Understanding the Resignation of Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe

Lebanese Foreign Minister, Charbel Wehbe, resigned from his position last Wednesday, over remarks made during a TV interview, that insinuated the rise of the Islamic State (IS formerly ISIS) was facilitated by the Gulf States.

Speaking to the Al-hurra regional network on Monday 17th May, Wehbe stated: "Those countries of love, friendship and fraternity – they brought us Daesh and planted it in the plains of Nineveh and Anbar and Palmyra".

Declining to name individual states that he saw as complicit, he went on to add that the presence of an armed Hezbollah in Lebanon was an important deterrent against IS hostility emanating from the countries northern and eastern borders, and from the ever present threat of Israeli aggression in the South.

In the immediate aftermath of the interview, Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, quickly distanced himself from Wehebe’s remarks, classing them as his own "personal opinion", that "in no way reflects the position of the Lebanese state". Similarly, Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, also denounced the remarks, as "not in accordance with diplomatic norms".

On Tuesday last week, Saudi Arabia summoned the Lebanese Ambassador to Riyadh, Fawzi Kabbara, to express anger and disaffection at Wehebe’s comments, handing him an "official memorandum of protest". Identical moves were also made by Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE, while the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council called on Wehbe to issue a formal apology to the Gulf states, over what it deemed the "unacceptable offenses" caused by his comments.

Domestically, there have also been considerable attempts across political parties to appease the outrage of Saudi’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Walid Bukhari. Leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, called Bukhari to decry Wehbe’s comments, accusing Syria and Iran as the sponsors of IS, adding that "The first enemy of Daesh and its sisters is the Saudi leadership and other Islamic leaders".

Why Syria would sponsor the very barbarism that has ravaged its nation, Geagea doesn’t explain, yet such audacious remarks that fly in the face of reality, do indeed have their own underhanded motivations.

Business As Usual

Lebanese-Saudi relations have for a long been ostensibly close, with Saudi Arabia donating 120 tons of aid to Lebanon via ‘The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center’, following the tragic explosion that ripped through Beirut in August last year. Yet in decades past, relations have also taken on a more insular and familial character, not least due to the immense fortunes generated in Saudi Arabia by Lebanon’s most preeminent and powerful political family the Harriri’s.

Business tycoon Rafic Hariri led Lebanon’s first post-civil war government as Prime Minister in 1992 until his assassination in 2005, having made his billion dollar fortune in construction in Saudi Arabia through his company ‘Saudi Oger’, whilst also gaining Saudi citizenship in 1978.

In a thirteen year tenure consistently marred by corruption scandals, his billion dollar fortune multiplied. After his death at the suspected hands of apparently rouge militant Salim Ayyash, who received a life sentence in absentia last December from the ‘Special Tribunal For Lebanon, ‘Saudi Oger’ was inherited by his Saudi born son Bahaa Hariri, who in turn sold his stake in 2008 to his Saudi born younger brother Saad Hariri, who is both a former and current Prime Minister.

The House of Saud’s political preferences have long been for fellow plutocrats, but the presence of Hezbollah has also provided diplomatic difficulties. A few years following the 2006 Lebanon war with Israel, Israeli media leaked that Saudi Arabia had encouraged the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, as a means of striking at Hezbollah, who to the house of Saud represent a bastion of Iranian influence and military might in the region. According to leaked diplomatic memo’s from 2008, Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, also suggested the secret establishment of an Arab military force to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon, with the support of the U.S. and NATO.

Shared support for the Palestinian cause has provided a veneer of common ground for diplomatic ties, under which selective Saudi support for elitist elements in the Lebanese government, has been made only to counter a Hezbollah with increasing political support and representation in the country. Given such a dynamic, and Wehebe’s vocal support of Hezbollah as a deterrent to hostility and interference, it makes some sense that those most vocal in his condemnation, are those aligned closely with the Hariri clique.

However, the sheer level of furor generated by Wehbe’s assertions does not come without its own share of dismay and raised eye brows for many observers, principally because they are supported by documented evidence, admissions by Gulf officials, and the broader historical record.

‘Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid’

IS’ initial iteration, was that as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in the early 2000’s, who following the assassination of their leader Abu Musab al-Zarqwai in US airstrikes in 2006, merged with other militant groups under the banner of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’. Despite the organization being in tatters by the time the US formally withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the organization reorganized and proliferated up to 2012, largely due to the exclusionary and sectarian policies of the US installed Shia Iraqi government.

After the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011, in 2013 the organization’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, moved to Syria in order to expand the group, renaming it The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), before again renaming it Islamic State in June 2014.

Successive territorial gains made by IS in Syria early in 2014, meant Western governments and Gulf states began to see the utility of IS and associates Al-Nusra (also described as al-Qaeda in Syria), in applying pressure to an Assad regime that failed to adhere to Western and Israeli interests. Former MI6 officer, Alastair Crooke, has noted that:

"Supporting powers effectively wanted to inject hydraulic fracturing fluid into eastern Syria (radical Salafists) in order to fracture the bridge between Iran and its Arab allies, even at the cost of this "fracking" opening fissures right down inside Iraq to Ramadi."

Following IS’ capturing of Mosul in northern Iraq in June 2014, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al Faisal told then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, that IS "is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa" (The Shia Islamist Party Installed to Power by the US). Similarly, the same year, a Qatari official revealed that both Qatar and Saudi Arabia had provided IS and Al-Nusra with economic and military support, with Qatar focusing primarily on Al-Nusra, while "ISIS has been a Saudi project".

A memo sent in August 2014 by a government adviser to former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and since circulated by WikiLeaks, also noted that the Saudi and Qatari governments "are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region".

A 2014 speech delivered by former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, also went some length to substantiate such revelations, stating that Saudi and Qatari authorities had turned a blind eye to "substantial and sustained funding" for IS and Al-Nusra, from private donors in both states. Such donations, he went on to add, provided a substantial contribution to IS’ military capabilities, as they went on to make substantial territorial gains in northern Iraq.

In 2017 the investigative of work of journalist Robert Fisk, also revealed that shipping documentation for 120mm mortars, found in the hands of ISIS and Al-Nusra militants in eastern Aleppo, detailed that they had initially been shipped to Saudi Arabia from a Bosnian Arms factory in Novi Travnik.

When challenged on the evidence, the Saudi authorities stated ISIS and Al-Nusra were "designated terrorist organizations" whom they do not support, adding that allegations were "vague and unfounded", in spite of the quite specific nature of the shipping documents that exist among others, revealing quite the contrary.

In a 2015 interview, then US President Barack Obama, categorized the rise of IS, as an example of "unintended consequences" of western military intervention, a specious judging, in which complacency and miscalculation provides cover for realpolitik and criminality.

As Lebanon continues to suffer a civil and economic crisis exacerbated by the tragic explosion in Beirut last summer, a largely despised class of political elites reemerge from the woodwork, as pawns fronting imperial agendas of proxy war against Iran, and exalting Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy as leader of the Islamic world.

In watching the unfurling castigation, disgrace, and even possible prison sentence being hoisted on Wehbe as punishment, his mere allusion to a simple truth should be noted and commended.

Patrick O’Reilly is a freelance journalist and Editor of "The Parallax Report", specializing in UK foreign policy, civil liberties, and national healthcare governance. With an MA in Journalism and Documentary Practice, and BA in International Relations, he continues to report on the ground from Brighton, UK.