The revelation that the Saudis sought to create a military option for
anti-Iranian forces in Lebanon is the latest item to fall into the category of
“non-surprising surprises” revealed by the WikiLeaks cables. This is not
intended as an expression of disappointment.
Having one’s previously
expressed suspicions confirmed is one of the more pleasant experiences for a
researcher and journalist.
Unfortunately, the issues underlying the Saudi
foreign minister’s request and the US ambassador’s brush-off have not
disappeared. The same mechanisms are at work today in Lebanon, underlying and
dominating events and continuing to benefit Iran and its allies.
level, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s request for the assembling of a force
capable of resisting Hizbullah sounds like obvious common sense. It was made at
a time that Hizbullah was engaged in the culmination of an 18- month period of
revolt against the Saudi and US-backed elected government of Lebanon. Hizbullah
and allied fighters had launched something resembling a coup against the
authorities, brushing aside feeble resistance and seizing control of West
Lebanon was on the verge of civil war. It had become obvious that
the entire project of the “Cedar Revolution” and the attempt to build an
independent and sovereign Lebanon was faced with an armed attempt by Iran and
Syria to destroy it through the use of a proxy military force. The Lebanese
Armed Forces, themselves divided along sectarian lines and with a large Shi’ite
element, were useless as an instrument for the defense of the state’s
sovereignty. They would have split and ceased to exist if ordered to fight
Hizbullah, and would have been defeated in the unlikely event that they had
attempted to do so.
In such circumstances, the two stark options for the
international guarantors of the March 14 government were to fight or to
BUT ON closer inspection, Faisal al- Saud was not exactly
proposing the former in this meeting. The Saudis, being the Saudis, do not
commit to get involved in any fighting themselves.
Rather, Saud proposed
to US ambassador to Iraq David Satterfield in 2008 the creation of an “Arab
force” composed of troops from unnamed Arab states, which would take on and
destroy Hizbullah under UN auspices and with US, UNIFIL and NATO
In its details, the Saudi proposal sounds somewhat
hallucinatory, and one can thus understand Satterfield’s cautious return of the
ball with his promise that the US would “carefully study” any Arab decision in
this regard. The Saudis generally like the Americans to do their fighting for
them, and the proposal sounds something like an example of this. There would
have been little support in the US in 2008 for a further entanglement of US
forces on the ground in a Middle Eastern country.
The reason why we are
only finding out about this proposal two years later is because nothing
There was an Arab decision following the Hizbullah
coup of May 2008, but it was not in the direction of an armed defense of the
Rather, the Saudis, having sounded out their
American allies and found them reluctant, concluded that since fighting wasn’t
an option, the only remaining path was accommodation.
concessions subsequently made by the Saudi’s March 14 clients in the Doha
negotiations – including the ceding of veto power over government decisions to
WHILE THe Saudis’ talents as fighters and organizers appear
modest from this episode, the clarity of their analysis is once again very
Saud correctly observed that Iran was advancing on a number
of “regional fronts” – he mentioned Iraq and the Palestinians as the other two.
He noted, again correctly, that a Hizbullah victory would imply an “Iranian
takeover” of Lebanon.
This brings us to the lessons for the present day.
Accommodation in fact meant submission. The Saudis’ subsequent response to US
unwillingness to underwrite the elected government of Lebanon was to seek
rapprochement with Syria, and to formalize Hizbullah’s para-state in Lebanon and
its status as a supra-governmental organization.
The result has been that
the Iranian advance up to that point was formalized, with the March 14
government allowed to remain in place – increasingly as a kind of
The next episode in this process may shortly be upon us.
Hizbullah is threatening renewed civil strife if its members are indicted by the
Special Tribunal on Lebanon for the murder of former prime minister Rafik
The Saudis are once more talking to the Syrians in an effort to
find a way to “contain” the impact of indictments.
That is, in effect,
the Saudis appear to be seeking to finesse the next act of surrender.
is clear that even if Hizbullah members are indicted, no mechanism for
apprehending them exists. Hizbullah’s and Iran’s threats in recent weeks have
been intended to deter their domestic and regional opponents from even thinking
about trying to implement any decision by the tribunal.
seem to have worked.
So the meeting between Satterfield and the Saudi
foreign minister represents a snapshot in a larger process that has been under
way in the region over the last half decade. It is a fascinating insight into
the depth of Saudi fears, and the shrewd understanding of power relations of
which Riyadh is capable. Unfortunately, the Arab autocracies are incapable of
maintaining the boundaries of their system by themselves, and this is the reason
why the Iranians have so successfully penetrated this system at various of its
Saud al-Faisal, having correctly identified the problem,
could then only beg the Americans to lead in confronting it. The request
unheeded, the House of Saud has sought to accommodate the new strong men,
granting them their current point of advancement.
But in the long run,
this won’t work either.
The Iranians and their friends have ambitions
that can’t be accommodated.
So in the long run, we are back to fight or
flight. There is no third way.