Lebanon’s Hariri retracts resignation, finishing month-long crisis

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's prime minister Saad al-Hariri gestures during a press conference in parliament building at downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri rescinded his resignation on Tuesday, drawing a line under a month-long crisis triggered when he announced from Riyadh that he was stepping down and remained outside Lebanon for weeks.

His coalition government, which includes the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, reaffirmed a state policy of staying out of conflicts in Arab states. Hariri’s Saudi allies accuse Hezbollah of waging war across the Middle East as agents of Iran.

Hariri’s shock resignation had thrust Lebanon to the forefront of the regional quarrel between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has been played out on battlefields in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Lebanese officials said Saudi Arabia had coerced Hariri, a long-time Saudi ally, into resigning and put him under effective house arrest until an intervention by France led to his return to Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and Hariri have denied this.

President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, refused to accept his resignation while he remained abroad. Saudi concern over the influence wielded by Iran and Hezbollah in other Arab states had been widely seen as the root cause of the crisis, which raised fears for Lebanon’s economic and political stability.

The Lebanese policy of ‘dissociation’ was declared in 2012 to keep the deeply divided state out of regional conflicts such as the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Despite the policy, Hezbollah is heavily involved there, sending thousands of fighters to help President Bashar al-Assad.

In its first meeting since Hariri’s resignation, the cabinet on Tuesday reaffirmed its commitment to the policy. “All (the government’s) political components decide to dissociate themselves from all conflicts, disputes, wars or the internal affairs of brother Arab countries, in order to preserve Lebanon’s economic and political relations,” Hariri said.

Lebanon, where sectarian groups fought a civil war from 1975-1990, has a governing system designed to share power. Hariri, a wealthy businessman with long ties to the kingdom, had denounced Iran during his resignation speech and said he was outside Lebanon because he feared for his family’s safety.

His father, an ex-prime minister, was assassinated in 2005. In a speech during the cabinet session, Hariri warned that the tensions in the region could easily drag Lebanon down a dangerous route, and the issues which had led to the crisis could be ignored.

“Developments in the region suggest a new wave of conflict … Perhaps the conflict is nearing the end, and Lebanon cannot be plunged into chaos on the finish line. If we are rejecting interference by any state in Lebanese affairs, it cannot be that we accept that any Lebanese side interferes in the affairs of Arab states,” Hariri said, an apparent reference to Hezbollah. “We have to address this issue, and take a decision announcing our disassociation, in words and deeds,” he said.

Hariri’s resignation was accompanied by a sharp escalation in Saudi statements targeting the Lebanese state, with Riyadh at one point accusing the Beirut government of declaring war against it. Western governments, including the United States, stressed their support for Hariri and Lebanon.

Hariri will be in Paris on Friday for a meeting of the International Lebanon Support Group, a body that includes the five members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. The meeting, to be opened by French President Emmanuel Macron, aims in part to put pressure on Saudi Arabia and Iran to desist from interference in Lebanon, diplomats said.