Three-dimensional chess, Middle East style

 

By Sarah N. Stern/JNS.org

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) shakes hands with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri before their bilateral meeting in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 2017. Credit: State Department.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently shocked the international community by announcing his resignation. Hariri, a Sunni political leader, made this announcement from Saudi Arabia, where some speculate that he is being held under house arrest, while others believe he is there on his own accord because he fears for his very life. These fears are not unfounded. In 2005, his father, Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, was assassinated by a car bomb that is believed to have been planted by Hezbollah.

The Middle East is a mysterious region where suspicion hangs heavily in the air—under normal conditions. But the entire region, as of late, is mired in extraordinary circumstances. Since the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015, Iran has been vastly emboldened, empowered and enriched. The Iranians have been on the march throughout the region, sowing acts of aggression in Sana’a, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. They are attempting to establish a Shi’a crescent stretching from Tehran throughout the Middle East.

Lebanon has become a puppet state of Iran, and the Lebanese Armed Forces has now become dominated by Hezbollah. An important fact that many people do not know is that we still have a line item in the U.S. Defense Appropriations budget for $100 million towards Lebanon’s military.

There is no doubt that under today’s circumstances, that earmark falls, whether directly or indirectly, into the hands of Hezbollah. Unless and until Lebanon could rid itself of the presence of Hezbollah, American taxpayers’ dollars will be going into the hands of an organization that has been listed by our own State Department as a terrorist group.

Saad Harari knows how to read the tea leaves. The same week of his surprise announcement, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a missile that had been aimed to land at King Khalid National Airport near the Saudi capital of Riyadh. The missile was intercepted by Saudi-owned U.S. Patriot batteries.

Nov. 4, meanwhile, marked the most aggressive Saudi shakedown in recent memory. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, 32, purged the government of 11 members of the Saudi royal family and other business elites—in what he described as a “corruption crackdown,” but which may well be a rouse to consolidate his power and quash his political rivals, many of whom are in his own family. As Reuters reported, the Riyadh Ritz Carlton has been turned into a temporary—albeit luxurious—prison.

Adding to the intrigue, a day after the crown prince announced his palace purge, a helicopter carrying Prince Mansour bin Muqrin mysteriously crashed, killing a potential rival to the crown prince’s power.

The aggressive and ambitious young Saudi prince is not taking Iranian aggression in the region lightly. Saudi Arabia has urged its citizens to leave Lebanon. This sends a somewhat ominous message. In fact, on Nov. 6, Saudi Arabia’s minister of Gulf affairs wrote that Lebanon “has declared war on Riyadh.”  

Some feel that this might be an indicator of a new war emerging between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims—the latest chapter in a 14-century-old dispute as to who will carry the mantle of Islam. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are experts at fighting proxy wars on someone else’s soil. As a joke that is making its rounds around Beirut goes, “The Saudis are willing to fight the Iranians, down to the very last Lebanese.”

Sarah N. Stern

In the meantime, there are at least 100,000 missiles staring down Israel from the Jewish state’s north. On Nov. 11, the Israeli Air Force intercepted a drone that fell on the demilitarized zone just north of the Golan Heights. A day earlier, the BBC reported that Iran has established a new  military base just south of Damascus.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated unequivocally last Saturday, “We will not allow the establishment of a Shi’ite axis in Syria as an operating base.”

Watch this space. In the Middle East, one cannot play checkers or chess. The game is three-dimensional chess, where the loss of a pawn on one board affects the positioning of the knights, queens and kings on two other boards.

Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), which describes itself as an unabashedly pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.

Posted on November 15, 2017 and filed under Opinion, Israel, World.