At first glance, it may seem unclear why resurgent world power Russia, flush with success after restoring its regional foothold in Syria, would show much interest in Lebanon.
The tiny country on the eastern Mediterranean, once a vassal state of its far more powerful neighbor Syria, a former Soviet client, is grappling with a long list of political and economic woes.
It has a tangled sectarian political system that often throttles progress; it hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the highest per capita refugee population in the world; it suffers from a stagnant economy; and it is saddled with crippling debt. In addition, Lebanon seems forever perched on the edge of a potentially catastrophic war between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah organization, the dominant political force in the country.
But as the United States and Russia give growing indications of squaring off in Syria, where the seven-year civil war is entering a more complicated multinational phase, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main backer Moscow appears to be calculating that it can expand its leverage against Washington by stepping up its influence in Lebanon.
In what is being described here as a political shift by Moscow in its policy toward Lebanon, Russia is offering it a $1 billion arms package and reportedly seeking a military cooperation agreement. The maneuver could threaten to undermine an existing US military assistance program that has seen more than $1.6 billion in weapons, training, and equipment delivered to the Lebanese Army since 2006.
And, depending on how Lebanon responds, analysts say, the move could also subject the country to US sanctions and even treatment as a pariah by the same Western and Gulf Arab countries that have supported it.
International donor countries are scheduled to meet in Rome Thursday in a demonstration of support for the Lebanese Army and police.
Lebanon and Russia have been discussing potential arms deals since 2009, but it is only recently that Moscow has shown any willingness to subsidize a major armaments package. The $1 billion credit line, which includes a 15-year repayment term at zero percent interest, may have less to do with selling Russian weapons to Lebanon and more to do with building up its influence in the tiny country given the growing competition with the US in Syria, analysts and Lebanese politicians say.
“This offer signals a political shift by Russia toward Lebanon,” says a Lebanese parliamentarian familiar with the deal. “At one point there was no interest from Russia in bankrolling an arms deal. But the more discord there is in Syria with the Americans, the more the Russians show interest here. That’s what has got the [US and British] sponsors [of the Lebanese Army] nervous.”
What Lebanon risks
The US and Britain, which also supports the Lebanese Army, have signaled to the Lebanese government that the military assistance programs could be threatened if Beirut accepts the Russian offer, according to several Lebanese politicians, analysts, and foreign diplomats in Beirut.
Furthermore, analysts warn that Lebanon could even face US sanctions if it deals with Russian arms companies that have been blacklisted by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was adopted last summer and targets Russia, North Korea, and Iran.
“Sanctions by association under CAATSA run the risk of making Lebanon a regional pariah with uncertain long-term effects on the stability of Lebanon,” says Aram Nerguizian, CEO of The Mortons Group, a Washington-based strategy consultancy. “Ultimately the Lebanese need to understand that while the Trump administration may appear to seek new ways to engage Russia in areas of common interest, engagements by countries like Lebanon with Russia continue to be regarded with extreme hostility by the executive and legislative branches of the US government.”
Sources close to the Lebanese government deny having received any warnings from the US or UK and note that the Russian offer has yet to be accepted. In such cases, says one of the sources, the Lebanese government asks the army to assess whether the offer suits its requirements and capabilities.
“This has not been answered yet,” says the source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In all cases, the government and Lebanese Army will not endanger existing strategic relationships. They are both adults and don’t need warnings.”
However, the Lebanese government has been eager to pursue closer ties to Russia, perhaps in recognition of Moscow’s growing sway in Lebanon’s immediate neighborhood. Last September, Prime Minister Saad Hariri paid a visit to Russia, where he sought bilateral economic and military cooperation and discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin “Russia’s military assistance and ways to develop this relation.”
Russian news outlets reported last month that Moscow wants to begin negotiating a military cooperation agreement with Lebanon. The mooted agreement would permit Russia to use Lebanese ports and airports as well as have Russia train the Lebanese Army and hold joint military exercises, the reports said.
Russian companies also are bidding for oil and gas exploration rights in Lebanon’s coastal waters, and both countries are looking to boost their cultural exchanges – Russia has plans to open a Russian language school in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Competition in Syria
But many diplomats and analysts say the main motivation for Russia’s newfound interest in Lebanon is related to the competition with the US over Syria and the Middle East more generally.
“Russia sees Lebanon as another arena where it can erode US influence,” says a European diplomat in Beirut. “The last really tangible influence the US has in Lebanon is the relationship with the Lebanese Army. It gives Washington a seat at the table.”
Last August, the Lebanese Army defeated several hundred Islamic State militants and drove them from their mountainous redoubt in northeast Lebanon. The short and decisive campaign demonstrated the improvements to the army’s capabilities over the past decade, largely due to the US and British support programs. However, since then, questions have been raised in Washington over the future of the program. Critics argue that the US is wasting taxpayers’ money by funding a Lebanese Army that they charge colludes with Hezbollah, classified by Washington as a terrorist organization.
“If we have tried to make the [Lebanese Army] a counter-balance to Hezbollah, we have failed,” Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Congress In November.
On the other hand, if the US abandons its support program for the army, it will significantly reduce Washington’s influence in Lebanon and allow other players such as Russia and Iran (which also has offered to equip the Lebanese Army) to fill the vacuum, analysts say.
Counterweight to Hezbollah
For some in Lebanon, an increase in Russian influence here could serve as a welcome counterweight to the power exerted by Hezbollah and indirectly by its sponsor Iran.
Iran and Russia are battlefield allies in Syria, where the former’s ground forces and the latter’s air force have brought anti-Assad rebels close to defeat. But the interests of both countries could begin to diverge as the conflict winds down. Russia’s interest is to broaden its influence in the Middle East at the expense of the US and seek commercial opportunities for Russian companies. Iran’s main goal in Syria is to consolidate and expand its anti-Israel alliance. The two agendas could prove incompatible in the longer term.
If Russia and Iran do find themselves at odds over the future direction of Syria, Tehran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, may not welcome an increase in Moscow’s influence in Lebanon.
And for that very reason, Hezbollah’s political opponents in Lebanon may seek to encourage expanded Russian ties, even at the risk of upsetting the US, in order to make life more complicated for Hezbollah.