The past six years have seen some of the most widespread and tragic devastation in the history of the modern Middle East. War and political instability have ravaged Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. Remarkably, the small nation of Lebanon has mostly weathered this storm despite sharing a long border with Syria. But recent events have threatened to light the tinderbox of sectarian tensions that has been the hallmark of Lebanon's seventy year history. Just last week, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, traveled to Saudi Arabia and was allegedly pressured to resign by the Saudi government. It's a complicated mess, but this week we'll try to make sense of it all.
Modern day Lebanon is located just north of Israel and west of Syria in the heart of the Middle East. For centuries, the region contained a wide mix of various religions and ethnicities. Most of the time, these different groups got along well enough despite a variety of Muslim, Christian, and secular rulers. The Ottoman Turks ruled over the region for several centuries until the pivotal events of the First World War. The British and French together carved up much of the former territory of the defeated Ottomans and ruled over it as part of the Mandate system. The large area known as Greater Syria was split up into modern day Syria and Lebanon at this time. This was done in large part because Lebanon contains a sizeable Christian population (known as Maronites) and Syria wanted to try to preserve the dominance of that particular group.
They succeeded in this plan by helping to install Lebanon's "confessional" system of government. As we mentioned earlier, Lebanon is a crowded melting pot of numerous different religions and political groups. There are Sunnis and Shia of course, but also Maronite Christians and a separate monotheistic faith known as the Druze. All of these groups would need some sort of political accommodation in order to coexist. The confessional system essentially ensures that each of these groups would share political power and recognition. It states that the democratically elected president would always be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of Parliament would always be a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister would always be a Sunni Muslim. Throughout the decades, Lebanon has had to contend with devastating civil wars, military conflicts involving Israel, an occupation by the Syrian military, assassinations, and a massive wave of hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Palestinian refugees. But one of the biggest players in the current struggle for stability is Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is a militant Shia organization that also holds a very strong political showing in Parliament. Their strongest concentration is in the south of the country (where they have engaged in hostilities with Israel) and the eastern coast with Syria (where they have worked to support the Shia president of Syria Bashar al-Assad). They also have substantial ties to the Shia nation of Iran, which is part of what makes the current conflict so concerning.
Ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 (and even before then in some cases), Iran and Saudi Arabia have viewed each other with open contempt and hostility. Part of this is religious, since Saudi Arabia claims to be the authority on Sunni Islam, while Iran claims authority on Shia Islam. But just as much of this is simply about regional power dynamics (one side wants to control the other). Almost all of the major conflicts happening in the Middle East now have some basis in this Sunni-Shia split. There are certainly many local and regional reasons why conflicts have started in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya that had less to do with religious tensions. But Saudi Arabia and Iran have been dramatically playing up the Sunni-Shia aspect in order to gain more influence over the situation. Each views the other as meddling in regional affairs, and views the dominance of one as a death sentence for the other. It's a recipe for regional disaster.
Remarkably, Lebanon had mostly stayed out of this sectarian nightmare until recently. This may be due in part to the lessons learned from their own bloody civil war from 1975-1990. But now, it appears that Saudi Arabia is looking to influence the region via the Sunni Prime Minister. Hezbollah has gained quite a bit of power in Lebanon throughout the 2000s and into the current decade. Rather than confront Hezbollah directly, Prime Minister Hariri instead struck a deal with the militant group to help prevent the outbreak of even more war. Saudi Arabia, believing Hezbollah to be just another tool of the Iranian government, certainly didn't like that.
The latest incident is one in a series of events that threaten to pull Lebanon into direct conflict. Earlier this month, a missile was launched from Yemen at Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh. The missile was allegedly launched by Hezbollah fighters under the direction of the Iranian government. And now, part of Lebanon's political future hangs in the balance as Saudi Arabia seems to be pressuring Hariri to resign. If Saudi Arabia began directly influencing the politics of Lebanon, it is nearly certain that Iran would try to do the same. In that case, there is little reason to believe that Lebanon would remain stable for long.
So what's next? It's clear that Iran and Saudi Arabia are determined to tear everything apart in their attempt to dominate the region over one another. There are many points of potential conflicts in Lebanon (Sunni vs. Shia, Christian vs. Muslim, Israel vs. Hezbollah), so some level of violence is becoming more and more likely. One such scenario would involve Israel reigniting its war with Hezbollah to attempt to drive out the perceived Iranian influence. In an ironic twist, this would mean Saudi Arabia, Israel, and possibly even the United States would end up in an sort of unspoken alliance against Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Hezbollah would have the support of Iran, possibly Turkey, and certainly Russia. Though direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is still extremely unlikely, this path has all the makings of a major proxy battle between global powers. As always, this just means more pain and suffering for the people of Lebanon and the greater Middle East.