The Saudis Turn Up the Heat on Hezbollah

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Iranian protesters hold pictures of prominent Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration against the execution of al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, at Imam Hussein square in Tehran January 4, 2016. Hezbollah called the Saudi Shiite leader a martyr, whose martyrdom presaged the coming collapse of the House of Saud. The Saudi Ministry of the Interior blamed Nimr for encouraging terrorism and the secession of the Shiite-majority Eastern Province from the Kingdom. Raheb Homavandi/reuters

This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site.

The Saudis have initiated a major campaign to undermine Iran's ally Hezbollah, which they believe is vulnerable today. Riyadh is likely to have considerable but not complete success. It's a characteristically risky strategy.

The Saudis branded Hezbollah a terrorist organization earlier this year and then persuaded their Gulf Cooperation Council allies to do the same on March 2. Then Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef pressed a summit of Arab interior ministers to join in lambasting Hezbollah in Tunis in early March. The Arab League formally agreed to label Hezbollah a terrorist group at a Foreign Ministerial in Cairo later in the month. Only Iraq and Lebanon abstained.

Fall From Grace

It's a long way from when Hezbollah was hailed as the symbol of Arab resistance to Israel a decade ago. The Saudi leadership may have been privately critical of Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel, but the group was far too popular for fighting Israel with punishing missile strikes to tackle publicly. Hezbollah squandered its popularity with the Arab street over the course of the next decade.

The current Saudi campaign dates to last summer when the Crown Prince's spies captured the mastermind of the Khobar Tower attack. Ahmed Ibrahim al-Mughassil is a Saudi Shiite who masterminded the June 25, 1996, attack on an American military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia.

Mughassil was detained by the Saudis last August as he was exiting a flight from Tehran to Beirut and was transferred from Lebanon immediately to the kingdom. Nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel were killed at Khobar and 372 were wounded in the attack. The FBI put a $5 million bounty for information leading to his arrest years ago.

The FBI identified the bomb maker in the Khobar attack as a member of Lebanese Hezbollah, which Iran had connected with Mughassil. It is likely that Mughassil gave the Saudis considerably more details on Hezbollah's role in the operation after his detention. Mughassil also could detail the links between Iran, Hezbollah, and Saudi Shiite radicals.

Hezbollah's strong support for President Bashar Assad's regime also added impetus to Riyadh's determination to go after the group. Hezbollah has sent hundreds of fighters to prop up Assad and fight Syrian Sunnis backed by the Saudis.

Instead of defending Arabs from Israel, Hezbollah became Assad’s proxy in his brutal war against the Syrian people. Russia's intervention backing Assad this winter only added to Saudi determination to go after the weakest link in the Syrian-Iranian-Russian axis.

The Saudi war in Yemen is another factor. The Saudis have accused Hezbollah of assisting the Houthis in their bid to seize control of Yemen. When it began the war a year ago, Riyadh's worst nightmare was that the Houthis would become a Yemeni version of Hezbollah, an Iranian ally controlling a state on Saudi Arabia's southern frontier. Saudi spokesmen today argue that the war has at least prevented that from happening.

Hezbollah's angry denunciation of the Saudi execution of Nimr al Nimr in January was the final link. Hezbollah called the Saudi Shiite leader a martyr, whose martyrdom presaged the coming collapse of the House of Saud. The Saudi Ministry of the Interior blamed Nimr for encouraging terrorism and the secession of the Shiite-majority Eastern Province from the Kingdom.

Come Join the Bandwagon

Since the Arab League statement listing Hezbollah as terrorists, the Saudis have encouraged their Gulf allies to expel Lebanese emigres accused of having connections to the group. This promises to further polarize the Lebanese community in the Gulf between Shiites and other sects, Sunni and Christian.

Riyadh is likely to start pressing the Europeans to brand Hezbollah as a terror group. The Europeans have long argued that only the military wing of Hezbollah is terrorist and exempted the political party from sanctions. Israel has argued this is a dubious splitting of hairs since the party controls the fighters.

Riyadh has much more clout in Europe than Jerusalem. London and Paris are desperate to keep their lucrative arms sales relationships with Riyadh. They also need Saudi help to fight jihadist terrorism. If Riyadh presses hard, the Europeans will find it difficult to resist.

It's still unclear how far the Kingdom will push its case against Hezbollah. The risk is too much pressure will destabilize Lebanon. The current Saudi leadership is much more risk prone and unpredictable than its predecessors.

King Salman and his top aides want to deliver hard blows to Tehran—and for them, striking Hezbollah is a good way to do it.

Bruce Riedel is director, The Intelligence Project, and senior fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. Riedel joined Brookings in 2006 after 30 years service at the Central Intelligence Agency including postings overseas in the Middle East and Europe. Riedel was a senior adviser on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House.

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