Lebanese factions battle to control Yemen narrative

With tensions inflamed as the Saudi-led war in Yemen drags on, a fight for public influence is being waged in Lebanon.

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen''s Taiz city
Hezbollah and its allies are in the Iranian corner, while the Saudi-backed March 14 alliance firmly supports the Saudi-led coalition air strikes in Yemen [Getty Images]

Beirut – In a rally held to protest the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of being responsible for the emergence and growth of groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda.

“Where did the ideology of the groups that are destroying societies and countries come from? From which school of thought and books? From whose fatwas? Who is spreading this ideology across the world and building schools everywhere to teach Muslim youths this destructive takfiri ideology?” Nasrallah asked in his speech on Friday.

“Today, al-Qaeda and its branches – al-Nusra Front, ISIL, Boko Haram, al-Shabab – where did they all come from? Take a look at their books and ideology. Very clearly it is Saudi Arabia,” he said. On Yemen, Nasrallah added: “It is about time Muslims and Arabs told Saudi Arabia enough is enough.”

“What Hezbollah is doing now is definitely unprecedented,” Nicholas Noe, a political analyst with expertise on Hezbollah, told Al Jazeera. “It has never spoken this way on Saudi Arabia in public, and for decades it has been particularly careful not to attack the Saudi royal family, even if it’s been saying it privately for a while. This is the first time it’s ever gone this far [in its rhetoric].”

This signals Hezbollah’s belief “that  the Saudi project in the region is reaching a tipping point, and it seems to really believe that Saudi Arabia has gotten itself into a disastrous mistake that could lead to the undoing of the Saudi royal family,” Noe said. “It feels it is now more free to voice its opposition of the Saudis.”

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His third speech addressing the Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen, which have continued for more than three weeks, was also Nasrallah’s most aggressive. He declared that the Saudi regime had failed in its objectives in Yemen.

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Tensions in Lebanon have inflamed in recent weeks as the country is once again being used as an arena to wage a regional battle – this time over influence on the perception of the war in Yemen. Political heavyweight Hezbollah and its allies are in the Iranian corner, while the Saudi-backed March 14 alliance firmly supports the Saudi-led coalition strikes.

Anti-Iranian and anti-Hezbollah statements have been issued on a daily basis, from politicians to newspaper columnists. Saudi Arabia’s main beneficiary, the Future Movement, has accused Hezbollah of launching a “hatred storm” and “tarnishing Lebanon’s image”, saying Hezbollah was “turning a blind eye to clearly announcing its loyalty to Iran instead of the Arab nation”. Headlines have accused Hezbollah of attacking Arabs and serving Iranian interests, creating instability in Lebanon and threatening the livelihoods of Lebanese expats living in the Gulf.

As the war of words has played out, Hezbollah has been unusually blunt in its criticism of Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen, issuing repeated condemnatory statements to accuse Saudi of making a “historic mistake” and “massacring innocent civilians”. 

Ali Awadh Asiri, Saudi’s ambassador to Lebanon, has also waded into the fray, warning Hezbollah in an interview with a local news outlet to stay out of Yemen. “I do not believe Yemen is any of Hezbollah’s concern… Hezbollah is located in its own country, not in Yemen,” Asiri said, noting that Hezbollah’s “intervention”, both through media outlets and through its support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, was unacceptable.

What we can see is that all players involved in the regional struggle are invested in order to reach the maximum results that their sponsors wish to achieve.

by Rabie Barakat, political analyst and opinion editor of Assafir newspaper

In addition, Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Lebanon has announced plans to take legal action against the left-leaning daily al-Akhbar for its anti-Saudi coverage, and has criticised Tele Liban, Lebanon’s state news channel, for broadcasting an interview Nasrallah gave to a Syrian TV station, in which he criticised Saudi Arabia and its role in Yemen. March 14 politicians quickly apologised and condemned the channel, and Lebanon’s information minister offered an official apology on behalf of the channel.

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Rhetoric from March 14 has offended Iran’s leaders in the same way as Hezbollah has offended Saudi officials, revealing new parameters to the game, said Rabie Barakat, a political analyst and opinion editor of Assafir newspaper. “What we can see is that all players involved in the regional struggle are invested in order to reach the maximum results that their sponsors wish to achieve,” Barakat  told Al Jazeera.

While March 14 politicians and media supportive of the group lack the regional clout of Hezbollah, they still have a wide reach across the domestic scene, and have been eager to show how they believe Hezbollah’s rhetoric could lead to further instability in Lebanon . 

According to Noe, Hezbollah’s rhetoric demonstrates a level of over-confidence: “Iran and Hezbollah seem supremely confident that their power is ascendant in the region, and their opponents’ power is on the decline,” he said, noting this level of confidence “has innumerable risks”, including a lack of understanding of the potential implications of a collapse of the Gulf kingdom.

Still, while analysts agree that the barbs and accusations, particularly from Hezbollah, have been much more aggressive in recent days, it is unlikely this will lead to anything beyond the world of rhetoric.

“There is a form of regional consensus regarding maintaining stability in Lebanon,” Barakat said. “None of the regional players aim to push things forward towards a confrontation of force, so it’s much more likely that battle will remain within the limits of the media.” 

Source: Al Jazeera