WASHINGTON – The State Department wants foreign “forces, militias or armed elements” out of Lebanon as the generations-long proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensifies there.
“We're watching it very carefully and we are encouraging support for the legitimate government of Lebanon and we're asking other outside parties to stay out of it,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while traveling in Asia. “To the extent there's foreign presence there, whether it's from Iran or Syria or wherever it might be from, we think those forces need to depart and leave.”
Saudi Arabia claims there’s a growing influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and that aggression is a Lebanese declaration of war against Saudi Arabia.
This week, the Saudi government requested its citizens leave Lebanon. Last weekend, the Saudi-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned during a trip to Saudi Arabia. Hariri is still in Saudi Arabia.
Hezbollah’s leader in Lebanon said Saudi Arabia forced Lebanon’s prime minister to resign and that the Saudi government has declared war against Lebanon.
"Lebanon's prime minister is detained in Saudi Arabia and it has to release him,” said Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader. “The Lebanese should work to bring him back to Lebanon and then it is up to him to go wherever, maybe he wants to go back to Saudi - it is his call."
Secretary Tillerson spoke earlier this week with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir, according to the State Department. Secretary Tillerson said the foreign minister claimed Hariri decided to resign “on his own.” The secretary also said he has no indication the Saudis are holding Hariri against his will and pointed out Hariri’s family has lived in Saudi Arabia for some time.
“I'm hopeful that if that is still his intent to leave that he'll do that so that the government of Lebanon can function properly,” said Tillerson of Hariri.
Lebanon’s government is a power-sharing structure designed to distribute power along religious sects. The parliament’s speaker position is reserved for a Shiite Muslim, a Sunni Muslim occupies the prime minister’s office, and the president is a Maronite Christian.
Iran is a Shiite Muslim state while Saudi Arabia’s government enforces a conservative version of Sunni Islam. Their rivalry extends throughout the region, particularly through Syria and Yemen.
Last weekend, Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile fired at its capital from Yemen. Saudi Arabia is fighting Iran-backed rebels in Yemen and the Saudi government claims the missile was an act of war by Iran.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Central Command, said the missile’s remnants had "Iranian markings."
“Once we can confirm that with some actual forensics I think that will be useful in deciding what action to take next, particularly at the U.N. Security Council because that would represent a violation of certain Security Council resolutions in terms of providing arms into a conflict zone,” said Secretary Tillerson. “Whether this specific missile came from Iran, it seems very likely but I think we’d like to get the final forensics on it.”