Many of the problems of today’s Middle East stem from one act – the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. But it wasn’t the assassination itself which caused these problems, but the blame game afterwards. A charade is still being played out which is designed to detract attention from the real issues – and like most such charades, it is also designed to prevent those who know about the real issues having any voice, because what they have to say is too unpleasant for the people that matter to hear.
So when we hear a lot of noise about an issue, we always have to ask what we are not hearing, and why. Who is not being blamed, who is not being talked about? If we dig into this we see that the Hariri assassination is still being used to cover a multitude of sins – or rather, one particular sin which has the force of a great number.
The usual suspects
The West, and Israel in particular, were quick to blame Iranian-backed Hezbollah members for the assassination. Of course they did. Hezbollah is on the opposite side, but in Lebanon, which is supposed to be pro-Western, it is not considered a terrorist group but a legitimate political organisation, nation, at least on an official level. We are led to believe that Lebanon effectively murdered its own Prime Minister by refusing to condemn or remove Hezbollah, and that future Western support is dependent upon Lebanon doing this.
But that is too simple an explanation.Many other factors are involved: relations between the Arab and Western worlds, maintaining a delicate balance with sectarian political parties within Lebanon itself, supporting Israel’s attempts to gain regional hegemony and most of all — removing the one person who would be able to talk about things others don’t want said, as he would have a coalition at his back with feet in all camps, and could raise issues without automatically putting himself on the wrong side.
We are reminded of the famous line in the film Casablanca, “round up the usual suspects”. The context of this was a scene in which the Nazi Major Strasser is shot by Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine. Vichy French Police Chief Renault has witnessed the shooting, but saves Rick’s life by telling police arriving on the scene to “round up the usual suspects”, who can conveniently be blamed for anything.
Though the film then ends with its famous exit line, it also makes clear that the story of its characters goes on. Indeed it has: the scene has merely been transformed to Lebanon.
This is the one country on earth which insists that its longstanding internal divisions are a good thing, and should not be subsumed under a notion of “common interest” imposed from without. Having suppressed their own minorities in various ways, Western countries never tire of stating that allowing every ethno-religious group a voice is a bad thing, simply to justify their own actions. This makes Lebanon itself, and every person within it, the usual suspect.
The unreal suspects
As previously discussed in NEO, Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated as part of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which they have to fight in Lebanon because the West is happy to allow that to promote its own anti-diversity agenda. If they fought each other directly, on their own territory, the West would intervene. If they fight in Lebanon this suits the Western narrative, so that’s all right in geopolitical terms.
That conflict continues today. Hariri’s son Saad is the present Lebanese Prime Minister. On November 4th he suddenly resigned whilst on a trip to Saudi Arabia. It was widely reported that this resignation had been forced by Saudi pressure – the Kingdom thought it would be “torpedoing his coalition deal with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies, using its influence over the Sunni leader to cause trouble for the thorn in the side Shi‘ite group supported in part by Iran.”
In the end, the younger Hariri was kept in power to achieve the same thing, a more diplomatic way of giving the Saudis the upper hand. But although it is obvious that the anyone who sets themselves against Iran, which the West has never forgiven for catching it napping in 1979, will be supported by the West, the ongoing support for Saudi Arabia is raising increasing questions in Western capitals. Bashing the enemy isn’t enough in itself. Western allies need to be capable of being presented as respecting Western values: and this is becoming increasingly more difficult in the case of Saudi Arabia.
The West seems incapable of understanding that countries which do things differently are often perfectly happy doing so. The authoritarian Saudi monarchy is not going to be influenced by Western concepts of democracy, and the West has had to learn not to bother trying to impose them if it wants to be competitive in the oil markets. But it is not so easy to overlook the human rights record of the Saudi regime. Whatever the economic and political benefits of supporting such a government, there will always be many who ask: what are we doing in bed with these guys?
This, in itself, has not disturbed the unhealthy Western-Saudi relationship. So there is a reason why that continues. No one is giving that reason, or at least with any credibility. This means the reason is something no one dare say. Are there any clues as to what that might be?
The unmentioned suspects
Saudi Arabia leads a nine-nation coalition which is engaging in the Yemen conflict in support of the Hadi forces. This intervention has always been presented as another dimension of the Saudi-Iran conflict, on the grounds that Iran supports the opposition Houthis. However even the US has now admitted that although Iran might support the Houthis in principle, it is not controlling them as a proxy force.
So what are the Saudis actually doing there, now the conflict has moved far beyond a Houthi versus Hadi standoff? Back in 2015 there was considerable speculation about one particular incident in the conflict – a mushroom cloud which appeared after a Saudi bombing raid. It was suggested this might be from a nuclear bomb. The Saudis themselves denied this, and the explanation they gave, that it was the result of a strike on a weapons store, is more credible to many. But something about that doesn’t add up either.
When bombs go off, everyone immediately rushes to judgment due to the psychological effect of the blast. We feel a need to control things by saying we have all the answers. This is why the same list of assumptions is initially made at these times: that’s what we know, so that’s what we want to believe to keep us safe.
Journalist Rumwold Leigh remembers the pub bombing in his native Birmingham in 1974. He has pointed out that in that particular case, but no other in the extensive bombings campaigns which followed, it was immediately assumed that the bombers were members of the large local Irish community, not renegades who had infiltrated from elsewhere. Six local Irishmen were subsequently jailed for the crime on fabricated evidence, which eventually led to their release. But no one since has been prosecuted in connection with the crime, and the records relating to it have been sealed until everyone mentioned in them is dead.
The allegation that the mushroom cloud from the Saudi airstrike is evidence of a nuclear bomb being dropped is in the same league as claims that the Birmingham bombers must be local and that NHS reform must be about structure and money. If you state the seemingly obvious, everything else you might see becomes part of this obvious.
The Saudis may not have dropped a nuclear bomb in that particular raid, but if you suggest they did, that associates nuclear bombs with that raid. You don’t look elsewhere for evidence of Saudi nuclear activity in Lebanon – which, as our colleague Seth Ferris has pointed out, was probably taken over by the US to supply arms to terrorists rather than any other reason. If the Saudis are testing nuclear devices in the Yemeni deserts this would go a long way to explaining why Western countries are still in league with it, and don’t want a rival power centre, with no need to keep quiet, emerging in Lebanon or anywhere else.
The obvious suspects
The US is one of eight states known to have successfully detonated nuclear devices. Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, but has not confirmed or denied this. Saudi Arabia is not in either category. If it were, what would happen?
Israel’s presumed possession of nuclear weapons is its trump card in the Middle East. If Saudi Arabia has them too, whether homegrown or donated, this threatens Israel’s position considerably. However it also affects the positions of those Arab countries and groups which are opposed to Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis have been allowed, by their US allies, to gain nuclear capability the big winner is Hezbollah – a group which has long used violence, but also has a mainstream political base within Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia is screaming that there is a concerted effort byboth Iran and Hezbollah to provide military support to the Houthis. It is thereby admitting that Hezbollah is involved in Yemen, and knows what’s going on. If a terrorist group claimed its rivals possessed nuclear weapons, and used this to justify its own offensives, this would be seen as pure self-justification. But if a political group, part of a recognised governing coalition of mainstream parties, said it?
The Saudis have experienced blowback over the stunt with Saad al-Hariri. They can expect further blowback if they have developed nuclear capacity. That is why they have to keep the blame game going, and why the West has to help them. That is why they have to allow people to think that the 2015 mushroom cloud was nuclear. If so, that’s how you identify nuclear activity, not by looking at what is happening behind the front line, in the black holes those billions of dollars of US equipment vanished into.
Whoever murdered Rafik al-Hariri back in 2005 is dirtier than their opponents. Every other allegation about who is what is the Middle East is referred back to the claims and counterclaims surrounding this event. There must be a good reason why. Maybe we now know what that is.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.