On the morning of November 10, it was announced that US President Donald Trump would not be holding an exclusive meeting with his Russia’s counterpart President Vladimir Putin during the APEC summit in Vietnam after all. This announcement came as a big surprise for Moscow, since previously both Putin’s aide Yuri Ushakov and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the meeting would take place. However, on Friday morning White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanderssaid noted that there would not be no special meeting between Putin and Trump due to “different schedules” during the summit. At the same time, Trump himself has repeatedly stated before the launch of his big Asian tour that he was eager to meet with the Russian leader since they had some matters to be discussed. The media has even received an agenda of the meeting that was devoted to Syria, North Korea and Ukraine. At first, one would have a hard time proposing an explanation for such an abrupt change of heart.
Still, there’s been a certain chain of events unfolding that help explain this mystery, events in a region where Russia and US are currently at great odds with one another – the Middle East.
It seems that Saudi Arabia is determined at this point to restore its influence over Lebanon, forcing pro-Western Prime Minister Saad Hariri to abandon his post during his stay in Riyadh. This decision was preceded by a leaked secret Israeli cable about a planned military conflict aimed at Lebanon seeking to provoke a clash between Hezbollah and the Sunni coalition that supports the now former Prime Minister of Lebanon. Then, on November 9, Riyadh and a number of the GCC countries alerted their citizens to leave Lebanon without a moment’s delay on the pretext that pro-Iranian forces have seized all power in the country.
It seems that Saudi Arabia, with a certain amount of assistance provided by Tel-Aviv, is planning to destabilize the region by plunging Lebanon into another bloody conflict. With Hariri claiming he will be assassinated upon his return home, while blaming all the troubles in Lebanon on the Hezbollah, the situation can quickly unravel at any moment.
Reuters’ unnamed high-ranking source in the Saudi government has confirmed that Riyadh ordered Hariri to resign, while putting him under arrest. Another source said that his movements are now restricted by Riyadh. Saudi Arabia would deny that it has put Hariri under arrest but would keep silent about the possible restrictions on his movements.
It goes without saying that upon urging its citizens to leave Lebanon, Saudi Arabia likely foresees and is planning conflict, even war erupting soon. Apparently, Saudi Arabia and its allies are preparing to launch attacks against Hezbollah’s positions in Lebanon, and quite possibly in Syria. Should Saudi warplanes begin attacking Lebanese-linked militias in Syria, they would soon be supported by Israel and American aircraft.
There is no doubt that such a development can bury the already precarious balance of power in the Middle East, opening the door to the unknown where no scenario can be ruled out. It seems that French President Emmanuel Macron was fully aware of this fact since he would make an urgent trip to Saudi Arabia in a desperate bid to hold last minute talks with Riyadh. After all, France has been a patron of the Christian and Sunni parts of Lebanon.
The situation that Hariri has got himself into reminds an impartial observer of yet another political leader forced into Saudi exile – former president of Yemen, Mansour Hadi.
Hadi would return to Yemen backed by Saudi-armed militants to violently suppress Shia rebels known as the Houthis, in spite of the fact that the latter managed to gain the support of the former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. And now Riyadh has a formal pretext for starting a war with Iran after its airport was allegedly targeted by a missile fired from Yemen, with Iran accused of supplying those missiles to the Houthis. Moreover, the actions Saudi Arabia has been taking against Yemen are not particularly legal in their nature, since it has imposed a blockade against the poorest state in the region cutting off vital food and other essential supplies, a constant concern at the UN as millions face disease and starvation.
However, the ultimate goal for Saudi Arabia is not Lebanon or Yemen, it’s Iran, while military aggression against other states is just a way of indirectly targeting Tehran. The reason is also quite obvious: the successes of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Iraq has allowed Iran greater influence through its “Shia crescent” policy across the region, which poses a direct challenge to the Arabian monarchies led by Saudi Arabia.
In truth, we’re witnessing a regional war in the making unlike previous proxy conflicts waged so far. The Saudi army and the troops of other GCC states are, without a doubt, possess unimpressive military prowess, but their enemy has exhausted its forces in Syria and Iraq, which leads Riyadh to the possible belief that it somehow can get an upper hand. The field of possible military operations is the same – Syria and now, quite possibly, Lebanon. The allies of Saudi Arabia are quite predictable as well, as both the US and Israel in some form or another will also seek direct war against Iran.
While the conflict has yet to start, the world must understand the implications if it does. Mohammed bin Salman seems determined to go all in, while Riyadh persistently suggests that foreign diplomatic missions leave Sana’s, which can indicate that two simultaneous strikes against Lebanon and Yemen are on the table.
But the worst case scenario will occur should Israel, under the guise of supporting Riyadh, decides to launch strikes against nuclear facilities deep in the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Then the war can get really ugly. And such a scenario cannot be ruled out. In addition, on the morning of November 10, Trump suddenly refused to meet Putin. Is that a signal? Moreover, all this falls into the grand strategy of the US nicely, one that can be briefly described as “to strangle Russia by any means possible.” Financial and economic steps haven’t been effective so far. What prevents Washington from trying a more extreme military scenario?
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”