When Syria’s then-President Hafez Assad secured the US and Arab green light and crushed the military resistance of then-Prime Minister Michel Aoun, putting Lebanon under direct Syrian control, Moscow did not benefit from its main ally’s control of the strategic Mediterranean country, which pleased Washington far more than it did the Kremlin.
And the time Moscow was metamorphosing from a communist empire into a new Russia with an uncertain global role, and Assad, engaging Israel in peace talks, saw more benefit for his regime to align with American interests while its main arms supplier and historical ally was putting its house in order.
During the Cold War the Soviet Union had allies and significant intelligence presence in Lebanon relying on armed Palestinian factions and a mosaic of communists groups in Beirut. However, Lebanon was considered in the Western orbit due its open market and democratic traditions.
Moscow, which managed to save Bashar Assad, its man in Damascus, may try to test the ground in Lebanon. But analysts doubt an assertive and more aggressive Russia can translate its control of Syria into a major influence in Lebanon because of two factors: First Syria’s influence has eroded since it was forced to leave Lebanon in 2005 and the regime is still reeling from a destructive civil war, and second, Tehran, through its strong ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, filled the vacuum left by Syria and became the main power broker in Lebanon.
In first summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, the two discussed the Syrian humanitarian crisis with an acknowledgment inherited from the former Trump administration that Syria was in Russia’s sphere.
But in Damascus, Moscow has to share influence with Tehran, and until now they have managed to coexist and avoid friction despite contradictions in their long-term goals.
Tehran, may not be willing to share its growing influence with Russia in Lebanon and may not welcome any Russian attempt to expand its influence into Lebanon. Despite occasional flirting with Lebanese issues and political leaders, Moscow has failed to show it can influence the course of events in Lebanon as both Tehran and Washington closely monitor Russian diplomatic activities concerning the Mediterranean country. In addition, what Lebanon needs at the moment is financial help, a service that Moscow can’t deliver.
Other than a few delusional politicians and local news pundits, no one even hinted that Lebanon was discussed at the Geneva summit. This was not because Lebanon is not strategically important, but no one wants to reveal their agendas of fall being subject to blackmail or a high price at the bargaining table with global and regional powers.
Iran may reach the same conclusion as Hafez Assad in 1990 when he decided to accommodate Washington’s interests in Lebanon and avoided antagonizing it.
It just so happens that the two main powers in Lebanon are Hezbollah – inspired, funded and armed by Iran – and the Lebanese Army – consistently equipped and supported by Washington. A key unknown is whether Washington would prefer Moscow’s influence in Damascus over Tehran’s. The post-Vienna talks will certainly clear the path to discuss spheres of influence in the region.
Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He contributes a weekly column in The Daily Star.