Fight or Flight?

Gloria Center -11/12/2010

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.

On one 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 Beirut.

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 surrender.

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 backing.

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 subsequently happened.

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 Lebanese government.

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.

Hence the concessions subsequently made by the Saudi’s March 14 clients in the Doha negotiations – including the ceding of veto power over government decisions to Hizbullah.

WHILE THe Saudis’ talents as fighters and organizers appear modest from this episode, the clarity of their analysis is once again very impressive.

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 decoration.

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 Hariri.

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.

It 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.

These threats 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 weakest points.

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.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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