In Lebanon, a clash of US-Russian interests are at play

Economically and militarily, the two powers are in danger of locking horns

Lebanese President Michel Aoun (C) rides on a jeep as he attends a military parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Lebanon's independence in downtown Beirut, on November 22, 2018 / AFP / AA / ANWAR AMRO
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The current US-Russian rivalry in Lebanon is, at its heart, about Syria, Israel and Iran. Lebanon's hydrocarbon potential of course carries weight in the context of gas exports to Europe, but the security of Russian forces in Syria is the top priority for Moscow and demands vigilance where Iran and Israel are concerned. Lebanon is also valuable for the same reason for the US, although the American motivation differs from that of Russia because of the country's historic alliance with Israel and US President Donald Trump's policy of containing Iran and proxies such as Hezbollah. Russia, unlike the US, enjoys close relations with both Israel and Iran and has a significant presence in Syria, suggesting Moscow already has leverage that Washington can only hope to match. However, Washington is not in a weaker position than Russia. Unlike the latter, it is not bogged down in Syria's quagmire. Nor does it have anything to fear from the evolution of Russian-Israeli bonds because they can only complement US-Israeli ones. As for Lebanon, it stands to benefit from a US-Russian accord that aims to shore up stability in the country.

The visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Beirut next week is therefore important. He will doubtless issue warnings but also reassurances if he feels Lebanon's leaders acknowledge what is at stake. Lebanese President Michel Aoun's March 26 visit to Moscow, meanwhile, will only become an opportunity if it is not accompanied by attempts to manipulate the existing equation between the US and Russia over a myriad of issues. For example, Moscow has yet to come up with a practical plan for the mass repatriation of Syrian refugees from Lebanon. And there are no signs that Russia is willing to side with Lebanon and abandon Israel in the context of the two neighbouring countries' dispute. Further, Moscow might not echo parts of the Lebanese government in disapproving of US measures against Iran and Hezbollah because Russian interests do not always conform to those of Iran, whether in Syria or in Lebanon.

The issue of arming the Lebanese Armed Forces is a crucial one for the Americans, who categorically reject any Iranian or Russian armed transfers to the national army. If there is talk about “soft ammunition” for police forces, however, that does not equate to a strategic Russian decision to challenge the US.

Economically, while the Lebanese market is not significant enough to justify a clash between the US and Russia, oil and gas are important. Where gas exports to Europe are concerned, Russia has considerable leverage, giving the US cause for concern. Lebanon’s potential hydrocarbon wealth is significant but not enough to cause an upset in global markets. The importance of Russia acquiring an energy foothold in Lebanon stems from its role in Syria; hence, both the US and Russia see Lebanon’s energy market as one with strategic dimensions.

Mr Pompeo will no doubt tackle this issue as well as the Lebanese-Israeli dispute over maritime borders, rather than talking about exploration contracts. As long as the maritime borders have not been demarcated, Israel will benefit and Lebanon will lose out. Demarcating the borders does not mean either negotiating, normalising or concluding peace treaties. All those who use this excuse are giving Israel more time to exploit and extract gas secretly, with the aim of exporting it in the future to Cyprus, Greece and Italy, in a project that will bypass Lebanon.

It is time for Lebanon to demarcate those maritime borders with Israel as well as land borders with Syria because it serves its national interests. There is a chance for US-Russian co-operation to help achieve this end and for the two countries to pressure their Israeli and Syrian allies.

When Mr Aoun visits Moscow, he can ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to help with a number of issues, starting with convincing Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to agree to the demarcation of land borders, something that Damascus has long resisted. That would help solve the dispute with Israel in areas such as the disputed Shebaa Farms

The borders issue is more immediate and directly beneficial than the issue of repatriating Syrian refugees. International players are manipulating the refugee issue because Europeans still fear their arrival on their shores while the UN is accustomed to managing refugees where they are, rather than developing a strategy to help them return home.

The problem is that Mr Aoun, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and their backers have correlated the refugee issue with normalising relations with the regime in Damascus. In fact, Mr Al Assad only wants wealthy Syrians to return and has implemented laws to seize properties of refugees and refuseniks fleeing forced conscription. Russia can help with this issue but the US and Europe also need to pressure Mr Al Assad so that he alone cannot decide who can or cannot return. Otherwise, Syrian refugees in Lebanon will remain indefinitely.

Lebanon’s leaders must not miss this opportunity for talks with the US and Russia because that threatens to push the country towards economic collapse and compromise its security. Mr Aoun’s team is under extreme scrutiny. The Americans have told him there will be zero tolerance for a government manipulated by Hezbollah. There are whispers now about possible sanctions against Christian and Sunni factions in Lebanon, not just Shia businessmen supporting Hezbollah. Mr Pompeo is expected to warn that Washington will not tolerate a continued alliance between the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah.

For its part, Russia will not be Hezbollah’s protective shield, especially amid reported differences between the two sides over the group’s military activities in the Golan Heights, which Russia wants to keep neutral as part of an accord with Israel. In short, this phase requires vigilance and wisdom from all sides, as well as the US and Russia.