The return of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from exile yesterday shows that Saudi Arabia is making bold moves to solidify its influence in that country. As the New York Times reports:
[Hariri’s] surprise return comes at a delicate time for the country after a week of bloody battles between the army and Sunni extremists from Syria has exacerbated the Lebanon’s own simmering sectarian tensions.
The seizure by the militants of Arsal, a mostly Sunni town filled with Syrian refugees and surrounded by Shiite villages, has further entangled Lebanon into Syria’s catastrophic three-year-old civil war.
Hariri’s return is being seen as a bid to reassert his leadership over the Sunni community in Lebanon amid growing concern that many in the community are being radicalized by the increasingly sectarian war next door. […]
Hariri, a Saudi-backed politician, left Lebanon in January 2011 after his government was brought down by Hezbollah and its allies. He has since split his time between Paris and Saudi Arabia, citing concerns for his safety.
In December, Saudi Arabia guaranteed $3 billion of French military equipment to the Lebanese Armed Forces, and yesterday it announced through Hariri that it would be adding a direct donation of $1 billion. When these moves are coupled with Hariri’s today, a broader strategic picture emerges.Having worked with Egypt and Israel to pressure its rival Hamas in Gaza, Saudi Arabia is now now turning its eyes on Lebanon. The return of Hariri makes sense as part of a broader, Saudi-backed push to solidify Sunni influence in the Lebanese government. This would reduce the sway of Hezbollah, which is Shiite, Iranian-backed, and Assad-friendly, both politically and militarily.Saudi Arabia also seems to have secured some form of French cooperation, given the French military equipment and Hariri’s ties to that country. The French remain influential in their ex-colony, especially among Lebanese Christians.Ultimately, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Israel, is building a stabilizing alignment against both Sunni extremism, as exemplified by Hamas and ISIS, and Shiite Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. It looks like Lebanon has become the next testing ground for this strategy.