1 of 3 | Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, standing in front of a portrait of his late father former premier Rafik Hariri, speaks during a news conference at his house in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday. Hariri announced his withdrawal from political life and he would not run in the parliamentary elections 2022. Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- The decision by Sunni leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to leave politics has confused Lebanon's political scene, increased fears of Sunni extremism amid a leadership vacuum and stripped Iran-backed Hezbollah of a "Sunni cover."
Pushing Hariri out is a "political mistake" that will plunge the country into the unknown, politicians and analysts told UPI.
Hariri came to power when he was chosen to succeed his father, Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a massive explosion that targeted his convoy on Feb. 14, 2005 in Beirut -- an assassination masterminded by Hezbollah. Saad Hariri's mission, he said, was to "prevent a civil war and secure a better life for the Lebanese."
A businessman with dual Lebanese-Saudi nationality like his slain father, Hariri didn't engage in politics until then, when he suddenly found himself the new leader of the Sunni community, heading an opposition first against the Syrian military presence in the country and then Hezbollah-Iran's growing influence.
During his 16 years in politics, Lebanon was constantly in turmoil, witnessing more killings of Hariri's supporters (including politicians, security officials and journalists); a war with Israel in 2006; growing Hezbollah influence; and an unprecedented financial crisis in 2019.
In his farewell speech Monday, Saad Hariri said he succeeded in preventing a civil war at the cost of accepting "settlements" imposed on him, including the election of Hezbollah's candidate, former Army commander Michel Aoun, as president in October 2016 after the post remained vacant for 29 months, and a controversial new election law.
His efforts to provide a better life for the Lebanese have failed, he said, although he submitted his resignation in response to the 2019 popular protest movement that accused him, along with other political leaders, of corruption and mismanagement that led the country to collapse.
"All these settlements came at my own expense," said Hariri, who heads the Future Movement, noting that he also lost his "personal wealth, foreign friendship [support] and many of his internal alliances, some friends and even brothers."
He made the decision to suspend his political activity and refrain from running in the parliamentary elections, scheduled for May, after he became "convinced that there is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon with Iranian influence, international confusion, national division, sectarianism and state weariness."
Abandoned by allies
Abandoned by his main supporter, Saudi Arabia, and his internal allies, Hariri became "almost isolated," said Fares Boueiz, who served as foreign minister from 1992 to 1998 in the Cabinet led by Hariri's father.
"No doubt, [Saad] Hariri realized that he was abandoned by his external and internal allies ... He was being asked to confront Hezbollah while he is isolated and deprived of any weapons," Boueiz told UPI. "There is some kind of unfairness: He is being punished for not facing Hezbollah directly... This is something bigger than Hariri and beyond his capability."
Solving the problem of the heavily-armed Hezbollah "should come from outside and cannot be from inside [Lebanon], otherwise the price will be a civil war" triggered by the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region, he said.
In saying he lost his "foreign friendship," Hariri came to the conclusion that Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia would not change its position and resume supporting him. The peak of their deteriorating relations came in October 2017 when he was briefly detained in Riyadh and forced to tender his resignation in a televised statement from his post as then-Lebanon's prime minister.
Pushing Hariri out of Lebanon's political life "is a political mistake" committed by Saudi Arabia, Iran's main regional rival, said Riad Tabbarah, Lebanon's former ambassador in Washington.
The Saudis "are weakening a Sunni component, the Sunni community, while they want to confront Hezbollah and Iran," Tabbarah told UPI. "This is not the way to solve the problems... They could have prepared someone to replace him [Hariri] and not leave the Sunni community totally."
Without cover from Saudi Arabia amid a Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region, Hariri would be simply "committing suicide" if he stayed in politics while all other Lebanese parties enjoy external support, Tabbarah said.
Mustafa Allouch, deputy head of the Future Movement, confirmed that part of Hariri's decision was motivated by Saudi Arabia's position and "lack of support."
"The equation will not change as long as Hezbollah maintains its weapons and is affiliated to Iran," Allouch told UPI, adding that Hezbollah benefited from Hariri's presence as "a legal cover to something illegal, meaning Hezbollah's illegal weapons."
Hariri's move fueled fears that his absence would further consolidate Hezbollah's influence in the country and pave the way for the emergence of Sunni extremism.
"I don't think Hariri's withdrawal from politics is in the interest of Hezbollah, which wants moderate Sunnism and not ISIS-like model," Tabbarah said, referring to the Islamic State, adding that Hezbollah is "the main loser."
Leaving the Sunnis frustrated and without a leader could have "grave consequences," leading to the emergence of extremist groups among their ranks and could lay the groundwork for a confrontation with the Shiites and consequently a civil war in the medium or long term, Boueiz said.
"I am afraid that those who are now happy and think that they can benefit from Hariri's pullout will regret that later on," he said. "Hariri used to avoid confrontation with Hezbollah ...He is a moderate and used to calm the Sunnis rather than inciting them."
Hariri's move was seen as a game changer and came at a time Kuwait Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah visited Beirut to deliver proposals coordinated with the Gulf states to mend a standoff with Lebanon and rebuild trust with the crisis-ridden country.
"I don't think it's a coincidence," Allouch said. "I think that there is something [going on] and Hariri's decision might be linked to that."
According to the 12-point Gulf initiative, Lebanon would cease to be a platform for hostile acts or verbal attacks against Gulf Arab states and avoid interfering in the internal affairs of Arab states, in a clear reference to Hezbollah. It also called on Lebanon to commit to the 1989 Taif accords that ended Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war and United Nations Security Council resolutions that call for disbanding armed militias.
Hezbollah will certainly reject such demands.
Riad Kahwaji, a Dubai-based Middle East security and defense analyst who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said, "It is now the time to strip the current regime in Lebanon of Sunni and Arab legitimacy."
Kahwaji said the Arab Gulf states are "in a serious showdown" with Iran that includes pushing Iran out of Arab states it has controlled over the past few years.
"They have opened diplomatic channels with Iran offering it an alternative route, but at the same time are pressing ahead hard on all other fronts," he told UPI. "So it is an escalating opposition with a clear message: no aid and support to Lebanon as long as Hezbollah rules through its arms...It is a new phase in Lebanon."