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.
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.