Lebanon’s slow shift into Russia’s orbit?


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Lebanon’s slow shift into Russia’s orbit

Lebanon’s slow shift into Russia’s orbit

Aoun’s upcoming Kremlin visit points to warming ties, given Moscow’s dominance in Syria


Lebanese President Michel Aoun will be visiting Moscow on March 25-26 for a summit with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
The talks will be multi-faceted, dealing with a Russian-engineered return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, which will be high on the agenda, along with military cooperation and economic investment.
A warming of Lebanese-Russian ties is only natural after all, given Russia’s dominance in neighbouring Syria, a country that has historically had the upper hand in Lebanese affairs — even during its times of weakness. One hundred years ago, the modern state of Lebanon was carved out of Greater Syria, and ever since, the fate of the two countries has been incredibly intertwined.
One year ago, the Russian Foreign and Defence Ministries announced an ambitious project for the repatriation of 2 million Syrian refugees from neighbouring countries. They were needed to physically take part in the rebuilding of their destroyed homes, and to help project Putin’s image as a problem-solver in the region. Putin wants to take credit for being the person who solved Syria’s refugee problem — starting from Lebanon, which hosts nearly 1.5 million Syrians.
Their return has been slow, however, due to fears of arrest by Syrian authorities, and lack of basic services in their towns and villages. Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri was opposed to it one year ago, claiming that death or arrest awaited them across the border.
President Aoun thought otherwise, however, and so did his allies in Hezbollah. They argued that Hariri wanted them to stay because they were generating money for the Lebanese economy, through a constant cash flow from international donors and the United Nations.

Additionally, the majority of them were Sunni Muslims, raising the ire of Hezbollah, who argued that if they overstayed their welcome, these refugees would slowly embed into Lebanese society, tipping the delicate sectarian balance in favour of the Sunni community.
Military cooperation
Hariri has now seemingly abandoned the project — along with the portfolio of refugee affairs, which went to a protege of the president last January after being in the hands of the Prime Minister’s Future Movement since 2016. The new minister, Saleh Garib, visited Damascus last month despite Hariri’s insistence that no member of his government engages with Syria before a political deal is reached, under UN auspices. He laid the groundwork for a systematic return of Syrian refugees, which Aoun hopes to put into action after his upcoming meeting with Putin.
Last April, Aoun’s former Defence Minister Yaacoub Sarrouf travelled to Moscow where on the sidelines of a security council he was expected to sign a military agreement with the Russians. It had been proposed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in February 2018 at the urging of President Putin. It called for the opening of Lebanese airspace, airports and naval bases for the Russian military, who are already stationed a stone’s throw away at Hmeimeem in Syria.
Putin was also offering 15 years of interest-free delivery of Russian arms to Beirut, worth $1.5 billion (Dh5.51 billion), along with intelligence sharing, and the training of Lebanese troops on counter-terrorism.

The agreement never saw the light of day, due to fears among the US-backed Lebanese political elite, who feared the wrath of Donald Trump, should they sign such a document. Hezbollah MP Nawaf Al Mousawi spoke in its favour in Parliament, saying: “Why don’t we head towards Russia and China and get arms from these great countries? Why is the Lebanese government hesitating in signing the agreement with Russia? Syria has a relationship with the Russian Federation, so why doesn’t Lebanon get included underneath Russian air cover as well?” He then boomed: “If the Russians want military bases and airports, why don’t they use Beirut and Riyak (in the Bekka Valley)?”
Economic cooperation
The presidential summit is boosting econ-omic relations one month after the Russian-state owned firm Rosneft was granted a 20-year year licence to manage and upgrade an oil storage facility in Tripoli.
Earlier, Russia’s Novatek joined France’s Total and Italy’s ENI in drilling for oil in the eastern Mediterranean — an operation strongly contested by the Israelis who claim that the drilling would be taking place in a block claimed by both countries.
Mike Pompeo was recently in Beirut, expressing US support for Israel on this matter, and urging Lebanese officialdom to reconsider. His calls fell on deaf ears, however, in a country that is shifting slowly, perhaps even at a snail’s pace, into Russia’s orbit. Hezbollah insists on going ahead with the drilling, and so does Michel Aoun.

Meanwhile, bilateral trade between the two countries currently exceeds $500 million, while Lebanon imports $900 million worth of Russian goods annually, mainly oil and hydrocarbons. Aoun has plenty of reasons to invest in the relationship — especially that the Russians don’t pressure him into taking impossible actions, like “curbing” the influence of Hezbollah or clipping its wings — as Pompeo recently expressed in Beirut.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also the author of Under the ‘Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad’.


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Russia one-ups the U.S. in Lebanon over Iran, Israel and Syria

Russia One-Ups U.S. in Middle East as Lebanon Challenges Donald Trump’s Stance on Iran, Israel and Syria
Russia has challenged the United States' relationship with Lebanon as the head of the strategic Mediterranean country appeared to align itself more closely with Moscow's view of the region in back-to-back diplomatic encounters with both powers.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and other officials in Beirut on Friday in the final leg of his three-nation Middle East tour meant to shore up ties against Iran. The top U.S. diplomat had first traveled to Kuwait and then Israel, a nation not recognized by Lebanon due to the decades-long Arab-Israeli dispute that has brought multiple conflicts fought between the neighboring states.
Following talks with Bassil, Pompeo offered remarks laced heavily with references to "Iranian aggression" and the "criminality, terror and threats" of Lebanon's Iran-allied Hezbollah—one of the country's largest political parties and a member of the ruling March 8 coalition. Bassil gave a very different speech, defending Hezbollah as an elected part of the government and urging his U.S. counterpart to "please, show priority to the friendship with Lebanon and let us work for its stability and unity."
Also in sharp contrast was the mood following talks held days later by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Aoun, along with Bassil and other Lebanese officials visiting Moscow on Monday. The two sides issued a joint statement "reaffirming their desire to develop bilateral ties and mutually beneficial cooperation" as they both criticized the U.S. decision to recognize the occupied Golan Heights as part of Israel. The move has infuriated Washington's Middle Eastern allies and foes alike.
In remarks published Wednesday by Lebanese newspaper Al-Joumhouria, Berri—who, like Aoun, Bassil and Hezbollah, is a member of the March 8 bloc—deemed Pompeo's visit "something of the past that will be eventually forgotten."

The U.S. has offered millions in terms of military and economic support to Lebanon in spite of Hezbollah's growing political influence, which was given a boost in elections last May. The Shiite group—designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and a number of its allies, some of whom use the label only for its armed wing—has led two wars and multiple skirmishes against Israel since being founded in the middle of Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s.
After a 2011 uprising backed by the U.S. and regional allies such Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey erupted in neighboring Syria, Hezbollah came to the defense of President Bashar al-Assad, bolstering his embattled ranks against rebels and jihadis who began to take refuge across the Lebanese border. By 2014, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) had spread across Iraq and Syria, and a U.S.-led coalition began bombing it, followed by a Russian campaign in support of Assad the following year.
Russia has been careful not to classify its relationship with fellow Assad ally Iran as an "alliance," but Moscow and Tehran have deeply developed their ties since coordinating on the conflict in Syria. Their backing for the Syrian armed forces has allowed them and Iran-allied militias like Hezbollah to retake most of the country, a development that been a source of particular frustration for the U.S. and Israel.
Since 2013, around the same time Hezbollah entered the conflict, Israel has launched hundreds, possibly even thousands, of airstrikes against the group and other forces suspected of being under Iranian command. The U.S.—whose operations were officially limited to defeating ISIS—has since expanded its mission to curbing Iranian influence and ensuring that Assad was ultimately ousted, even as President Donald Trump called for a U.S. withdrawal.
As the U.S. attempted to pressure the Arab world into keeping Syria in political isolation, Russia pushed forward an opposing initiative of which Lebanon and Iraq have been a part. Bassil tweeted about his own talks with Putin on Tuesday, describing "a deep and strategic conversation from the Orient to the world, from diversity to resistance against terrorism, from Jerusalem to the Golan, from oil to gas, from tourism to agriculture
Pompeo called one reporter who pointed out the apparent inconsistencies in the U.S. and Lebanese points of view "just wrong" prior to the Lebanese-Russian meeting. He argued Saturday that Lebanese officials "understand the need for Lebanese freedom, democracy, independence, sovereignty."
When Trump then reversed U.S. policy on the Golan Heights, however, Lebanon joined much of the region and international community as a whole in rejecting the move, which Syria said made Washington "the main enemy of the Arabs" and that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah warned would ultimately lead to Israeli annexation of the Palestinian West Bank.
The controversial decision has given Russia another inroad to the Middle East and the Mediterranean, where Moscow's presence has been emboldened by its largely successful campaign in Syria. Russia was joined not only by Iran in holding Syria peace talks but also Turkey, a U.S. ally set to purchase Russia's advanced S-400 defense system, further straining ties between Washington and Ankara.
Lebanon too offered support for a political settlement in Syria, one not conditioned on the removal of allegedly Iran-backed forces or the government in Damascus, with which Beirut maintained ties. Tuesday's joint Lebanese-Russia statement affirmed Aoun and Putin's support for the Russia-Iran-Turkey talks, as well as "the efforts taken by the Syrian Arab Republic authorities and its allies to combat terrorism as represented by ISIS, the Nusra Front and their affiliated groups."
Amal Abou Zeid—a former member of parliament affiliated with Aoun and Bassil's majority-Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement—called the first top-level Lebanese delegation to Moscow since Aoun took the presidency in 2016 a "success," in a commentary published Wednesday by Moscow's Valdai Discussion Club. He added that his "positive reception underscores that Russo-Lebanese relations are grounded in mutual understanding and that Lebanon is very appreciative of Russia’s engagement in Middle Eastern affairs."
"Due to the Russian presence in Syria, Lebanon understands that Russia played a vital role in bringing peace to the region, restoring order and defeating armed terrorist groups vying to take control, whether in Syria or elsewhere," Abou Zeid wrote. "At the international level, Lebanon will coordinate more with Russia in order to improve the dialogue on resolving the political issues affecting the region."
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Lebanese President Michel Aoun at the Kremlin on March 26. Their two countries have found common ground in the battle against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), support for peace in Syria and condemnation of the U.S. decision to recognize Israeli control of the Golan Heights.