Michel Aoun’s Double Game

Lebanon’s president navigates the treacherous waters of the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

King Salman Bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud with President Michel Aoun in Riyadh, Jan. 10, 2017. Dalati Nohra/Reuters

King Salman Bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud with President Michel Aoun in Riyadh, Jan. 10, 2017. Dalati Nohra/Reuters

Former army commander Michel Aoun, since becoming president of the Lebanese republic in October 2016, has played a delicate balancing act between Tehran and Riyadh, and the rival regional alliances they represent. While preserving his alliance with Hezbollah and his Iranian patrons—without whose support he couldn’t have assumed office after a thirty-month presidential vacancy—President Michel Aoun has undertaken multiple trips in order to reassure his Arab partners about Lebanon’s position in the region’s many conflicts, notably in the Syrian civil war.

Aoun symbolically chose Saudi Arabia for his first state visit last January, followed by Jordan. His Arab tour allowed him to meet with the kings of both countries, who are among the region’s principal Sunni leaders. Yet at home he continues to strongly defend the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its right to bear arms. In February, he told the Egyptian TV CBC that the “arms of the resistance” are needed to fight “against the Israeli occupation.” Far from weakening the Lebanese state, he added, Hezbollah’s weapons constitute “an essential pillar of the defensive strategy.”

The Lebanese president’s balancing act aims for several objectives. Above all, as head of state, Aoun would like to rise above his image as the chief of a local party beholden to its political allies—without actually imperiling Hezbollah’s own strategic interests. The reputation of Aoun, former chief of Lebanon’s army and once a leading opponent to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, was deeply tarnished among some Lebanese and Arab Sunni leaders when he flipped sides and became allies with President Bashar Al-Assad and the Shiite militia group after his return from exile in 2005. His realignment was calculated, among other things, to weaken his political rival Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is Lebanon’s main Sunni leader and supported by almost all Arab countries.

Today, the substance of his message to Arab leaders across the political spectrum is that he is the master of his own political choices: he is not necessarily bound by the interests of his supporters in Lebanon and, ultimately, Iran. Diplomatically, Aoun’s visits to Riyadh, Doha and Amman were, in fact, meant to signal his desire to be seen as a neutral party in the conflict between regional alliances—above all, the intense rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

His repositioning has not entirely pleased his recent allies. Al-Assad, in an interview with the daily Al-Watan last December, revealed that the new Lebanese president had not yet been invited to Damascus. At the same time, Al-Assad criticized Lebanon’s policy of keeping itself at arm’s length from the region’s conflicts—a thinly veiled allusion to Aoun’s apparent neutralism in Syria’s sectarian-tinged conflict since coming to office.

In response, Aoun has tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. In an interview with the French news channel La Chaîne Info not long after, he reaffirmed his support for the regime in Damascus, underlining that “without the current Syrian government, all of us would be living a second Libya,” adding that “Al-Assad is the only person capable of uniting all the different parties and putting together a government.”

Aoun’s balancing act between different allies is trying to leverage a degree of influence and independence for Lebanon’s foreign policy, which is deeply caught up in the rivalries of bigger regional powers. He has counted on his connections with both sides in the Syrian conflict from his long years in public life—on the one hand, his current ally Hezbollah and the regime in Damascus, and on the other, his recent rapprochement with actors opposed to Al-Assad, like the Lebanese Forces and Prime Minister Hariri. The latter has been possible partly thanks to Aoun’s long anti-Syrian past. In the 1990s, Aoun had, in fact, been a leading voice of opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Aoun’s turning of a page with the region’s Sunni monarchies—chiefly Saudi Arabia—includes an important economic dimension. Aoun is looking to limit the fallout from cold relations in recent years with the Gulf countries, at a time when Lebanon’s economy has been bled dry by violence and political instability.

Lebanon, moreover, must keep in mind the interests of its large community of expatriates working in the Gulf—estimated to be around 400,000 nationals—who represent roughly 40 percent of the $7 billion sent home every year by the global Lebanese diaspora. Remittances, which represent about 20 percent of the country’s GDP, have acted as a bulwark until now against economic collapse. Aoun’s Gulf tour was, in this respect, essential. Traditionally the leading foreign investors in Lebanon, Gulf countries had already suspended many projects with the start of the civil war next door—before freezing and even liquidating many of their investments and forbidding their nationals, who represent some one third of tourists, from even visiting the country.

Aoun even hopes to win back $3 billion in aid promised by Saudi Arabia in November 2014, funds that were destined for the purchase of much needed military equipment. In 2016, Riyadh suspended the project. Among other reasons were the repeated and hostile statements of Lebanon’s foreign minister Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of Aoun, regarding Saudi foreign policy, followed by the foreign minister’s refusal at the Arab League summit in January 2016 to officially condemn attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran that same month.

Support for the Lebanese army, which is at the heart of Aoun’s balancing act, is of vital geopolitical interest in the rivalry between the region’s principal powers. Saudi Arabia, through strengthening the national army, has traditionally aimed to weaken Hezbollah in the long run—a prospect Iran fears would reduce its own influence. That is why Tehran seized the opportunity, after the announced Saudi aid withdrawal in late 2014, to offer its own material assistance to the army. The counter-proposal, renewed last August, remains, as yet, unrealized.

Whether Aoun will succeed in courting, and maintaining both Iranian and Saudi support for Lebanon’s army, as well as its economic and political stability, is a vital question for his government. In Riyadh, the recent Arab and Muslim summit with President Donald Trump underlined the challenges for the Lebanese leader’s balancing-act policy. The host country, Saudi Arabia, and its Arab allies are clearly aiming to strike a blow at Iran’s influence in the region. Aoun was not officially invited to the summit—another sign of the still-existing tensions—but was represented by his Sunni prime minister. The reaction of the Lebanese foreign minister to a summit statement condemning “Iran’s destabilizing activities”—he claimed the Lebanese government was unaware of the final document—provoked the anger of Saudi authorities. The popular Jeddah daily newspaper Okaz called both Bassil and Aoun “liars.”

Translated from the French by Amir-Hussein Radjy.

Bachir El Khoury is a journalist based in Beirut.