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Can Lebanon afford to offend America by befriending Russia?

While Washington is not averse to Moscow’s presence in Lebanon, it certainly draws the line at defence.

Lebanese President Michael Aoun landed in Moscow scarcely three days after United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lambasted Hezbollah and showered veiled threats on the group’s political allies.

Even though the visit had been prescheduled, the political corridors in Lebanon were abuzz with the suggestion that if the US was to impose sanctions on Lebanon, there was always the Russian orbit of influence to fall under.

President Aoun and his Russian counterpart recently announced boosting bilateral ties, which would have been seen as a routine, ceremonial statement before the Syrian war.

However, since Russia established itself in the Middle East by backing controversial Syrian President Bashar Assad and handing him military victory in large swathes of rebel-held territory, extending their footprint to Lebanon was, in hindsight, only a matter of time, which renders the recent announcement all the more significant.

Indeed, last summer, Russia opened three cultural centers in Lebanon. The soft move was, of course, a telltale sign of the engagement to unfold.

In January, Rosneft, the Russian oil company, signed a contract to operate oil storage facilities in Tripoli, north Lebanon, which will be in effect for at least 20 years.

At the time, Novatek, a Russian company, had already won a bid to explore potential oil and gas reserves off Lebanon’s southern coast.

Add to that Russia’s agreement with Syria to explore Syrian offshore gas fields and you have Moscow essentially dominating the eastern Mediterranean coast, according to experts, thus enabling the superpower to push for its oil and gas projects.

Perhaps the most potent liaison between Beirut and Moscow is their resolve at ensuring Syrian refugees return home.

In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed a proposal for a joint action plan aimed at enabling refugees to return during a meeting with US President Donald Trump in Finland.

America has done nothing to pay heed to Putin on that front.

In August, President Putin met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and said that humanitarian aid to Syrians must be increased substantially.

“By that, I mean above all humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and helping the regions refugees can return to,” he said.

He even referred to Syrian refugees in Europe as “potentially a huge burden” and said Moscow could only help resolve the problem if the west provided funds for reconstruction.

The European Union (EU), however, has refused to budge on the issue until Assad releases thousands believed to be under forced detention inside Syrian prisons (and delivers on a legitimate political transition through free and fair elections).

A senior EU diplomat, who spoke to TRT Worldon the condition of anonymity, said that nothing has materialised on that front precisely because while Russia made refugee return contingent on reconstruction, Europe has made it a matter of political transition and human rights.

“Russia tells Europe that if it wants the suffering of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan to end, then it must pay for reconstruction,” the diplomat said. “However, if the EU pays, it knows that Moscow would like to bag the reconstruction projects. While the bigger worry for the EU is to ensure Syrians return to safety.”

Russia said that most of the more-than 1 million refugees could return to Syria from Lebanon in the near future if the EU committed to rebuilding Syria.

But since Moscow has not succeeded in securing any substantial concessions from the Assad government, its plan has not quite worked out.

Alain Aoun, an MP from President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, said that while politicians in Lebanon, which is currently home to 1.5 million Syrians, naturally agree with the Russians that the return of refugees should not be contingent on political mutations, it also does not want the return to depend on reconstruction funds.

“The political process of Geneva has not worked, we have seen that,” Aoun said. “But Russia is linking it to money for reconstruction and we do not think that works either. People have to return because its their home, but of course, voluntarily.”

Contentious as it may be, though, the refugee crisis remains only one part of a multi-faceted power equation.

For a country dealing with a deteriorating economy, soaring unemployment and a glaring lack of basics services, the return of Syrians is indeed a priority. But Lebanon sees Russia as a better alternative to America, especially since Trump seems more and more willing to leave a void in the region.

Russia, of course, complements Hezbollah’s political friends who are aligned with the group’s Syrian allies. For politicians like Saad Hariri who cannot directly deal with Assad, but are well aware of the importance of keeping some form of communication with a historically powerful neighbor, Russia opens a back channel.

Still, can Lebanon, which depends on the free flow of US dollars, afford to offend America? Perhaps a little, but certainly not too much.

Experts said that the US seemed ready to give some leeway to Russia in Lebanon, but only to keep Iran in check.

Makran Rabah, a history professor of at the American University of Beirut, said that the US is not averse to Russia’s increasing influence in Lebanon.

“The US is not putting pressure on Russia to limit its presence in Lebanon,” he said.

“Russians are playing an important role in the region with US backing in a way. Lebanon is a US territory, so to speak. More importantly, there is an agreement between Israel, US and Russia for reining in Iran in the region.”

America, however, draws the line at Lebanon’s dealings with Russia in the defence sector.

Lebanon was forced to shelve a cost-effective, interest-free weapons deal worth $1 billion with Moscow after Hariri came under intense pressure from Washington.

General Elias Farhat, a retired official with the Lebanese Army, said that the Americans have actively blocked any attempt by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to purchase defence equipment from Russia.

“The US made no secret of the fact that it does not want to see Russia equipping the LAF,” he said. “The LAF does not have Russian military equipment thus far and that is not changing anytime soon. The LAF last received Russian weapons in 1972.”

If one thing is for sure, it is that Russia has firmly entrenched itself in Syria and intends on spreading its sphere of influence in the region.

Israel is already relying on Russia to be a bulwark against Iranian presence nearby.

It remains to be seen for how long the US will view Russians as serving a purpose and at which point they will consider them a threat.

Still, that does not change the fact that Russia is slowly but surely proving to be a worthy ally in several Arab countries and Lebanon seems no exception.