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Saudi Arabia’s call for international coalition against Hezbollah faces obstacles

A Saudi politician called for the establishment of an international coalition to confront Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a suggestion that did not garner much support, namely in Europe.
Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah party parade to mark the last day of Ashura ceremony in Beirut, Lebanon October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Aziz Taher - RC1894733A70

Saudi Arabia appears to be trying to take the confrontation with Hezbollah to a whole new level by calling for an international coalition against the Lebanese movement.

In a tweet Oct. 8, Saudi Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan wrote, “The solution is to form a strict international coalition to confront [Hezbollah] and those who work with it in order to achieve regional peace and security.”

This comment received a quick response from Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, just hours later during a speech to commemorate Hezbollah commander Ali al-Asheq and Hezbollah member Mohammad Nasreddine, both of whom were killed recently in clashes with Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria.

“Regional peace and security can be achieved when Saudi Arabia stops backing Wahhabi groups,” Nasrallah said. “Saudi Arabia is preventing security and peace in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and Pakistan.”

Just days after the Saudi minister of state called for an international coalition against Hezbollah, US officials took a similar stance.

During an Oct. 10 press conference, US counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales criticized the European Union, which distinguishes between Hezbollah’s “political wing” and its “military wing.” Sales described this as a false distinction and said that the European stance curtails the efforts of other governments against Hezbollah, emphasizing at the same time that “the United States will need allies in this fight.”

Sales also announced a $7 million reward for any information leading to the capture of Talal Hamieh, whom Washington says leads Hezbollah’s “international terrorism branch.” He also announced a $5 million reward on Fouad Shukr, another senior member of Hezbollah.

Hamieh is reportedly the head of Hezbollah’s foreign operations and is said to have carried out secret internal and external missions for the Lebanese movement. Shukr, meanwhile, is described as a senior Hezbollah operative and is accused by Washington of playing a central role in the attacks on the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983, which killed 241 US servicemen.

According to Emile Nakhleh, who served as the director of the political Islam strategic analysis program at the CIA, Washington’s interests, however, do not lie in joining with Riyadh to mount such an escalatory campaign against Hezbollah.

In an interview with Al-Monitor conducted via email, Nakhleh warned, “The Saudi escalation does not reflect a coherent long-term strategy, either toward Lebanon or toward Iran.” He added, "[Therefore] the United States should be careful not to get involved in another Saudi adventure in the region similar to the bloody war in Yemen.”

But even if Saudi Arabia’s plans for Hezbollah do have US backing, the formation of an international front against the Lebanese movement faces numerous challenging obstacles. One of them lies in the fact that the clear and present danger for European countries, for instance, comes not from Hezbollah but from groups such as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, whose ideology stems from Wahhabism, the Islamic doctrine practiced in Saudi Arabia.

Countries such as France, Britain and Germany have all fallen victim to the terrorism of these groups, and European officials have even gone as far as to openly accuse Saudi Arabia of financing extremism by spreading Wahhabism.

In December 2015, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned, “Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia” and “many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany.”

More recently, prominent think tanks in European countries have also rung the alarm bells regarding the danger posed by Wahhabism.

In a report released in July, the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, accused Saudi Arabia of being the most prominent funder of extremism in Britain, claiming that Saudi Arabia funded institutions and preachers that played a role in the radicalization of many Britons who joined the ranks of terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

“Many people in Europe understand that almost all of the recent terror attacks plaguing the continent emanate not from Hezbollah or other Shiite groups, but from largely Saudi-financed and inspired Sunni extremists such as IS and al-Qaeda,” Charles Shoebridge, a British security analyst and former UK counterterrorism intelligence officer, told Al-Monitor.

He added, “In most cases, European foreign policy chiefs aren’t as receptive to this pro-Israel, pro-Saudi, anti-Iran line as their US counterparts.”

Another factor that impedes the formation of an international anti-Hezbollah alliance is the presence of UN peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL.

European countries such as France, Italy and Spain all have a sizable troop presence in UNIFIL, with Italy itself contributing 1,070 troops. Indonesia, meanwhile, which is the world’s largest Muslim nation, contributes 1,295 troops, making it the largest troop contributor to UNIFIL. The fact that these countries operate in the pro-Hezbollah environment of southern Lebanon makes it all the more unlikely they would get on board with any plans to form a multinational front against Hezbollah.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Beirut-based journalist Nicholas Blanford, the author of a book on Hezbollah titled “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel,” said, “Force protection is a major issue for the countries contributing troops to UNIFIL. There is a potential for backlash against these troops if their countries were to join an international anti-Hezbollah alliance.”

In the meantime, the domestic situation in Lebanon still appears under control despite the Saudi-American escalation against Hezbollah. The parliamentary bloc of the Lebanese Future Movement, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, issued a statement Oct. 10 condemning Nasrallah’s response to Riyadh.

But besides this statement, there is no indication of rising tensions between Saudi Arabia’s allies in Lebanon and Hezbollah, at least not for the time being. Hezbollah has not responded to the Future Movement's statement, while Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is also the leader of the Future Movement, has refrained from making any escalatory comments against Hezbollah.

Both sides also continue to be represented in a national unity government led by Hariri and the priority for now appears to be the ongoing functioning of this government, especially as it prepares for Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled to be held in May 2018.

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