Hezbollah accuses Saudi of ‘declaring war’ over ‘detaining’ former PM Hariri

The abrupt resignation of Hariri was bizarre even by the often twisted standards of Lebanese politics: Saad Hariri made the announcement from the Saudi capital in a message on a Saudi-owned station. Stunned Lebanese are convinced Saudi Arabia, Hariri's longtime ally, forced him to take the step, which effectively wrecks the prime minister's delicate compromise government with Saudi nemesis and Iran ally Hezbollah. The poster in Arabic reads, "We are with you." CREDIT: Bilal Hussein/AP Photo.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah on Friday accused Saudi Arabia of “declaring war” after it accused the Gulf Arab kingdom for forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and refusing to allow him to return to Lebanon. Reuters reports that in a televised speech, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said, “Let us say things as they are: the man is detained in Saudi Arabia and forbidden until this moment from returning to Lebanon. It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

It’s been a week of hot rhetoric and crazed activity for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which seems hellbent on pushing for some kind of proxy war with its regional enemy, Iran, in Lebanon. In a campaign of escalating tension that started on Saturday, Hariri issued a brief, surprise resignation speech on television while in Saudi Arabia.

What followed in the next 48 hours were mass arrests of anyone seen as a threat to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and accusations by the Saudi government that both Iran and Lebanon had “declared war” on the kingdom.

The past two days have seen Western leaders stepping in to calm the waters in Lebanon, where the Hezbollah-backed President Michel Aoun has refused to accept Hariri’s resignation. Hezbollah, a Shia organization with both a military and political party, is backed by Iran but has considerable support in Lebanon, which has relied on Hezbollah soldiers to fight alongside its national army, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).

On Thursday night, French President Emmanuel Macron met with bin Salman in what Reuters described as a “hastily scheduled talks,” in which, according to Macron’s office, “They discussed the situation in Lebanon following the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri. President Macron reiterated the importance France attaches to Lebanon’s stability, security, sovereignty and integrity.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has also called the Saudi government to “safeguard Lebanon’s stability,” the Associated Press reported on Friday. He also said it was “necessary to talk about the role of Iran,” but did not elaborate beyond saying that Germany has “great concern” over Iran’s influence over Hezbollah.

The U.S., meanwhile, has taken an even softer approach with its Saudi ally on the issue. On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said U.S. talks with Saudi this week were “sensitive, private, diplomatic conversations.” She declined to comment on Hariri’s resignation.

“We have seen him [Hariri]. In terms of the conditions of him being held or the conversations between Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Hariri, I would have to refer you to the government of Saudi Arabia and also to Mr Hariri’s office,” said Nauert. She did, however, say the U.S. calls for “no kind of escalation of any sort of threats or something in that arena.”

Meanwhile, Aoun has called on Saudi Arabia to allow Hariri — a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen — to return to Lebanon, with Saudi Arabia claiming Hariri is free to leave. There are reports, however, that many of those who have been arrested in what the kingdom calls an “anti-corruption” crackdown are banned from travel and have seen their assets frozen.

But Saudi Arabia is showing no signs of easing tensions with Lebanon and Iran, after accusing Lebanon of declaring war based on information it said was provided to Hariri, and Iran of the same over a missile that was fired by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been leading a U.S.-backed coalition in a heavy bombing campaign against the rebels since 2015.

On Thursday, the Saudis called on their citizens to leave Lebanon and Iran, with their Gulf allies Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates following suit.

Update: This story now includes Hezbollah’s latest response to Hariri’s resignation.