• Jean AbiNader

News Notes on Lebanon and the Region: Southern Border Dispute; Iran’s Role in Syria; US Warns agains

Although there are a few indications that Lebanon and Israel are willing to negotiate their land and maritime borders, it is difficult to gauge consistent progress. The three companies that were awarded the three concessions, one that is in a disputed zone, will begin exploration at the end of the summer, according to the consortium, but will not work in the area that is contested.

For now, trilateral diplomatic negotiations continue with UNIFIL as the referee although that may soon change. In advance of last week’s meeting, the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of the Parliament met to unify Lebanon’s position on the issue. Key military personnel were also present including General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and heads of the Lebanese military delegation participating in the tripartite meetings held in Naqoura Brigadier General Amin Farahat and Brigadier General Ruli Fares. The talks included both land and maritime borders as well as cement structures being constructed by Israel that Lebanon claims violates the truce agreement.

It was reported in The Arab Weekly, that what is interesting in Israel’s latest statement on the negotiations is that they want to discuss all land and sea borders, including those in the Shebaa Farms area. Both the US and Russia have been engaged in moving the negotiations ahead. The US has made these efforts for several years and has offered suggestions as to demarcation options. Recently, the Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that “New ideas proposed in US back-channel mediation of an Israeli-Lebanese maritime dispute over oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean raise the prospect of a partial deal this year.”

Russia sees on interest in extracting offshore natural gas in the area to continue its control over gas shipments to Europe, and so is more than willing to sponsor border talks. Speaker Berri is particularly interested in moving forward under the UN umbrella linking Lebanon’s border issue with what goes on across the border in southern Syria, and sees the new energy industry as the key to revitalizing the economy in the South.

Given that Israel is trying to monopolize the development and distribution of gas in the eastern Mediterranean though its agreement with Cyprus and Greece, other problems may lie ahead. “There was a lot of talk about how gas could be a driver of reconciliation in the region,” says Charlotte Brandsma, program officer with the German Marshall Fund’s Mediterranean Policy Program. “But rather than being a stabilizing force, it has only aggravated existing problems.”

Claims and charges are flying about the future of Iran’s forces and interests in Syria. While both Russia and the US have stated that Iran’s forces must be withdrawn eventually, referencing different sets of conditions, President Assad recently said that he will decide with Iran about the future, regardless of what others imply or declare. He supports Iran’s “advisers” in their role in supporting Syria’s armed forces. Regarding their role, he noted that when these “advisers” enter a battle, they become “fighters.” However, he indicated that what is meant by "advisers" is that there are no Iranian units fighting in Syria— meaning no battalions, brigades or divisions,” according to the Al Alam interview.

The US reiterated its position that it will take firm countermeasures against any violations in the de-escalation zones in southwest Syria. This came in a State Department statement that “As a member of the UN Security Council, Russia “is duly responsible” to “use its diplomatic and military influence over the Syrian government to stop attacks and compel the government to cease further military offensives.”

Russia Looks to Build Economic Ties with Lebanon according to a recent article on Tass.com. After a growth of more than 17% in 2017, trade has declined in the 1Q 2018. Putin said that “It is necessary to speed up the work of the intergovernmental commission," which has been operating successfully so far, involving various companies to collaboration. He added that "there is a good groundwork in different areas." While Lebanon exports very little to Russia, the potential importance of exploiting its gas fields is attractive to Russia. In fact, over the past year, Lebanon and Russia have entered into a process of negotiating closer military cooperation including port visits and military aircraft landing in Lebanese facilities.

The most recent draft agreement, signed in February proposes the use of Lebanese facilities by the Russian military, a broader exchange of military information, along with deepening bilateral cooperation on international security issues, and deepening collaboration against terrorism and piracy, and include reference to the joint training of troops. Given the comparative size of the Lebanese Armed Forces vis-à-vis any of its neighbors, there is some logic to having additional guarantees of Lebanon’s territorial integrity. “Additional areas of collaboration contain proposals to enhance information and engineering support, military education and medicine, military topography and hydrography, as well as cooperation in search and rescue at sea,” according to the article from The Jamestown Foundation.

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