Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in remarks published in Al Akhbar, a newspaper friendly to the party, has made a strong attack on Saudi Arabia, accusing it of behind the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as Al-Qaeda in Yemen. In the most damaging remark, he accused Saudi Arabia of being akin to Israel in serving US interests in the Middle East. He declared that it was Saudi Arabia who ‘killed us’ during the party's 2006 war with Israel, and argued that since that time the Al-Saud family, together with Israel and the US, have been conspiring to overthrow the regime in Syria. ‘The Wahhabi danger is an existential threat to the region’, he declared, referring to the brand of Islam particular to Saudi Arabia. He listed a series of conflicts from Iraq to Pakistan involving takfiri (referring to Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostacy) extremist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, which he accused Saudi Arabia of funding and directing.
This is not the first time that Hezbollah's leader has referred to a 'US, Zionist, takfiri conspiracy'. Hezbollah's discourse has undergone a notable evolution since the outbreak of the war in Syria, in which the party is now fighting on the side of the Assad regime. Founded in the 1980s as a resistance group against Israel's occupation of south Lebanon, Hezbollah now primarily presents itself as a defender of Lebanon and the wider Muslim community against groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. By referring to 2006, Nasrallah has drawn a link with the sharpest war with Israel in recent years. Ironically, the Blue Line with Israel seems more secure now than at any point since that year.
To explicitly accuse the Al-Saud family of being in league with Israel and the force behind Sunni extremism across the Muslim world is a rare, incendiary statement. Nasrallah's vitriol against Saudi Arabia may have been in response to ongoing accusations by Saudi officials that Hezbollah is involved in a campaign against it in Yemen, including an unofficial claim by a Saudi prince made on 6 October that Saudi forces had captured Hezbollah and Iranian agents in Yemen.
In the same speech last Tuesday, Nasrallah ventured his assessment that no solution to the political crisis in Lebanon will be found soon because ‘everyone is waiting on the regional situation to make their choices’. This assessment is widely shared in Lebanon. Politicians and factions backed alternately by Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds over the appointment of a new president, which the country has been without for 15 months, as well as over other major governmental posts. Many in Lebanon believe that neither side will be ready to make the necessary compromises for a political agreement until there is some indication of whose patron has ‘won’ the proxy battle in Syria: Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Nasrallah's own tirade against Saudi Arabia is a prime example of the increasingly polarized sectarian environment in the region, which is indeed likely to prevent a breakthrough in Lebanon's political crisis. Tensions between the two regional powers have escalated even further recently due to the clash of words over the tragedy during the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, which Iran and Hezbollah have strongly criticized and called for an investigation to be opened.
Relative stability has persevered throughout Lebanon's political crisis, and no faction in the political leadership has an interest in security breaking down. Incendiary language of the type displayed in Nasrallah's speech last week, however, runs the risk of sparking – perhaps unintentionally – a violent response from precisely the Sunni extremist elements he vilifies. Meanwhile, a growing number of Lebanese are fed up with the rules of the game in their country: sectarian, patron-based politics and a culture of impunity for elite corruption have left little space for good governance. In his speech Nasrallah claimed that these grievances are valid, but argued that there is no time for ‘internal debate’ while regional battles are ongoing. However, the current regional environment and Hezbollah's own sectarian rhetoric demonstrate that to wait for an external solution to Lebanon's problems could prove too dangerous.
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