BEIRUT: Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s surprise return to Lebanon is “a very important” development that bolsters Sunni moderation in the face of a growing wave of jihadist extremism that is threatening the entire region, experts and analysts said Friday.
They added that Hariri’s comeback, following more than three years in which he was abroad for security reasons, also provided a chance to help break the 3-month-old presidential stalemate and defuse long-simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions as a result of sharp differences over the war in Syria.
“Hariri’s return to Beirut is very important at all levels, especially at the national level, given the fact that he is the head of a large political party in Lebanon and the largest bloc in Parliament,” Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Université Saint-Joseph, told The Daily Star.
“At the national level, Hariri’s absence from Lebanon had dealt a blow to the country’s partnership formula. Now with his return, the partnership formula can regain its legitimacy,” he said.
“The presence in Lebanon of a prominent moderate Sunni leader like Saad Hariri is the best way to contain the threats posed by ISIS, the Nusra Front and other radical groups,” Nader said. “These movements, whether in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, grew up because of the absence of legitimate moderate Sunni leaders.”
Nader stressed that the marginalization of legitimate Sunni leaders in the Levant had been responsible for the growth of “a radical Sunni jihadist movement, which is contrary to Sunni moderation.”
“Today, all the world, even those who opposed Hariri ... came to realize that the alternative to moderate Sunni leaders, as we have seen, was radical Sunni jihadist movements that are sweeping across the Arab world, threatening security, stability and sectarian coexistence in those countries,” Nader said.
Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, concurred that the marginalization of moderate Sunni leaders had led to the resurgence of militant, jihadist Sunni organizations in the region.
“Hariri’s comeback provides a new opportunity for moderate forces in Lebanon to play a new, effective role in Lebanon’s stability after these forces have been marginalized by sectarian forces,” Salamey said.
“Moderate Sunni leaders can work for a growing political consensus to defuse the deepening political crisis in Lebanon,” he added.
Salamey said Hariri’s return would have the effect of energizing the role of the moderate parties in Lebanon’s stabilization, in the face of mounting threats posed to the country’s security and stability by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
“It will boost the moderate role in stabilizing Lebanon and contributing toward political progress, especially in the forthcoming time – including the election of a president and preparations for parliamentary elections – and it will strengthen the role of the Lebanese Army in maintaining security,” he said.
The return of Hariri, Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politician, coincided with the most serious spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanese territory, when Islamist militants overran the northeastern town of Arsal near the border with Syria last week. At least 17 soldiers have been killed in five days of ferocious fighting with militants from Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). More than 60 militants and 42 civilians were also killed.
After meeting Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail Friday, Hariri said he had come to Beirut to oversee the implementation of the $1 billion Saudi grant in fighting terrorism.
Hariri’s comeback also comes amid a political deadlock that has left the country without a president for nearly three months.
Political and religious leaders expressed hope that his return would help stabilize the country as it faces security threats and break the presidential impasse that has paralyzed Parliament legislation and is threatening to cripple the government’s work.
Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese University lecturer with expertise on Iran and the Middle East, said the main reason for Hariri’s return was to “confront Sunni extremism.”
“Many calls have been issued in the past for Hariri to return to Lebanon to face threats to the Future Movement’s influence, as a result of the growing role of extremist Sunni groups, especially following the occupation of Arsal and the reactions that followed,” Atrissi told The Daily Star.
“The Future Movement’s environment has been affected by this Sunni extremism. Hariri’s comeback means a return of Sunni moderation to Lebanon in the face of Sunni extremism,” Atrissi said.
He added that Hariri’s comeback could set the stage for cooperation between the Future Movement and the March 8 parties, namely Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, in the fight against religious extremism.
Hariri’s absence had left Lebanon’s Sunnis vulnerable to radical influences, especially in the northern city of Tripoli.
“Hariri’s return to Lebanon at this critical time will give a major boost to Sunni moderation in the face of the rising extremism that seriously threatened to destabilize the country, as was clearly manifested by the clashes in Arsal,” said Nader, the USJ professor. “Surely, his return will help strengthen security and stability. It will also help reduce Sunni-Shiite tensions.”
In addition to supervising the $1 billion Saudi grant to bolster the Army’s capabilities, Nader said Hariri could help break to the presidential stalemate.
“Hariri holds the key to the presidential election. His answer to MP Michel Aoun, yes or no over the presidency, will help break the deadlock,” he said, referring to contacts between the Future Movement and the FPM over supporting Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency.
Nader said Hariri’s return signaled a long-awaited thaw in strained Saudi-Iranian relations. “Hariri’s comeback is a sign of an imminent Saudi-Iranian rapprochement,” he said.
Nader also cited signs of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement in Iraq where, he said, a new president has been elected and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has come out opposing the return of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister, in a major concession to the Saudis, who also oppose Maliki.
Salamey, the LAU professor, also said Hariri’s comeback could help break the presidential deadlock.
He said Hariri’s return indicated that a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, which had led to the formation of Salam’s Cabinet in February after an 11-month deadlock, was still in place.
He added that Hariri’s return would “definitely” defuse Sunni-Shiite tensions caused by the dispute over the war in Syria.
“The two sides [ Future Movement and Hezbollah] can cooperate to reduce the role of Sunni extremists and neutralize Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria,” Salamey said.
He added that the Saudi grant to strengthen the Lebanese Army had political consequences. “The Saudis are supporting the Lebanese Army for political purposes: To stabilize the country, secure the border with Syria and prepare the ground for the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, while boosting the role of moderate groups across the sectarian spectrum, mainly within the March 14 coalition,” he said.
“The Saudi grant and Hariri’s comeback should be viewed as an opportunity to reverse the trend of sectarian extremism threatening the country,” Salamey added.