What now for Lebanon and Syria?

Alex Rowell writes: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam may have declared himself hopeful for positive change in 2016, but if the year continues in the vein of its first five days, he appears destined for disappointment. The execution by Saudi Arabia of leading Shiite cleric and opposition activist, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the subsequent torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which in turn led Riyadh and a number of its allies to sever or downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran, had by Tuesday escalated into bloodshed, with Sunni mosques bombed and a muezzin gunned down by suspected Shiite militants in Iraq; a Shiite resident of Saudi’s eastern province also fatally shot; and a reported intensification of Saudi air strikes on Shiite rebel targets in Yemen.

In Lebanon, no violence has yet broken out, but the political atmosphere has been considerably poisoned. On Sunday, Tehran ally Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave an extraordinarily foul-tempered speech, going far further in criticisms of Saudi Arabia than he ever has previously. Likening the “takfiri and terrorist” state to both ISIS and Israel, he accused the ruling family of being a mass-murdering agent of Western imperialism and Zionism, drawing multiple outbursts of “Death to the Saud family!” chants from the crowd. In an unabashedly sectarian analogy, he compared Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to the Prophet’s granddaughter, Zainab bint Ali, “speaking truth to Ibn Ziad and Yazid bin Mu`awiya,” thereby overtly tying the controversy into a 1,300-year-old Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, officials from Hezbollah’s main Lebanese rival, the Saudi-backed Future Movement, told NOW the new state of affairs would complicate the resolution of various pressing matters, including the twenty-month-long presidential vacuum. [Continue reading…]

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