After a gripping three-week absence, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri returned to Lebanon last week to take part in his country’s 74th Independence Day.
Many still believe he was being “held against his will” in Saudi Arabia, from where he delivered a stunning resignation speech on November 4. The speech was televised on a popular Saudi channel rather than on his own Future TV, raising eyebrows even among his own constituency.
The 47- year old Hariri put an end to mounting speculation, however, when he landed in Beirut on November 21, following brief stops in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Paris. And again he made headlines – this time by shelving his controversial resignation, reportedly at the direct request of President Michel Aoun.
The story is far more complicated than it appears, however. For one thing, his U-turn signals that Saudi Arabia has put off its confrontation with Iran over Lebanese soil (at least for now), reportedly at the request of western leaders, who were unhappy with the sudden departure of a man – Hariri – whom they know and trust.
In his resignation speech, Hariri blamed Tehran for all his troubles, lashing out against its tutelage of Lebanon and insisting that its arm in the region (i.e Hezbollah) will be cut off. He also said that his life was in danger.
Nothing has occurred in the past three weeks that would easily explain Hariri’s change of mind on any of these things. Hezbollah remains deeply rooted within the Lebanese Shiite community: it has its own army, intelligence apparatus, social network, flag, treasury, and fiefdoms, and operates quite literally as a state within a state. It is also well represented in the Lebanese parliament, where it has 12 seats, and even in Hariri’s cabinet, with two portfolios. Its huge arsenal remains off-limits for Lebanese officialdom, and its role in the Syrian conflict next door is still a cause for extreme worry for Hariri and his Saudi allies.
Behind closed doors, Hariri still believes that Hezbollah and Syria were behind the 2005 murder of his father, the former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. He has also never forgiven Hezbollah for backing out of his first cabinet, back in January 2011, whilst he was at a meeting with Barack Obama at the Oval Office in Washington. He walked into the White House as prime minister of Lebanon and left two hours later as its former premier.
In fact, he only agreed to work with them again when a deal was struck in late 2016 that restored him to the premiership in return for accepting Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, as president.
This time, Hariri’s decision to return to Beirut came after a behind-the-scenes agreement was reached with Hezbollah, via Aoun.
Firstly, the two sides agreed to a “media truce”: Future TV will stop criticizing Hezbollah, the legality of its arms and the logic behind its intervention in Syria, while Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV and its partners are to muzzle all criticism of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and stop encouraging Bahraini Shiites to rise against Riyadh’s allies in Manama.
While still personally committed to regime change in Damascus, Hariri will likely look the other way as members of his government restore broken fences with the Syrian regime
Secondly, Hezbollah has seemingly agreed to stay out of any new cabinet Hariri plans to create – it will satisfy itself with its 12 parliamentary seats, a bloc that is likely to grow at elections in the spring. Keeping Hezbollah out of the cabinet suits both Hariri and the Saudis. For its part, Hezbollah can see that it doesn’t really need the cabinet portfolios it holds – which are in sports and industry – to influence the balance of power: it can still have a final say over any legislation, or veto any decision it does not like, by leaning on allies in the government affiliated to either Aoun or Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement.
Aoun has a total of eight seats in the government, including powerful ministries such as defense, justice, the economy, tourism, and foreign affairs, while Berri’s party is in charge of finance, agriculture, and state development.
Thirdly, Hezbollah agreed to announce – “soon” – the end of its military operations in Syria, Again, this eventuality would play out nicely in Hariri’s favor, proving to his constituency that, in the tug-of-war with his Shiite adversaries, his will has prevailed. This would be a charade, however, since Hezbollah was already planning to end its involvement in Syria, due to serious threats from Israel.
Hezbollah is similarly eager to deprive Donald Trump of any pretext he may have for ejecting it from the Syrian battlefield, given his stern rhetoric about clipping Iran’s wings. Hezbollah would, of course, be out only in a technical sense: it would still man and control strategic pockets within Syria that are vital to its arms supply, such as the Kalamoon Mountains and the Damascus-Beirut Highway.
Back in Beirut, Hariri and Aoun will sit down to settle their differences, with Berri mediating. While still personally committed to regime change in Damascus, Hariri will likely look the other way as members of his government restore broken fences with the Syrian regime, possibly through pressing the case of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
In the summer, two of Hariri’s ministers defied him and went to Syria to attend an economic fair; and in September, Hariri’s then foreign minister, Gibran Bassil, conferred with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Mouallem, also against Hariri’s will. The prime minister’s strong objections will slowly wither, at Hezbollah’s urging.