Lebanon: Beware the Bear

Friday, July 19, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

There are those in Lebanon who believe that Russia is a friend that needs to be cultivated, hence the sweetheart deal on the oil storage facilities in Tripoli. There are high hopes that Russian companies will invest in Lebanon as a prelude to reconstruction contracts in Syria, and Russian companies want to make use of Lebanese contacts to open opportunities in West Africa. Lebanese fans point to the participation of Novatek, Russia’s second-largest gas company, in the first offshore gas lease as proof of their interest in Lebanon.

As an analysis in Al-Monitor pointed out, “Although the United States maintains an important degree of diplomatic clout in Lebanese energy matters, Russian economic investments in the sector have far outpaced those of the Americans, and Russian officials and business leaders have expressed their desire to take further steps to cement their roles as key players while the United States continues to lag behind.”

Various senior Lebanese officials continue to visit Moscow, which is pressing Lebanon for some type of security agreement that until now is on hold. Recent meetings in Lebanon confirmed that several government leaders hold the view that Russia is in the neighborhood and can’t be ignored; it is important to talk with them and they have shown their willingness to invest in Lebanon while no US companies are showing interest in the offshore leases.

To some politicians and others, a key point is the belief that the Russian government will intervene with Syria to ensure the expedited return of the refugees. Nothing has come out of either the Astana meetings or other Russian initiatives that offers support for this. In any case, it may be wishful thinking according to another key security official that Russia will be able to influence Syria on conforming to international conditions for the safe and voluntary return of its refugees. Syria wants direct negotiations on the many refugee issues, while the US and international community are holding back until a political consensus on a way forward is reached.

The US is increasingly seen as too focused on countering Iran to consider other priorities that Lebanon has for its needs. As the article further noted, when Secretary of State Pompeo visited Lebanon, one of his messages was that Lebanon should not embrace Russian initiatives. “Yet, whatever plans Pompeo may have had to counter Russia in Lebanon, they seem to have had little effect. Lebanese leaders have doubled down on working with Russian companies in their country’s expanding oil and gas sector in the weeks since Pompeo’s visit.”

Russia has also offered to mediate the maritime border between Syria and Lebanon, as the dispute directly affects its interests in the area. With the potential for a major role in the hydrocarbon sector in the eastern Mediterranean, it makes sense that Russia protects its potential investments there. And it is using its companies as a driver for its interests. It is clear that “Novatek is fulfilling the request of the Russian government, which actively supports the company and is working to transform its expanding military and political influence in the region into efficient business projects that are highly important due to European and American sanctions. Novatek itself is under US sanctions.” This presents a conundrum that may impact Lebanon-US relations in the future.

Lebanon has been invited to the next round of the Astana (now Nur-Sultan) meetings in late July and, while the refugees will be on the top of its agenda, Russia’s economic interests will not be far behind. As Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin noted, “Syria’s neighbors need to be engaged in the talks to promote political settlement, resolve the refugee problem and assist in postwar reconstruction.” The proactive posture displayed by Russia has excited more than a few in the region who assume that it will be able to use its clout to convince Assad that there are concrete benefits to changing policies that impact the refugees and reconstruction, and that this may create openings to solve some of its thorniest challenges, including the survival of the Assad regime.

The US, primarily concerned with Israel’s security and dominance, and leaving the UN to lead the international community’s efforts, has not yet crafted a strategic posture that will enable it to play a more determining role in the region, if it chooses to do so.