Biden is letting Syria and Lebanon reach a point of no return

Amid Washington’s lack of interest, Iran and its proxies are extending their influence in the two countries

A protester holds a placard, as she marches during a protest against the increase in prices of consumer goods and the crash of the local currency in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, March 19, 2021. Lebanon's local currency has been in a free fall since late 2019, losing about 90% of its value. The government defaulted on its foreign debt last year and nearly half the population has been pushed into poverty and unemployment. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Powered by automated translation

The vacuum left by the Biden administration in Syria and Lebanon, as the two countries slip down the US list of priorities, is undermining regional stability as well as US interests there.

After a decade of conflict, Syria’s situation is a mess. Lebanon, meanwhile, has become a failed state, controlled in part by Iranian-backed proxy Hezbollah and in part by a corrupt political class that has escaped any kind of international accountability or even scrutiny.

In America’s absence, Russia is seeking to fill the vacuum in the region. But Moscow alone cannot do so in Syria, where it is an ally of the Assad regime. It is, therefore, engaging the Gulf states to help finance reconstruction there, especially with the strained European-Russian relations dampening the EU’s desire to lend support.

Moscow is also seeking to bring Israel to the table with its mortal enemies, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Israel is currently safeguarding its security by engaging in a military confrontation with Iranian proxies inside Syria. It is also at odds with Hezbollah, which poses a threat to its security from its vantage point inside Lebanon. Israel shares a border with both countries.

The Biden administration’s lack of interest in Lebanon – in sharp contrast to that of the previous Trump administration – has only helped Iran increase its grip over Lebanon at a time when economic collapse is imminent. The EU seems to have outsourced the Lebanese dossier to France, despite Paris’ record of arbitrary, unserious involvement that has only deepened Beirut’s predicament. For its part, Russia, which received a rare Hezbollah delegation in Moscow this week, will probably let the Iranian regime have its way in the Arab country.

The US administration seems nonchalant about the investigations into last year’s Beirut Port blast, despite its pledges not to be lenient on crimes against humanity or human rights violations. Lebanese politicians are guilty on both counts, given their disregard of the many demands made by the families of the blast victims. Washington can do something about this, for starters instructing its Federal Bureau of Investigation to publish the results of its probe into the blasts, which would amount to the most important tool to internationalise the events in Lebanon.

Washington’s lack of interest in taking such a crucial step has left the Lebanese public divided between those who support “neutrality” for Lebanon and those who back Iranian domination of its politics.

For Hezbollah, neutrality is synonymous with treason. In his speech last week, Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, criticised the Maronite Church and its patriarch, Bechara Al Rai, who called for Lebanese neutrality. Nasrallah claimed that the objective of neutrality in Lebanon was tantamount to “becoming a part of the American-Israeli axis”.

Nasrallah also insisted on rejecting the conditions laid out by the International Monetary Fund for helping Lebanon out of its economic crisis. Reform and resulting IMF aid would effectively undermine Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanese politics. It’s no wonder, then, that he threatened anybody who was open to the idea, whether it was the protesting public, the army, or the Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh.

The problem is that the souring of personal relations between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, after the former described the latter as a “killer”, will further impact already-frayed US-Russian-European relations as well as foreign policy issues, ranging from Crimea to Iran to issues they see as secondary, including Lebanon’s future.

Given Moscow’s warm relations with Tehran, Russia is now more likely to support Iran’s escalation of the unresolved nuclear weapons issue, designed to take its brinkmanship with the US to another level. This will be done with the purpose of pushing the Biden administration and the European powers to cave in to Iran’s demands, including an unconditional revival of the 2015 nuclear deal.

FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2021, file photo president Joe Biden signs an executive order on immigration, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The Biden administration is facing growing questions about why it wasn't more prepared for an influx of migrants at the southern border. The administration is scrambling to build up capacity to care for 14,000 young undocumented migrants now in federal custody — and more likely on the way. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Lebanon is not high up on US President Joe Biden’s list of priorities. AP

With the Iranian presidential election scheduled for June, it won’t be surprising to see the regime escalating military tensions in the region. The powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seeks to expand its influence in Iranian politics by pushing its candidates to win, and escalating tensions will serve its interests at the ballot box.

The details of the Hezbollah delegation’s discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow this week have not been released. However, Iran’s continued influence in Syria, in partnership with Russia, and in Lebanon, through Hezbollah, will surely have been talking points – as will have been Hezbollah’s own plans to deal with the Lebanese crisis, whatever they might entail. Russia’s proposal to include Israel in talks with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah will not doubt have featured as well.

People carry banners and opposition flags during a demonstration, marking the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict, in the opposition-held Idlib, Syria March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
People carry banners and opposition flags during a demonstration, marking the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict, in the opposition-held Idlib this week. With the Assad regime entrenched in power, it is natural for Syrians to ask themselves, did the revolution fail? Khalil Ashawi

Even as Moscow seeks to calm tensions between these sparring entities, Iranian politicians continue to make provocative statements about Israel, including calling for its destruction. Whether such statements are meant for domestic consumption ahead of the election or not, Moscow is clearly determined to find some sort of resolution between the two countries, particularly as it looks at its own interests in the region. Whatever be the nature of Washington-Moscow relations right now, the US might have already given Russia its silent blessing in its endeavour.

Amid all this uncertainty, one thing is clear: Iran and Hezbollah are in the driver’s seat, getting ever closer to dictating the identity and future of Lebanon.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National