BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Hezbollah leader rejected calls for the resignation of a Lebanese minister who sparked a diplomatic rift with Riyadh by criticising its military intervention in Yemen, underlining the slim chances of the crisis easing any time soon.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, also said Saudi Arabia faced complete failure in the Yemen war, where he said the fall of the city of Marib to the Iran-aligned Houthi movement would have big consequences.
Saudi Arabia’s ties with Lebanon, which have been strained for years by the growing role of the heavily armed Hezbollah, have hit a new low since the airing of an interview in which information minister George Kordahi sided with the Houthis and said Yemen was being subjected to external aggression.
Saudi Arabia has expelled the Lebanese ambassador, recalled its envoy to Lebanon and banned all Lebanese imports. Several of its Gulf allies have also expelled Lebanese ambassadors and recalled their own.
Nasrallah said Kordahi’s comments were “calm and objective” and the Saudi reaction exaggerated.
Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of seeking a civil war in Lebanon, and he said that Riyadh had contrived the crisis over the Kordahi comments as part of “the battle with the resistance”.
Riyadh has said Kordahi’s comments were a symptom of its dominance of Lebanon. Nasrallah denied that Hezbollah dominated the country, saying it could not always get its way.
Kordahi says the interview was recorded before he became a minister and has refused to apologise or step down.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati has called on Kordahi to put the national interest first, suggesting he wanted him to quit. But he has stopped short of explicitly demanding his resignation.
Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a military intervention in Yemen in 2015 after the Houthis ousted the Saudi-backed government.
The Houthis have been advancing in Marib governorate and have vowed to march on Marib city, the last stronghold in northern Yemen of pro-government troops.
Saudi Arabia says Hezbollah arms, supplies and trains the Houthis. Nasrallah said Hezbollah had no role in Houthi “victories” in Yemen.
“I say to the Saudis, if you truly want to be rid of the Yemen issue, it is not via putting pressure on Lebanon or on Hezbollah in Lebanon … there is one way: accept a ceasefire, lift the siege and go to political negotiations,” he said.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam, Yasmin Hussein and Timour Azhari; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Lisa Shumaker)