factions?  Per the Wall Street Journal report (link above):

This fall, the U.S. pledged $8.7 million in assistance to the Lebanese army during a meeting between President Barack Obama and Mr. Sleiman, said Lebanese officials present. Mr. Sleiman scoffed at the offer, said the officials, saying it wouldn’t be enough to help Lebanon secure its border with Syria against jihadists flocking to fight in the Syrian war.

Of course, the U.S. has, in effect, been providing support to the jihadists flocking to Syria.  The Saudis are providing support of their own to rebel factions in Syria.  And presumably, their policy, unlike ours, is meant to foster a coherent outcome: one in which Saudi Arabia ends up with a friendly client holding power in Lebanon, and is able to frustrate jihadists, as well as Iran and Hezbollah, in both Lebanon and Syria.

The Saudis want to encourage the formation of stable, conventional, Saudi-friendly governments in the region, and thereby to discourage the extension of Iran’s influence, and discourage the rise of radical Sunni sharia states.  Saudi Arabia is a sclerotic, thinly populated, status quo Sunni sharia state; the greatest long-term threat to the House of Saud and the kingdom’s internal stability comes from Sunni radicals who might establish a rival locus of Islamic political leadership elsewhere.  Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt represented the most significant such threat to emerge in the Arab world in many decades.  And that threat is by no means vanquished, with the outcome in Egypt still uncertain.

All bets are in any case off, given the passivity (or hapless unpredictability) of the United States.  In the near term, things may get hotter in Lebanon, especially if the Saudis and friendly Lebanese factions see a real opportunity to break Hezbollah’s hold on real estate there.  Absolutely no outcome is guaranteed at this point; the finger of traditional American power is apparently not on the scale anywhere, so everything that doesn’t look like too hard a target right now – basically, everything in the Middle East except Israel – is up for grabs.

Looking further into the future, if the Saudis can wind up in the patron’s seat for a power shift in Lebanon, more things will begin to look possible.  From the perspective of Muslim Brotherhood radicals, the need to establish a government somewhere populated (or at least strategically located) – Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan – will look more urgent.  The Saudis will monitor their maneuvers and look for ways to counter them.

But the leadership in Riyadh may react with frustrating slowness, at least from the perspective of visionary strategists.  Of all the Islamic Middle Eastern actors out there, the nicely networked, well-armed Saudis, keepers of Mecca and Medina, have the position with some of the most opportunity attached to it, and yet the least vision and energy.  Someone is going to notice that, if he hasn’t already: someone who won’t want to tear Saudi Arabia down, but to redefine – and fulfill – the nation’s leadership potential.

That this effort will be undertaken for religious-eschatological purposes – to establish a “caliphate” – is likely.  It certainly wouldn’t be the natural way to approach the goal of the “civil state.”  The existing Saudi leadership, I think, has no special commitment to the “civil state” idea, seeing it mainly as the least-threatening alternative for new governments in other Arab nations, where events already mean that there are bound to be some changes.  The Saudi leadership today is interested in stability, and in forming alliances against a few key threats. “Civil states” would be natural allies in those terms.

But in building a strong position against the key threats, the Saudis would create something very tempting, for a leader with an alternative vision.  As Napoleon surveyed the wreck of the “Holy Roman Empire” and saw a crown lying in the gutter, waiting to be picked up, there is likely to be an aspiring leader who sees what could be done with the alliances and armed forces the Saudis are seeking slowly to gather.

The necessary leadership could well come from within the lower ranks of today’s Saudi leaders.  The inevitability of regional competition – e.g., from aspirants to power in Egypt, Turkey, and Syria – will foster the emergence of such leadership rather than repress it.  The more the Saudis and their allies and clients are armed, the more interesting their situation will be.  We should certainly be watching; assuredly, others will be.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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6 thoughts on “The crown in the gutter: Saudis, Lebanon, and Middle Eastern realignment”

  1. Best wishes for the New Year to all.

    Saudi Arabia is underestimating Hizbollah in Lebanon, as we underestimated Russia (and Iran) in the Syrian Civil War. Hizbollah is prepared to fight in Syria and maintain its position in Lebanon. Only a successful large scale Israeli incursion from the South can tilt the balance. Then of course, it’s a whole new ballgame.

    At this point in time, I find it difficult to believe the Saudi bribe, I meant grant 🙂 , of 3bn will be implemented., And if it is, there’s a decent chance that Hizbollah’s arsenal will be upgraded by her sponsors. Or, a good portion of the shiny new French weaponry will end up in Hizbollajh’s hands.

    Then, there’s the little matter of the Volgograd terrorist attacks. Vladimir will obviously retaliate after( maybe before) the Sochi games. I wonder what kinda drugs Bandar Bush was on when he reportedly told the Tsar, point blank, that he controls the Chechen rebels?

  2. Happy New Year, Ms. Dyer. Very much enjoyed this article. Events may be conspiring to add complexity to the analysis above, since there is now word that al-Qaeda in Iraq has won a victory over government forces that required the latter to beat a hasty retreat to Baghdad, abandoning their heavy equipment to expedite the move! Since we’re viewing the current regime in Iraq as more Iran-dependent than it used to be while we (the U.S.) were involved, this victory could provide new impetus to the push by al-Qaeda types in Syria to heave back against Assad’s forces, who must now reckon that recent gains are in jeopardy, and will provide a lot of pushback to Iran, whose commitment in Syria and Iraq is now under great counter-pressure. Do you have a feel for whether this was engineered by the Saudis, or whether it is merely a reaction of Sunnis in Iraq to their being left out of governance in a way that only seems to benefit Shias… or maybe some other factor?

    Also, it was shocking and bracing to read an article in Tablet ( that says, point-blank, that the Chinese are the real proliferators behind Pakistani, North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons development programs–shocking because it really means that Iran is already a nuclear power by virtue of being spoonfed the technology by China–bracing because one never hears about this angle on the Mideast arms race. If this is true, then it would be nice to get your speculation about what’s really going on by having our President appease Tehran with this recent confab-to-have-a-chat about possibly having a deal… six months from now. Seems like the Chinese would have the most sway, and that we may be appeasing two entities.

    Any thoughts about the mercury under foot in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria, and the place of China in the Iran-US talks? Is anything real!!

    Take care.

  3. … as a follow-up to one of my questions yesterday, I noticed that, regarding Iraq and Lebanon, Debka ( is also couching the recent gains by al Qaeda in Iraq around Falluja and Ramallah as part of a Saudi plot… (, and they go so far as to say that this will put Hezbollah, Assad and Shias generally, on the run from Lebanon to Baghdad. Debka is supposedly ex-Mossad, but they do have a different perspective on things. If nothing else, my questions must be in the air. The Iranians are all in on Syria, Iraq and their nuclear program. If this is really the beginning of a large-scale blow-up between al Qaeda (read Sunnis) and Iranian proxies, then this one could go big quickly.

  4. Recently procured Iraqi Mil-28NE attack helicopters arrived with Russian crews. Guess they plan on doing some sightseeing over Fallujah.

  5. Keefe G — Apologies again for the late response. I had intended to write a couple of days ago about exactly your topic, but the maritime developments intervened. Things are moving fast out there now.

    I disagree with Debka on the Saudis being behind AQ in Fallujah. The Saudi government doesn’t run al Qaeda. AQ’s Saudi links are murkier than that; many in AQ despise the House of Saud, considering it corrupt and sold out to the West. AQ has the long term goal of regime-changing Saudi Arabia.

    That would be one of the ways in which Saudi empire-building, by the CURRENT regime, could eventually be exploited by a visionary-conquest type of actor. Personally, I don’t think it will be a single “Napoleon.” I would see, rather, a group that forms around a charismatic religious-political leader. But not like bin Laden, whose M.O. was straight terrorism. This would be someone with a true geopolitical vision. He would start with the existing nation-states as his power vehicle of choice.

    That said, the battle raging in Iraq is a very important one. The Saudis, in my view, will have an interest in bolstering the government of Iraq in the fight. One of the big reasons is that the Iranians have already expressed their ‘readiness’ to support the Iraqi government in recovering Fallujah and Ramadi. The Saudis can’t just stand by and watch Iran expand her influence in Iraq because of security problems like this.

    The whole thing has bigger implications also because of the ties of the terrorists fighting in Anbar to the “ISIS” terrorists in Syria: the “Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham” group, which is linked to AQ, but has other regional links as well. The official Syrian resistance has been fighting AGAINST the ISIS terrorists in Syria in the last week. And if you add in one more factor, what you see emerging is potentially a coordinated effort that has ISIS as its nexus.

    That effort maps back to the Chechens, who most Westerners don’t realize are closely tied to ISIS. I’ve seen estimates that ISIS’ manning is more than 50% Chechen. This makes sense when you remember that by joining forces with ISIS, the Chechens are in effect fighting Russia. But seeing this pattern emerge also carries all kinds of implications for the long term, from the interests of Russia in the whole geographic area that ISIS is fighting over, to the potential for the persecution of Christians, as in Syria, to spread to the Caucasus.

    Given the Chechens’ links to ISIS, it is darned interesting that there was a concerted push involving Iraq, Syria, and the recent bombings in the Caucasus, all at the same time.

    More than one regional power has an interest in seeing Iraq put down the terrorist insurgency in Anbar. This time, I doubt that Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even Russia will simply stand by and hope the United States does something useful.

    Meanwhile, Happy New Year back at you!

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