by Paul R. Pillar
The record of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) as de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia has included a trail of regional destabilization. Foremost on this record has been an air war in Yemen that has turned that nation into a humanitarian disaster. Other entries on MbS’s foreign affairs resumé have included extraterritorial reprisals against domestic critics (most notably the murder in a consulate in Turkey of Jamal Khashoggi) and an attempt to foment a governmental crisis in Lebanon by detaining its prime minister and coercing him into a short-lived resignation.
Now the Lebanese-American journalist Hisham Melhem reports another attempt by MbS to destabilize Lebanon—one that, if successful, would involve nothing less than restarting the Lebanese civil war that raged from 1975 until the end of the 1980s. MbS reportedly tried to drum up interest in both Washington and Beirut in a scheme to arm the Lebanese Forces, the Christian-dominated Lebanese political party that, despite its name and its history during the civil war as a militia, has renounced violence and no longer has a military wing. The purpose of such arming would be to turn the party into a lethal opponent of Hezbollah. MbS failed to get support for his project, but that did not stop him from a parallel effort to interest Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in arming Palestinians in Lebanon to make them combatants in a fight against Hezbollah. Abbas politely rejected the proposal.
The Lebanese civil war had significant negative repercussions beyond Lebanon’s boundaries, including on U.S. interests. The world, the region, and the United States do not need that war to resume. External actors had major effects on the war, some positive. Saudi Arabia, then ruled by King Fahd, played a key role in brokering the power-sharing agreement, signed in the Saudi city of Taif, that brought most of the fighting in Lebanon to an end.
But the influence of other outside players was mostly negative. Israel’s seizure of all Palestinian territory in the Six-Day War in 1967 led the Palestinian leadership and resistance organizations to decamp to Lebanon. This contributed to upsetting an already fragile balance among domestic Lebanese political elements. The civil war got rolling with a Christian militia attack on Palestinians, after which the Syrians intervened. In 1978, Israel launched the first of a series of assaults in Lebanon. The Israeli campaign reached its furthest extent in 1982 in West Beirut, where Israeli forces provided cover for the massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The inability of previously existing Lebanese elements to resist the Israelis was a major factor in the birth of Hezbollah, with assistance from Iran, and in the rapid growth of the group’s domestic support.
The United States, along with France and Italy, entered this mess in late 1982 as a peacekeeping force. During that force’s unhappy tenure, suicide truck bombers destroyed the U.S. embassy and killed 241 U.S. Marines in their barracks.
MbS’s attempt to get this pot boiling once again leads to three conclusions. One is that as long as MbS is calling the shots in Riyadh, he and the regime he runs will continue to be a major destabilizing force in the Middle East—at least as much so as any other individual or government in a position to influence events there.
Second, this report underscores how misguided is the Trump administration’s obsession with Iran (an obsession so extreme that it has damaging effects far beyond the Middle East), along with its attribution of all misery in the region to Iran and its determination to go all-in with whoever—especially the Saudi regime—is gung-ho about confronting Iran. The administration’s campaign of unrelenting hostility toward Iran continues to rely on slogans and catchphrases about “destabilizing” or “malign” behavior far more than any careful attention to exactly who is doing what in the region. (Imagine how loudly the administration would be screaming if Iran were doing anything like what the Saudi regime has been doing in places such as Lebanon, Istanbul, or Yemen.)
The third conclusion concerns how the first two problems could come together. MbS has made some awful mistakes that do not advance his own regime’s objectives, but he is smart enough to exploit the dominant obsession in Washington. He may have failed so far to silence domestic critics, to subdue the Houthis in Yemen, or to rekindle the Lebanese civil war, but he can do other things that risk dragging the United States into armed confrontation with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival across the Persian Gulf.
In this connection, consider the latest lethal terrorist attack within Iran: a suicide car bombing last week in the southeastern port city of Chabahar. Iranian officials asserted Saudi involvement. They offered no evidence, but such involvement would be entirely consistent with other indications of the Saudi regime stirring up exactly this kind of trouble. MbS himself has talked about taking his fight “inside Iran,” and other evidence points to Saudi instigation of anti-Shia, anti-Iran elements among the Baloch population in the Iran-Pakistan border region. And MbS has a soulmate in the current U.S. national security advisor, John Bolton, who also has called publicly for assistance to non-Persian minorities inside Iran.