Columnist

What can Russia offer Lebanon?

Russian rescue teams search for survivors at Beirut Port on Aug. 7, 2020, three days after a massive blast there shook the Lebanese capital. AFP / JOSEPH EID

The recent flurry of diplomatic activities and frequent trips by Lebanese factions to Moscow left the impression that Russia is poised to assume a mediating role in Lebanon in an attempt to extend its influence from a war-shattered Syria to a politically crippled and financially bankrupt Lebanon.

The most recent trip by a Hezbollah delegation to Russia was the most significant due to the fact the Hezbollah is a key partner with Moscow in trying to salvage the regime of Bashar Assad and is the main power broker in Lebanon.

The partnership in Syria was brokered by Tehran, which found a common goal with Putin: salvage the regime of Bashar and fight Sunni jihadi movements. The partnership in Syria entailed: Iran provides the religious zeal and the treasure, and Moscow the firepower and diplomatic shield at the UN.

Iran rallied Shiite fighters from around the world and Moscow prevented any attempt at the UNSC to authorize the military use similar to what happened in Libya under Ghadhafi.

The Russian statement expressing support to Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri following the meeting between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Hariri in Abu Dhabi, was a clear signal that Russia is interested in having a more visible influence in Lebanon.

The question would be whether Iran is willing to share influence with Russia in Lebanon, and whether Russia would leverage Tehran in Beirut in order to limit Iran’s influence in Damascus toward a less military presence of Hezbollah in Syria.

Up until now Russia and Iran have managed to hide tensions and coexist with their differences in Syria.

But with the potential deal between Washington and Tehran, Moscow may grow sensitive to its eroding influence in the Middle East at a time Russia is planning to become more assertive in the world arena, amid tension between Putin and US President Joe Biden.

Last week Biden and Putin exchanged unpleasant remarks. Biden could have dodged the question when asked if he believes President Putin is a “killer,“ but chose to give a straight answer saying “I do.”

This is a clear departure from his predecessor former President Donald Trump who chose to divert the subject when asked about Putin’s targeting Russian opposition figures and interfering in US election by saying the “US did bad things too.”

The tension between Moscow and Washington will certainly manifest itself in areas of contentions. Historically, Lebanon during the Cold War was leaning West and its Army remains until today American equipped and trained.

After losing Libya, Iraq and other markets for weapons and its political clout, Russia is only left with Syria, therefore Russia may find an opportunity to extend its influence into a Lebanon where competing factions are looking for a superpower patron. However, Iran may not be willing to cede any influence in Lebanon and the US may be forced to show more interest in domestic Lebanese politics in order to contain the Russian intentions and start sending envoys and supporting initiatives, most likely the French initiative, which is in need of an American engine.

But the key question to Lebanon now is what can Russia offer?

Lebanon needs immediate financial lifeline support which is not the kind of assistance that Russia normally offers. Despite its great influence in Syria, Moscow can’t offer the war-shattered Syria with any financial support needed for rebuilding the country and can’t solicit support from others without defusing the restrictions of the American Caesar Act that gives Washington veto power in deciding the future of rebuilding Syria.

Even Moscow didn’t provide enough Sputnik vaccine to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Syria. But certainly Russia can play a key role in coordinating international effort for the return of Syrian refugees.

It is not clear yet when Washington would realize the value of Lebanon, and reinstate its strategic value, not just see it in its regional context. A failed state with fragile security would be fertile ground for Russia to increase its influence in Lebanon and would leave Iran the main power broker in the country.

Lebanon is caught between being marginalized and left to its politicians to lift it from its crisis or become again the battlefield for regional and international powers vying for influence.

Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Star.

 

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