The recent shakeup in the Saudi government has turned the region into a powder keg that could leave Israel embroiled in a bloody conflict with Hezbollah. One mistake could easily light this fire.
Saudi Arabia’s ambitions are driving this flare-up, and it’s in response to Iran’s growing influence in the Levant. Hezbollah, a staunch ally of Iran, have steadily increased their influence in the federal government of Lebanon. They’ve been the de facto rulers of southern Lebanon for over a decade, but their ambitions are far greater.. Their increasing influence in Lebanese politics dovetails well with Iran’s geopolitical goals, and as a result they are heavily supported by the Islamic Republic, both militarily and financially.
Saudi Arabia is fundamentally opposed to Iran’s growing influence in Lebanon, and has backed the Sunni Future movement in the country. They aim to limit Hezbollah’s influence on the government, although they’ve been largely unsuccessful. It appears that the Future Movement has been so ineffective in ousting Hezbollah that the Prime Minister and leader of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri, was forced to resign. Though his coalition isn’t in the majority, the Lebanese constitution requires the PM to be a Sunni and the current majority coalition is Shi’a.
The Saudis will look to back Saad Hariri’s brother, Bahaa Hariri, who is more of a hardliner against Hezbollah. This move is dangerous, particularly with the current strength of the group. They’ve committed thousands of troops to the Syrian civil war, and have proved an effective military force for Bashar Al Assad’s government. With the civil war winding down, these troops are preparing to return to Lebanon. Hezbollah will soon see thousands of battle tested militants rejoin its domestic militia – a worrying prospect for both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The situation is made even more grave when looking at the leadership of the three countries and the typical arbiter of the region, the US. Saudi Arabia’s heir apparent, Mohammed Bin Salman, flexed his power in a purge last week, likely based more on politics than corruption. Bin Salman is now clearly a leading figure in the Gulf state, and his ambitions should soon take effect on Saudi policy. He was a strong proponent of entering the Yemeni civil war in response to Iran’s support of the Houthi rebels, and was a key figure in the movement against Qatar earlier this year.
His venture in Yemen has largely been a failure, with the conflict draining Saudi military resources and the unimaginable suffering of the Yemeni people the only thing to show for it. Houthi rebels also shot a missile at the Saudi capital last week, showcasing just how much of a threat they still are. Saudi support for rebels in Syria has also largely failed, with the Russian-backed Assad regime looking more and more the victor of a civil war rife with destruction and human suffering.
Yet geopolitical ambitions care little for the cries of orphans and widows, and neither does Mohammed Bin Salman. All signs point to him pushing for another clash with Iran, this time in Lebanon. If he does go down this road, it will be the Israelis, along with Sunni militias in Lebanon, who become the Saudi’s new proxies. The leaders of Hezbollah and Israel are also unlikely to back down. The most recent conflict between the militia and the state was just over a decade ago, and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to have a tempered response to any attack, even an accidental one, particularly now that he has the unconditional support of the Trump administration.
A concerted effort to bring this conflict to heel was needed last week, but there is still time. Current attempts, however, are not encouraging. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned both Saudi Arabia and Iran, but with an administration that views diplomacy as weakness, it is not known how much force his warning holds. There have been a few statements from Germany, France, Russia, China, and others warning against war, but again, the force of their statements is questionable.
If nothing happens to slow the buildup soon, yet another war in the Middle East is inevitable.