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The Lebanese Prime Minister Is Stuck, and He’s Improvising

As Saad Hariri seeks international support, he’s aligning closer with Hezbollah and Assad in Syria

Tony Badran
May 09, 2017
Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks to journalists following his nomination at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, November 3, 2016.Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images
Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks to journalists following his nomination at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, November 3, 2016.Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

A high-level delegation of Lebanese politicians and bankers reportedly will visit Washington later this month to try and convince Congress to soften impending sanctions legislation designed to squeeze the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah. Already, there have been visitors from Lebanon in recent weeks for this purpose, and there’s been speculation in Lebanese media that prime minister Saad Hariri, who has expressed his hope to “change” the legislation, might himself come to town to make the case for going easy on Lebanon.

Generally speaking, the function of Hariri and what is known as “the Lebanese government” in the power configuration in Lebanon is confined to this sort of activity, which could be summarized as running interference for and mopping up after Hezbollah, the real authority in the country. It is principally for this reason, among others, that Hariri’s erstwhile patrons in Saudi Arabia effectively have washed their hands of Lebanon, and pulled a grant they had pledged to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Why waste money on an Iranian satrapy?

Hariri is stuck. In order to return as prime minister, he had to sign on to Hezbollah’s terms. This has meant endorsing Hezbollah’s ally, Michel Aoun, for president, in order to form a new government. And the new government was stacked with Hezbollah allies in key ministries.

Hariri has tried to get Saudi buy-in for his decisions, starting with the endorsement of Aoun, who visited the kingdom on his first trip abroad as president. Hariri and Aoun’s circles have been leaking repeatedly how the Saudis were on the cusp of reinstating the grant to the LAF, or of returning their ambassador to Beirut, and improving bilateral ties. The Saudis see the existing order in Lebanon as a fundamentally Iranian-dominated order. Hariri’s attempt to shore up his government, therefore, effectively translates into an attempt to shore up that Iranian-dominated order.

The Saudis have rebuffed all these attempts, signaling they understand Lebanese reality for what it is, underscoring that Hariri’s terrible political decisions are his alone and enjoy no Saudi cover. To be sure, the Saudis received Hariri in the Kingdom. He was even brought along on King Salman’s private plane following the recent Arab League summit. Although the Hariri camp tried to spin these gestures as signs of an impending Saudi overture to Lebanon, nothing of the sort has occurred.

So Hariri has been improvising. At first he enlisted the French to convince the Saudis to at least restore the grant to the LAF, to no avail. Obama invested in the stability of this order with the policy of support to the LAF, consolidating its relationship with Hezbollah under the cover of combating ISIS. This was by design, part of the former president’s regional realignment with Iran. So far, the Saudis have wisely resisted Hariri’s plea for support. Hopefully, the Trump administration will, too.

Naturally, the Obama Administration, which was looking to corral Riyadh to the table with Tehran, also encouraged the Saudis to reinstate their support, but it, too, was ignored. Now, Hariri is tapping into another set of possibilities in the hope of bringing in money. On the one hand, recognizing Europe’s desire to keep refugees away from its shores, Hariri is asking the Europeans to pay up. Ahead of his trip to Paris, Berlin and Brussels last month, Hariri made the pitch for a $10-$12 billion investment in Lebanon over the next seven years: “If the international community does not invest with us, we will have to take measures to see how these refugees could find another place for refuge,” he said.

Hariri isn’t just asking for cash. Rather, he’s asking for an investment in infrastructure—“bridges, universities, and hospitals, and strengthen electricity and telecommunication.” In Germany, Hariri seems to have found a receptive ear. In a joint press conference with Hariri, Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to continue support for Lebanon. What’s more, she presented this support in the terms that Hariri laid out: “we are also trying to use this crisis situation to promote economic momentum,” she said. “There shouldn’t be an impression [that] the international community only takes care of the refugees; we have to look at the whole of the country.”

Last year, Germany gave Lebanon $411 million. Hariri is requesting some $1.4-$1.7 billion a year. It remains to be seen how much the Europeans can or will dish out. But the Lebanese government is diversifying its options. Aside from Hariri’s pitch to the Europeans, the Lebanese prime minister and his government have also reached out to China. This more consequential outreach entails drawing Chinese investment in northern Lebanon, especially in the port city of Tripoli. Chinese delegations have been coming in to Lebanon, and the Lebanese press is abuzz with stories about Chinese plans to invest in and utilize Tripoli’s port and the adjacent planned Special Economic Zone, and to overhaul and upgrade the nearby Qleiaat airport, and the old railroad linking Tripoli to Homs in Syria.

To be sure, northern Lebanon is a region of vital political importance for Hariri. So the prospect of bringing in investment and economic activity to the area makes political sense. However, as is the case with the LAF’s synergy with Hezbollah for example, this type of domestic Lebanese play intersects with far more consequential regional and international dynamics inimical to U.S. interests.

The Chinese interest in Tripoli, for example, is being marketed as part of the future reconstruction effort in Syria. As such, Tripoli is billed as a gateway and headquarters for Chinese firms looking to operate in Syria, with a port right below the Russians slightly further north in Tartous. Of course, refurbishing the infrastructure will take some time, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that this will be pitched also to Europeans eager to get in on the Syria reconstruction wagon.

What all this says is that Hariri and the entire government he heads are invested in a dynamic that only ties them deeper to Hezbollah and the Assad-ruled Syria adjacent to Lebanon. Hezbollah, with its synergetic relationship with the U.S.-backed LAF, has been working for the last five years to safeguard the contiguity of Lebanon with Assad-controlled western Syria. LAF liaison with the Syrian regime hasn’t stopped and may soon be formally and openly reinstated. Getting Europe and China to invest financially in Lebanon, with an eye on Syrian reconstruction, will tie Lebanon further to Assadist Syria. What’s more, European and Chinese financial investment is also an investment in the stability of the Hezbollah-dominated set-up and status quo in Lebanon on which behalf Hariri is lobbying.

Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.