The assassination of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri aide and former minister Mohamad Chatah in Beirut on December 27, is the latest in a series of attacks aimed at destabilising Lebanon and bringing it closer to the Syrian conflict. That Lebanon should witness this kind of spillover from the Syrian crisis is not surprising: Lebanon is host to several stakeholders in the Syrian conflict, and has often been a microcosm of regional political dynamics. Viewed through a regional prism, the assassination of Chatah is about more than internal Lebanese affairs alone.
Recently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime and Iran have felt empowered as they have both succeeded in asserting their political legitimacy due to international negotiations over Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear development programme. Perceived empowerment means fewer incentives for political compromise.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has been expressing frustration at both the trajectory of the Syrian conflict and the international community’s response to it. It perceives Iran’s and Syria’s anticipated international deals as further losses for its regional influence.
Lebanon stands – not for the first time – as an example of the tug of war that is redefining power relations in the region. Saudi Arabia’s allies in the country, March 14 Alliance, have been fragmented and weak, and the targets of a series of political assassinations that began with the killing of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. Their anticipation of a “victory” against the Assad regime in the summer of 2013, was thwarted by a change of direction in US foreign policy regarding military intervention in the conflict.
Iran’s allies, on the other hand, namely Assad’s regime and Hezbullah, feel that they are winning the day. Not only is Assad gaining militarily in Syria and politically as a result of the chemical weapons deal, Hezbullah also feels that its growing stature as an ally of Assad’s means the ability to assert itself politically in Lebanon. Iran, meanwhile, sees in negotiations with the United States a glimmer of hope in achieving global recognition for its position as a regional leader in the Middle East with a “legitimate” stake in other countries’ affairs.
Within Lebanon, current heated debates about forming a new cabinet of ministers – as the country has been without a government for several months – are witnessing a higher degree of stubbornness by Hezbullah. In a country where political contestation is generally a zero-sum game between winners and losers, compromise when someone is “winning” becomes a sign of weakness. And thus, Chatah’s assassination, as a key March 14 figure, can be seen as an attempt at putting political pressure on the anti-Assad coalition. It is also about political pressure on a regional scale, with Iran asserting itself in the face of Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian-Saudi contest is manifesting itself vividly in Syria, and now Lebanon is rising as the next geopolitical battleground for the two regional powers. As the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia becomes more acute, so do Lebanese political battles. With one side refusing to compromise and the other feeling vindicated, the elimination of a man widely perceived as a moderate (despite his open criticism of Hezbullah and Assad) can only push Lebanese political opponents towards further polarisation.
The same can be said about Iranian-Saudi relations. Chatah was the victim of this double polarisation. His assassination is, therefore, not just bad news for Lebanon, but for the Middle East region as a whole, signalling the dawn of an era of heightened tensions that are likely to turn even bloodier if Iran and Saudi Arabia continue along the same trajectory.
Lina Khatib is the director of Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Previously, she was the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.