BEIRUT: The United States and France came out Friday in support of Lebanon and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, saying the premier still had a major role to play in the country.
Meanwhile, President Michel Aoun told Saudi Arabia’s Charge d’Affaires Walid Bukhari that the manner of Hariri’s resignation was “unacceptable,” and that the prime minister must return to Lebanon, a statement posted to Aoun’s official Twitter account said.
The Saudi envoy proposed that Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil travel to Riyadh to meet with Hariri, Baabda sources said.
But sources from the Foreign Ministry said later that Bassil declined the offer, suggesting that the minister would only visit Saudi Arabia after Hariri’s return to Beirut.
Aoun’s meeting came almost a week after Hariri announced his resignation in an extraordinary televised statement from Saudi Arabia amid heightening tensions between Riyadh and Beirut over the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The prime minister’s abrupt move caught the political establishment by surprise, sparking calls for calm and for Hariri’s return before his resignation is considered officially.
The controversy has also thrust Lebanon into the eye of a regional storm and has worried the international community, which is eager to maintain Lebanon’s stability as it hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned other countries and groups against using Lebanon as vehicle for a larger proxy battle in the Middle East, saying the United States strongly backed Lebanon’s independence. Tillerson said he recognized Hariri as Lebanon’s prime minister, calling him a “strong partner of the United States.”
“There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state,” Tillerson said in a statement, in an apparent reference to Hezbollah and its regional backer, Iran.
But he also cautioned against “any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country.”
France’s Foreign Ministry meanwhile nuanced comments made earlier by its minister, suggesting instead that Hariri may not be free and urging that he continue to play his rightful role in the country.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had told Europe 1 radio that as far as France was aware, Hariri “was free of his movements” and that it was “important he made his own choices.” However, when asked by reporters in a daily briefing to clarify those comments, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said France wanted Hariri to be free, suggesting he may not be.
“We wish that Saad Hariri has all his freedom of movement and be fully able to play the essential role that is his in Lebanon,” deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexandre Georgini said.
French officials said the ministry’s latest comments were the most accurate.
France’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia met with Hariri before President Emmanuel Macron’s unscheduled visit to Riyadh to meet Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Thursday.
Baabda sources said that Macron did not meet with Hariri, and they were expecting a French envoy to brief Aoun on the talks in Riyadh.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he had serious concerns over escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and that it was essential to avert new conflict in the region.
“We are indeed very worried, and we hope we won’t see an escalation,” the United Nations chief told reporters. “It is essential that no new conflict erupts in the region, it could have devastating consequences.”
Guterres said he had “very intense” contacts Thursday with Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and other countries in the region.
In Beirut, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said that Saudi Arabia had declared war on Lebanon and his group, accusing Riyadh of detaining Hariri and forcing him to resign.
“We ... say that the prime minister is detained in Saudi Arabia, but we want him back. Currently, we consider his resignation as having been made illegally and unconstitutionally, and so is void and the current Cabinet is still serving in its full capacity,” Nasrallah said during a speech to mark Arbaeen, an annual commemoration marking the end of the mourning period for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, and the group’s “Martyr’s Day.” “The time isn’t ripe yet for parliamentary consultations [to designate a new prime minister]. Even if he [Hariri] came back and resigned – although we know that he was forced to do it – we would know that he resigned from Lebanon.”
Nasrallah claimed that Riyadh was “angry” at Hezbollah because Saudi Arabia had failed in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and so had decided to punish Lebanon and the group. “It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he said, adding that it was not right for the whole Lebanese population to pay the price.
“You can punish Hezbollah without punishing Lebanon and the Lebanese people.”
Nasrallah claimed that one good thing that had emerged from the crisis was the solidarity of the Lebanese with their prime minister. “We are stronger with our unity,” he said. He also warned Israel against any “miscalculation” of taking advantage of the crisis to attack Lebanon.
Meanwhile, at his Riyadh residence Friday, Hariri met separately with Russian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sergei Kozlov, and Italian Ambassador Luca Ferrari, a statement from Hariri’s media office said, without providing further details.
And in Beirut, delegation from the World Bank affirmed the institution’s commitment to following up on all projects planned for Lebanon, regardless of the current political turmoil, according to a Finance Ministry statement. The comments came during a meeting with Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil.
Saroj Kumar Jha, the World Bank’s regional director for the Middle East, told Khalil that the international body was dedicated to supporting and sustaining Lebanon, but noted that serious discussion regarding the country’s financial situation were vital. – With agencies