E. B. Picali: Debate In Lebanon Surrounding Saudi Establishment Of Islamic Anti-Terrorism Alliance, Lebanon’s Inclusion In It


Debate In Lebanon Surrounding Saudi Establishment Of Islamic Anti-Terrorism Alliance, Lebanon’s Inclusion In It
By: E. B. Picali*
MEMRI/January 07, 2016 Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.1220

At a press conference on December 15, 2015 at 3:00 a.m., Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman announced the establishment of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, which includes 35 Arab and Muslim countries. He said that the alliance, which will be headquartered in Riyadh, is meant to coordinate these nations’ efforts to combat terrorism on the military, security, ideological, and media levels. Bin Salman stressed that every country would contribute according to its ability and that the alliance was geared towards combating all forms of terrorism and not just ISIS. Addressing Syria and Iraq, bin Salman said that the alliance could operate against terrorist groups in those countries, but only in coordination with their “legitimate” authorities (without specifically explaining what this refers to) and the international community.

Conversely, Saudi Foreign Minister ‘Adel Al-Jubeir said that the possibility of the alliance’s involvement in ground operations in Syria must not be ruled out, and did not mention anyone’s consent.[1]

Alongside Saudi Arabia, the alliance members include major regional Arab and Muslim countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Jordan, and Morocco. However, the notable absence of other important countries such as Iran, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, and Oman has created the impression that this is a Saudi attempt to establish an alliance against the resistance axis, which Iran leads, in order to invalidate Iran’s claims that its involvement in the Arab world is with the purpose of combatting terrorism. Another potential reason for establishing the alliance is the recent wave of withering international criticism against Saudi Arabia, accusing it of being responsible for the emergence of the radical ideology of terrorist organizations and for being their financial backer. It is possible that the establishment of the alliance is a Saudi attempt to prove to the international community that it combats, rather than produces, terrorism.

Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman announces the establishment of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (assawsana.com, December 15, 2015)

Much still remains unknown about the alliance. As of yet, it is unclear which organizations aside from ISIS fall under the definition of “terrorist organizations” that the alliance intends to combat. For example, does Hizbullah – which is on Saudi Arabia’s list of terrorist organizations – fall under this category? Additionally, as stated, it is unclear to what “legitimate” authorities in Syria the Saudi Foreign Minister was referring. Other matters that remain unclear are the alliance’s methods and means, its decision-making mechanisms, and more.

Another puzzling aspect is that the announcement of the alliance’s establishment came suddenly, in the middle of the night, without advance notice by the Saudi defense minister, and without the presence of representatives from other member countries. Moreover, reports indicate that some countries announced as members of the alliance, such as Pakistan and Indonesia, had no prior knowledge of this.[2]

Lebanon’s membership in the alliance is also a point of contention. While the Lebanese foreign ministry claimed to have had no prior knowledge of it, the office of Prime Minister Tammam Salam said that the Saudi declaration on Lebanon’s inclusion in the alliance came after a phone conversation between the Saudi leadership and Salam himself, in which the latter approved the initiative.[3] In fact, the announcement on Lebanon’s inclusion in the alliance sparked a fierce debate between the country’s pro-Saudi and pro-Iranian camps.

This report will focus on the responses in Lebanon to the Saudi announcement of its inclusion in the Muslim Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism: The sweeping support of pro-Saudi Lebanese elements, particularly the Al-Mustaqbal stream led by Sa’d Al-Hariri; the criticism and even threats on the part of pro-resistance axis elements, mainly Hizbullah; and the conflict between the two.

This Is An Alliance In Support Of Terrorism; Such Decisions Require The Consent Of The Government And Parliament

The Saudi announcement that Lebanon had joined its anti-terrorism alliance infuriated Hizbullah, especially since it is on Saudi Arabia’s list of terrorist organizations along with other groups supported by Iran such as Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi in Iraq and Ansar Allah in Yemen. It should be mentioned that the Lebanese daily Al-Safir cited a knowledgeable source who said that during talks in New York on the eve of the December 2015 ratification of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 for a political solution in Syria, a certain Gulf state demanded to include Hizbullah, the Lebanese Amal movement, and the Syrian Ba’th party on the list of terrorist organizations fighting in Syria.[4]

Hizbullah’s main grounds for opposing Lebanon’s membership in the alliance is that the decision on such a move requires government approval; that the alliance is actually meant to support terrorism rather than fight it, and that Lebanon’s participation would endanger the country’s stability and unity.

On December 17, several days after the Saudi announcement, Hizbullah issued a statement stressing its outright opposition to Lebanon joining the alliance, claiming that Prime Minister Salam had given his consent “of his own personal volition, which does not bind anyone, since no prime minister can enter into a military alliance… without the consent of the government and the approval of the Lebanese parliament.” The statement also added that due to these facts, Salam’s consent had “no legal, political, or practical meaning.”

Hizbullah’s statement also questioned the alliance and its true goals: “This [the establishment of the alliance] is merely the response of Saudi Arabia and other countries to an American decision… This alliance was formed quickly and suspiciously, which raises many questions, chief among them being how worthy is Saudi Arabia to head an anti-terrorism alliance, given that it is responsible for extremist terrorist ideology, which it continues to adopt and support throughout the world. Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia conducts state terrorism, as it did in Yemen, and that it supports terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and that some of its partners in this false alliance also support terrorism.”[5]

Similar comments were made by Hizbullah’s deputy secretary-general Sheikh Na’im Qassem, who said: “This alliance is meant to support terrorism, not combat it.” He added: “Lebanon will certainly not be a part of it, and we will certainly not agree to assist Saudi Arabia, which stands accused and guilty of terrorism, [just] in order to cover up its hypocrisy.” Qassem also said that “the age in which Saudi Arabia led countries to carry out its will has already ended.”[6]

Hizbullah MP Nawaf Al-Moussawi added: “There is a well-known constitutional mechanism in place to approve Lebanon’s joining the Islamic Alliance. Article 52 [of the Lebanese Constitution] determines that the president conducts negotiations and that the government [must] take a decision by a two-thirds majority and bring it to the approval of parliament. This means that [the process] must have three stages: The president, the government, and the parliament [but this decision did not meet those criteria].”[7]

Hizbullah Official: If This Alliance Was Established Against Us, They Should Beware Our Rage

The head of the Hizbullah bloc in the Lebanese parliament, MP Mohammad Raad, expressed total rejection “of Lebanon’s participation in such a suspicious alliance” and even claimed that “participating in it endangers Lebanon’s stability, unity, and security.” He wondered: “What terrorism does the Islamic Alliance wish to combat?” and added: “The terrorist organizations that received support from most Gulf states and from some of Lebanon’s political forces [i.e. the Al-Mustaqbal stream] are tied to the Gulf states.”

Raad warned the Saudi founders of the alliance, saying: “If they think resistance is terrorism and if they wish to establish this alliance against us, they should beware our rage. If the purpose of declaring this alliance is to beatify their image and whitewash the crimes they committed when they supported takfiri terrorist groups, it should [be stated] that they have not repented in any way.” He stated further: “Those who were involved in terrorism have no right to speak of terrorism…”[8]

Al-Mustaqbal Stream: Since When Does Hizbullah Consider The State’s Opinion Or Ask For Its Permission?

Conversely, the Al-Mustaqbal stream led by Sa’d Al-Hariri, who is known for his pro-Saudi position – praised the establishment of the Islamic Alliance. Al-Hariri, who has been away from Lebanon for several years, issued a statement that read: “This is an historic step on the road to dealing with this political, security, and ideological problem [of terrorism], which has become a dangerous burden on the image of cultured Islam and humanity, and a threat to Islamic existence and coexistence with the world’s societies.” He added: “It is natural that the announcement comes from Riyadh, since responsibility for combating terrorism rests on the shoulders of Muslims, especially Arabs.” Al-Hariri concluded his statement with praise and esteem for the Saudi leadership headed by King Salman, the crown prince and deputy crown prince.[9] Expectedly, the Al-Mustaqbal party also issued a statement praising Saudi Arabia for the move.[10]

The Al-Mustaqbal stream also launched barbs at Hizbullah and its attack on Saudi Arabia, claiming that Hizbullah’s demand that such decisions go through proper legal channels borders on hypocrisy, since Hizbullah itself has always ignored this obligation, and in many cases disregards the state and its institutions and makes decisions on its own accord, as it did, for instance, regarding its military involvement in Syria.

On December 18, 2015, the Al-Mustaqbal stream issued a statement that read: “It is not surprising that Hizbullah took a harsh negative stance on the announcement of the establishment of the broad Islamic Alliance to Fight Terrorism, particularly since the announcement came from Saudi Arabia – and Hizbullah treats this kingdom as an enemy and does not miss any incident and any chance to attack it and harm its role and its efforts to defend the rights of Arabs and Muslims.” This statement too accuses Hizbullah of hypocrisy, expressing wonderment at its “sudden discovery that such decisions require the consent of the government and the approval of parliament… It would have been best if Hizbullah had discovered [the need] for political, constitutional, and legal backing [for such steps] many years ago – namely when it claimed the [exclusive] right to bring members of the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guard [Corps] into the Beqa’a [Valley] and other areas [in Lebanon] to train its armed activists without the consent or knowledge of Lebanese authorities and without notifying them; or when it decided, on its own accord, to participate in the fighting in Syria while defying the government’s decision [at the time] stating that Lebanon would not tie itself to regional conflicts[11] and [while challenging] the state’s exclusive right to [bear] arms and use them, as well as make decisions regarding launching wars inside and outside [the country].”[12]

Lebanese Columnist: Hizbullah Opposes The Alliance Because Iran Does Not Really Wish To Combat ISIS

The previous day, columnist ‘Ali Rabbah published an article in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal claiming that Hizbullah’s opposition to the Islamic Alliance is rooted in Iran’s fear that it will no longer be able to cynically exploit terrorism in its efforts to become the region’s police. He wrote: “Why are Hizbullah and its backer [Iran] worried about the Islamic Alliance to Fight Terrorism? After all, Hizbullah [supposedly] believes that ISIS is a greater existential threat to the peoples of the region than Israel… We cannot ignore the fact that Iran… trades in the issue of combating terrorist groups for political purposes, using it to establish a number of goals in its current expansion in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The truth behind the Iran plan has become clear. Apparently someone here does not [truly] desire to combat ISIS, but rather to use it as a scarecrow that frightens the West regarding Sunni terrorism, so that it can trade in [this fear] and sell it to local Christians and the international community as a pretext that leads to proposals to appoint Iran as the region’s police.”

According to Rabbah, Iran is also worried that, after concluding the struggle against ISIS, the Islamic Alliance will set its sights on Iranian proxies such as Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, since some of them are included on Saudi Arabia’s and other countries’ lists of terrorist organizations.[13]

Saudi Ambassador To Lebanon: Hizbullah Is The One Appropriating The Country’s Decisions

The Saudis joined the attack on Hizbullah via their ambassador to Lebanon ‘Ali Awadh Al-Asseri, who said on December 18: “It is strange that some of those voicing criticism of the kingdom’s decision [to establish the alliance] are the same ones accused by Lebanese public opinion of ongoing harm to Lebanon’s sovereignty and of appropriating the country’s decisions.” He continued to attack Hizbullah, albeit without naming it specifically: “Some elements tie themselves to dubious plans aimed entirely at creating schism in regional countries, divide the Arab ranks, and stoke sectarian rivalries.”[14]

It should be mentioned that the following day, Al-Asseri stated that his country respects Lebanon’s sovereignty and special circumstances and that it would not force any country to join the alliance, [15] despite the approval of Prime Minister Salam. This indicates Saudi understanding of Lebanon’s political sensitivities vis-a-vis the Saudi-Iranian conflict, while also reflecting the obscure circumstances surrounding the establishment of the alliance.
*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.
[1] Alarabiya.net, Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 15, 2015.
[2] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 16, 2015; Ammonnews.net, December 18, 2015; Al-Atheer (Malaysia), December 18, 2015.
[3] Al-Safir (Lebanon), December 15, 2015; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), December 16, 2015.
[4] Al-Safir (Lebanon), December 19, 2015.
[5] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 18, 2015.
[6] Nna-leb.gov.lb, December 19, 2015.
[7] Nna-leb.gov.lb, December 19, 2015.
[8] Almanar.com.lb, December 19, 2015.
[9] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), December 16, 2015.
[10] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), December 16, 2015.
[11] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 842, Syria’s Role In Lebanon’s Conflagration, June 1, 2012.
[12] Nna-leb.gov.lb, December 18, 2015.
[13] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), December 17, 2015.
[14] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 19, 2015.
[15] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), December 20, 2015.