Saudi Arabia's recent decision to launch the Islamic Military Alliance immediately prompted a plethora of both supportive and hostile reactions in Lebanon. The terrorism-fighting coalition supposedly includes Lebanon and 33 other countries, but excludes Iran, Syria and Iraq. Representatives of several countries said they were unaware they had been enlisted as coalition members when it was announced Dec. 15.
As some parties in Lebanon supported the step — such as the Future Movement, a Sunni force allied with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — others such as the pro-Iran Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement rushed to object. This deepened the already heated domestic division between pro-Iranian and pro-Saudi parties in Lebanon. It has also heated up the Lebanese political scene and weakened the government, in light of the different ministerial stances on the Saudi initiative.
Lebanon is still far from achieving a democratic debate that strictly focuses on its own national interests and not that of its sponsors, whether Iran or Saudi Arabia.
While some Arab and international countries such as Britain, Turkey and Egypt officially confirmed their support for the Saudi-led alliance — even Moscow announced that it would “examine” the Islamic military coalition — Lebanon failed to take a unified official stance regarding the initiative.
The Lebanese Foreign Ministry issued an official statement Dec. 15 saying it had "no knowledge of the topic and was by no means consulted.” The statement argued that what happened “impinges on both Lebanon and the Foreign Ministry prerogatives.”
However, the next day, Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam welcomed the initiative and said, “Lebanon is at the forefront of the confrontation with terrorism. Its army, forces and security apparatuses are fighting a daily battle against terrorist groups.”
Kataeb Party representative and Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi said Dec. 16, “Lebanon is a secular state that can join neither an Islamic nor a Christian coalition.”
Minister of the Displaced Alice Chabtini said in a Dec. 15 radio interview with Voice of Lebanon that she was not informed of “Lebanon's decision to join the military Islamic coalition.” Chabtini is a close associate of former President Michel Suleiman, a general who staunchly believes Lebanon needs to distance itself from regional conflicts.
Just a few hours after the coalition was announced, pro-Riyadh stances came in. Saad Hariri, leader of the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, said in a press release the “step is historic” and aims to confront a “political, security and intellectual dilemma threatening both the Islamic existence and the Islamic coexistence with the international community.” Hariri praised the Saudi leadership.
In a striking contrast, Hezbollah said Dec. 17 that the coalition was formed “hastily and in a suspicious way, which raises many questions.” Iran-supported Hezbollah, which accused Saudi Arabia of spreading "extremist and radical terrorist ideology," also questioned the kingdom's competence to lead the coalition.
This is a brief account of the stances that support either Saudi Arabia or Iran, in light of the conflict playing out in Yemen, Syria and Iraq between these two regional powers.
Regardless of that conflict, shouldn't Lebanon be interested in such a coalition, especially considering that terrorism is threatening the country once again? The explosion that rocked the southern suburb of Burj el-Barajneh on Nov. 12 is convincing evidence of this threat.
Hezbollah, the most critical opponent of the initiative, is the most vulnerable to the threat, be it in its battles in Syria or in the bloody bombings targeting its popular strongholds like those that took place in Haret Hreik in December 2014, or Bir el-Abed in July 2013.
Gen. Khalil Helou, a retired Lebanese army officer, told Al-Monitor it would not be wise to ignore the Saudi initiative. Given Lebanon’s state of war with terrorism, he said it would be in the country's best interest “if Saudi Arabia spearheaded this confrontation," especially considering Saudi Arabia’s Sunni, Druze and Christian allies in Lebanon. Amid boiling sectarianism and Sunni extremism, Helou noted that Saudi Arabia represents moderate Sunnis.
According to Helou, there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia aims to stop the Islamic State from mobilizing Sunnis. So far, IS has exploited the Sunni feeling of suppression and marginalization. (It is worth noting that the suicide bomber who conducted the Jabal Mohsen attack on Jan. 10 was a Sunni Lebanese recruited by IS.)
“Only a Sunni power can confront the Sunni extremist forces. Any other method will only deepen the sectarian turmoil and pave the way for an extremist wave,” Helou said.
The military expert concluded by saying that being hostile to Saudi Arabia and launching campaigns against it is not appropriate, especially since the Saudis in January 2014 offered the Lebanese army $3 billion to buy weapons. Nearly $1 billion has already been spent, Helou said, adding, “Coordination with Saudi Arabia is a must.”
Helou may be right. Perhaps Lebanon ought to coordinate with Saudi Arabia, given the latter’s support and its efforts in confronting the common threat. Add to this that Saudi Arabia exemplifies Sunni moderation.
However, if full commitment to the coalition might be deemed as a bias toward Saudi Arabia in light of the growing Saudi-Iran conflict, then a third, purely Lebanese, option ought to be considered: Lebanon should fully coordinate with the Islamic military coalition without joining it, in accordance with the principle of neutrality that guarantees Lebanon’s stability.
Will someone bring this option to the table?