France intervenes in bid to end Lebanon's political crisis

Lebanon’s president said Thursday he hoped the crisis over Saad al-Hariri’s resignation as prime minister and stay in Saudi Arabia would soon end with Hariri visiting France.

On Wednesday France invited Hariri and his family to Paris, providing what French diplomats have described as a way out for him to leave Saudi Arabia without any side losing face.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said earlier this week that Hariri, who abruptly announced his resignation while in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4, was being held hostage by officials in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The crisis has embroiled Lebanon in the Middle East’s bitter rivalry that pits Saudi Arabia and its allies against a bloc led by Iran that includes the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah group.

“We hope the crisis is over and the door of solution is opened by PM Hariri’s acceptance of the invitation to visit France,” Aoun said in a tweet on Thursday.

“The problem of Hariri’s being held in Saudi Arabia is on its way to being solved,” presidential sources also quoted Aoun as saying.

After meeting Hariri in Riyadh on Thursday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Hariri would “soon come to Paris.” A source close to Hariri said he was expected to leave Riyadh with his family for Paris in the next 48 hours, before travelling on to Beirut.

Saudi Arabia last week accused Lebanon of declaring war on it, citing Hezbollah’s role in other Arab countries. The group has fought alongside Iran in Syria against Saudi-backed rebels.

Riyadh also accuses it of helping the Houthi group in Yemen fight a Saudi-led coalition.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri

A poster of resigned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri hangs on a Beirut street Monday, and reads, ‘We are all Saad,’ translated from Arabic. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

“If Lebanon is able to stifle the role of Hezbollah, Lebanon will be fine. But if Hezbollah continues this policy and this approach, it will continue to destabilize Lebanon,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Thursday.

Western states have taken a markedly different tone from Riyadh, stressing their support for both Hariri and the Beirut government even though they see Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Lebanon’s army is a significant recipient of U.S. military aid. Hariri has long been allied to Saudi Arabia. He travelled there on Nov. 3 and suddenly resigned the following day.

He has since left Riyadh only for an hours-long visit to Saudi Arabia’s Gulf ally the UAE on Nov. 7. Hariri’s resignation while abroad, alleging a plot against his life and railing against Iran and Hezbollah, led to speculation in Beirut about Saudi Arabia’s role in the decision.

Diplomatic pressure

Top Lebanese officials and senior politicians close to Hariri say he was forced to quit and was being held by the Saudis. Politicians from all sides in Lebanon have called for his return to Beirut.

Saudi Arabia has denied forcing him to resign or detaining him. Hariri has said he is free to leave and would return soon to formally submit his resignation, which Aoun has said he will accept only in person.

Aoun said in a statement that once Hariri returned to Lebanon, he would have to stay until a new government was formed.

In an interview on Sunday, his first public comments since resigning, Hariri warned of possible Saudi action against Lebanon, including the risk of Arab sanctions and threats to the livelihood of Lebanese workers in the Gulf.

Lebanon hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees and its stability is seen internationally as important to prevent further Middle East chaos.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil had toured European capitals to find diplomatic help for finding a way out of the crisis.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday and will meet Hariri on Thursday. He said France was working to normalize the situation in Lebanon.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a news conference with Le Drian that Hezbollah was destabilizing the region and must be disarmed.

France is closely allied to both Saudi Arabia and to Lebanon, which it controlled between the world wars last century. Hariri has a home in Paris and lived there for years.

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