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Saudi Arabia has announced the suspension of four billion dollars in military aid to Lebanon after weeks of escalating tension between Riyadh and the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah, which has been fighting Saudi-backed rebels in Syria. Hezbollah has been accused of having hijacked Lebanon’s government, leading to the resignation of one of its ministers. Riyadh is also said to be angered by the refusal of a Lebanese delegation to support resolutions against Iran, Hezbollah’s backer. The news of the military aid suspension has drawn varied responses from across the Lebanese political spectrum, adding yet another complication to what is already a very complex political and security challenge.
News of the resignation of the Lebanese justice minister has been reported widely across the region by both the Associated Press and the Reuters, both of which noted that “Lebanese justice minister Ashraf Rifi announced his resignation from the cabinet on Sunday, accusing the militant Hezbollah group of dominating the government. Mr Rifi has been one of Hezbollah’s harshest critics in Lebanon and his resignation came two days after Saudi Arabia halted deals worth US$4 billion (Dh14.7bn) aimed at equipping and supporting Lebanese security forces. Mr Rifi also blamed Hizbollah and its allies for the country’s political crisis, which has left it without a president for 21 months and paralyzed state institutions.”
The resignation, the suspension of the military aid, has drawn a number of reactions from across Lebanon’s political and sectarian division. According to Lebanon’s Yalibnan “Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea on Sunday saluted Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi over his resignation from his cabinet post, noting that ‘someone had to take a stance’ in light of the latest row with Saudi Arabia and the developments in Michel Samaha’s case....Asked why he has allegedly focused his criticism on Hezbollah without referring to Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil in the current row with Saudi Arabia, Geagea warned against getting entangled in ‘petty details.’”
The opposition 14 March website also posted a statement by Mr. Geagea calling on the Lebanese government to “convene in session ‘in order to officially request Hezbollah to stop attacking Saudi Arabia,’ Lebanese Forces Commander, Samir Geagea stated during a press conference on Saturday in the wake of Saudi Arabia's decision to stop the aid to the Lebanese Army and Security Forces. A high-ranking delegation must go to Riyadh in a bid to convince the Saudis to resume their aid, Geagea added. ‘Saudi-Lebanese relations had been notably at their best during Bachir Gemayel's election as President let alone, the monarchy's reconstruction campaign in the wake of July 2006 war on Lebanon,’ Geagea went on.”
Former Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, according to Naharnet, signaled a hardening of the March 14 movement’s stance should the government not act quickly to address the situation: “Al-Mustaqbal movement leader ex-PM Saad Hariri on Sunday pledged to escalate his rhetoric if the government does not take a ‘clear stance’ regarding the latest row with Saudi Arabia over Hezbollah’s policies and Lebanon's diplomatic positions....’We were clear on the dissociation issue, but today it is no longer permissible for Lebanon to be outside the existing Arab consensus,’ he added. ‘The cabinet has to take a clear stance tomorrow, otherwise we will use a different language,’ Hariri warned.”
Judging from statements posted on the Al Manar website, Hezbollah has shown little desire to accommodate the March 14 or Saudi demands, instead suggesting that the Saudi decision was financial, not political: “Hezbollah noted that the entire world knows that KSA suffers from a severe financial crisis due to its war on Yemen and involvement in the conspiracy of slashing the oil prices. ‘This financial crisis has led to an unprecedented austerity measures inside the kingdom and deactivation of financial commitments with many of the Saudi and international companies.’...Hezbollah pointed out that the Saudi decision confirms the real stance of the kingdom which sponsors and funds terrorism and stirs seditions throughout the entire Islamic and Arab world.”
But as Arab News’ Ghazanfar Ali Khan points out, the Saudi move has been given a vote of confidence by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which “has strongly backed the Saudi decision, raising concerns it could have repercussions for thousands of Lebanese living and working in Gulf countries. The Saudi decision came after Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil declined to support Saudi resolutions against Iran during two major meetings of Arab and Muslim foreign ministers....In yet another blow, which may or may not be related to the ongoing tiff; the National Commercial Bank (NCB) of Saudi Arabia announced that it will close its branches in Lebanon.”
Meanwhile, in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Salman Aldosary compares the Saudi action to a much needed surgery for a patient that has been suffering for some time, despite the considerable efforts of its neighbors: “All Arabs know very well that Saudi Arabia has always been supporting Lebanon without regardless of the party; it supported the Shiites and Sunnis, the Christians and Muslims, and all the other religions and sects in Lebanon equally. In addition, to the Shiite regions destroyed by Israel in 2006 that were reconstructed by Saudi funds regardless of their opposing political stance towards Hezbollah....No country in the world accepts to be back-stabbed by a so-called ally, and no country in the world accepts to provide aids for a country that will use them in conspiracies targeting its peace and stability. Riyadh has been patient for so long now, and it found out that the only way to return Lebanon to the Arabs is by issuing this decision....No matter how difficult and shocking this operation is and no matter how catastrophic its results will be, it is thousand times better than leaving the situation in Lebanon the way it is since Lebanon’s capital nowadays is Tehran, not Beirut!”
Finally, the Khaleej Times editorial also blames the Lebanese political class and its unwillingness to free itself from the Iranian stranglehold: “Lebanon's failure to support Saudi Arabia was against the spirit of Pan-Arab consensus, and literally undermined the special relationship that both the countries have had all these years. Moreover, there are genuine concerns as far as the conduct of the Lebanese government is concerned, as it is seen acting as a proxy of Iran. While the Tehran-backed militia, Hezbollah, is part of the cabinet and the same is actively involved in Syria in supporting President Bashar Al Assad, it was more of a conflict of interest in the light of Saudi Arabia's stance over the dispute....While extremist outfits, including Daesh, were knocking on the doors of Lebanon, Riyadh thought it appropriate to buck up Beirut's line of defense so that it could be in a better position to ward off the fallout from Syria. But Lebanon is unresponsive, and even refused to sign Saudi-drafted resolutions condemning the attacks. Lebanon's shift towards Iran and its over-reliance on Hezbollah are likely to act as a destabilizing factor, and harm its relations with the Arab fraternity.”
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