A Shiite fighter from Hezbollah and Amal movements takes aim with a Kalashnikov assault rifle amid clashes in the area of Tayouneh, in the southern suburb of the capital Beirut, on October 14. Photo by Jamal Eddine/ UPI | License Photo
BEIRUIT, Lebanon, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- Lebanon's Foreign Minister, Abdallah Bou Habib, has called on Saudi Arabia and Iran to include the issue of Hezbollah in their talks, saying the Iran-backed, heavily armed group is "a regional problem" that cannot be solved by his country.
Bou Habib emphasized that his country wants the "best relations" with the Saudi kingdom, and invited Riyadh to maintain its presence in Lebanon by strengthening its Lebanese allies and creating "a balance" instead of severing ties with the tiny country.
"The issue is about Hezbollah. ... It is a regional problem. It is not a Lebanese problem,' he said during a lengthy interview with UPI on Tuesday.
His comments came days after Saudi Arabia, angered by a Lebanese minister's critical comments concerning its military intervention in Yemen, decided to expel Lebanon's ambassador and ban its imports.
Saudi measures, which dealt a painful blow to ailing Lebanon, were backed quickly by some of its Gulf allies -- Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE, which recalled their own ambassadors from Beirut and asked Lebanon's envoys to leave.
Hezbollah and its growing influence and dominance in Lebanon has been a source of mounting tension between Beirut and Riyadh during the past years. Its support of Yemen's Iran-allied Houthi rebels was repeatedly denounced by Saudi officials.
"The Saudis and Iranians are talking. Let them talk about Hezbollah as they talk about the Houthis. ... They should discuss it themselves," Bou Habib said.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, long-time foes trading accusations of spreading instability across the Middle East, have been engaged recently in "serious, cordial and exploratory" talks to repair relations and ease tension in the region.
Asked about Hezbollah training Houthi rebels in Lebanon and helping operate their Al-Masirah TV situated next to Hezbollah's al-Manar TV in Beirut's southern suburbs, Bou Habib said "they [the Saudis] could be right."
"The Saudi Foreign Minister says it is about Hezbollah in Yemen. They asserted that Hezbollah is there. ... Maybe, I don't know," he said. "I am not criticizing [the Saudi foreign minister]. He probably is right that Hezbollah is helping the Houthis ... but we can't do anything against it. If they come and help, maybe gradually we can do something."
He maintained that Lebanon cannot solve the problem of Hezbollah, and that the Lebanese are determined not to go into a civil war again to deal with it.
"So, we are not able to solve it and a war will not solve it -- period," Bou Habib said. "Therefore, the only way to be sought is regional."
He disagreed, however, with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, who said last Sunday that Lebanon's main problem is Hezbollah's dominance of its political system.
"Lebanon is a pluralist society. Every constituent has strength and even a veto power. ... Hezbollah is one of them and cannot force the others like he wants," he said, referring to the group's failure to convincing its Shiite ally, House Speaker Nabih Berri who heads the Amal Movement, to vote for the election of its Christian ally, Michel Aoun, as president in 2016.
But analysts argue that Hezbollah's insistence on Aoun as the sole candidate for the presidency left the post vacant for 29 months until the other political forces submitted to its wish.
Bou Habib refused to describe the latest escalation between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon as "a crisis," saying "it is a problem because it is between two brotherly countries."
He called for dialogue to end the dispute, but if the Saudis "don't want to talk to us, we can plead but we don't beg."
He said Lebanon acted when Saudis complained this summer about the continuous smuggling of drugs after it seized millions of white amphetamine pills, known as Captagon, hidden in Lebanese fruit and vegetable shipments.
"We are working hard and seized drugs being smuggled to Saudi Arabia. ... But this is not enough," Bou Habib said, calling on the Saudi officials "to coordinate so we can control it better."
"Every mistake we did, we immediately tried to correct it," he said, also referring to last May's resignation of former Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe after he provoked the anger of Gulf states, which he blamed for the rise of the Islamic State.
Such measures fell short of convincing the Saudi leadership that saw Lebanon adapting Hezbollah's positions more and more. Hezbollah's expanding role in the region, coupled with harsh criticism and insulting remarks repeatedly voiced by its chief Hassan Nasrallah against Saudi Arabia over the past years, were at the heart of the problem.
Last week, remarks by Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi, describing Yemen's seven-year war as "futile" and saying that Houthi rebels were defending themselves against "external aggression, "were the straw that broke the camel's back and provoked Saudi new harsh measures that will cost Lebanon huge economic losses.
With all contacts ceased between the two countries, Lebanon awaits a possible mediation by Qatar, whose Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani promised to send his foreign minister to Beirut to help resolve the crisis during a meeting Monday with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the sidelines of the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
"Qatar today is friendly with Saudi Arabia and could possibly do something. What I know is that we want the best relations with [the Saudis]," Bou Habib said, referring to more than a quarter million Lebanese who live and work in the Saudi Kingdom, but expressing no readiness to compromise his country's "dignity and pride."
With the majority of Lebanon's Sunnis, Christians and Druzes and fewer than 50 per cent of the Shiites "like Saudi Arabia more than any other people in the region," Bou Habib said that Saudi Arabia, once Lebanon's main financial and political backer, should maintain "a strong presence" in the country.
"It is important that they be around, create a balance because ... they would be strengthening their friends and their allies and can have more influence than anybody else... more than the Americans, more than the French and more than the Iranians," he said. "Who has a better base to have influence in Lebanon? Saudi Arabia or Iran? [It is] Saudi Arabia."