By GHASSAN KADI*
Russia has put herself, for better or for worse, in a position that requires a huge role in the Levant; perhaps much bigger than what Russia bargained for on the eve of the Russian “intervention” in Syria on the 28th of September 2015.
The initial Russian-led attack on ISIS in Syria was highly successful until a glitch was added to the picture when Turkey downed a Russian Su-24 a few weeks later in November 2015.
Turkey was immediately faced by Russian sanctions and before too long, Erdogan, the man who never apologized for past mistakes, did eventually make his apology personally to President Putin. Putin accepted the apology, but in reality Erdogan made it clear to Russia that for the Russian initiative to succeed and succeed smoothly, it has to be based on acknowledging Turkey’s presence and interests.
That said, Erdogan’s apology to Putin is an acknowledgment of the former of his position in the pecking order.
As Russia and Turkey agreed to the principle of joint effort, Turkey became a partner in the team led by Russia, and which included Iran, as the nations that stood behind the Astana talks. All the while, Russia had to play the diplomatic role of keeping Damascus and Ankara at arm’s length given the key anti-Syrian role Erdogan has played in the war on Syria.
Even as Turkish troops are currently conducting a major offensive on Syrian Kurds on Syrian soil, Russia has managed to stave off direct confrontation between Syria and Turkey.
Putting the Turkish so-called “Olive Branch” operation aside, and notwithstanding how potentially dangerous it is, it can arguably be said that Turkey is as much under control as feasible. Russia now seems poised to play a much bigger regional role. After all, the return of Russian diplomacy and presence in the Levant is highly likely to include a wish on Russia’s side to replace the United States as the Middle East peace negotiator. After the USA ousted Russia from the joint role back in the mid-seventies, Russia is now coming back with force. Add to this the fact that American diplomacy has failed and given the Arabs, and Palestinians in specific, nothing in return for the many concessions they offered. If anything, the recent acknowledgement of Trump of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is probably going to be the last straw, and with this decision, Palestinians will no longer sit with Americans on any negotiating table.
So not only is Russia coming back into the Middle East with strength and determination, but also the USA is creating a huge void to be filled.
But for Russia to be the new and good “Big Brother”, she will have to find a way to curtail Israel, just like she did with Turkey.
Recent developments have been pointing to conflict between Lebanon and Israel, a conflict that can turn into a war that has thus far been avoided since July 2006.
That conflict was somehow inevitable, and it didn’t really surface until Lieberman, Israel’s Defense Minister, made provocative statements about alleged territorial rights of East Mediterranean offshore oil-gas resources.<https://www.reuters.com/article/us-natgas-lebanon-israel/israel-lebanon-clash-over-offshore-energy-raising-tensions-idUSKBN1FK1J0>
The outspoken and rather radical minister is often an embarrassment even to the staunchest supporters of right wing politics in Israel itself.
It is not surprising therefore that Hezbollah responded to Lieberman’s claims and threats by counter threats saying that should any offshore Lebanese infrastructure by targeted by Israel, Lebanon (i.e., Hezbollah) will retaliate by targeting Israeli offshore infrastructure. <http://www.almanar.com.lb/3332228>
We have all heard this tit-for-tat jargon many times before, but the new development here is that apparently the Russian Government has approached the Lebanese Government for military and security cooperation. According to Naharnet, a reliable Lebanese source, the two countries are not far from signing a formal agreement:
According to an article written by Salam Al-Obeidi and published on Al-Mayadeen, the proposed joint collaboration goes further. Al-Mayadeen is normally a reliable source, but what it published a few hours ago has not been corroborated elsewhere. According to Obeidi, the Russian Government is seeking an unprecedented level of military cooperation with Lebanon. (http://www.almayadeen.net/news/politics/857565/لماذا-الآن–لبنان-يفتح-مطاراته-وموانئه-أمام-الطائرات-القتالي/).
This is the English translation:
“Russia’s PM’s office advises the Lebanese Ministry of Defense of its willingness to sign a treaty for military cooperation between the two countries. This treaty includes, among other things, conducting joint military exercises and joint usage of airports and seaports of both countries that will facilitate access to fighter jets and warships on each other’s territory. The Russian government’s decision comes in response to the rising tension between Lebanon and the “Israeli entity” that is planning to build a concrete wall that goes beyond the ‘blue line’. Add to this the Israeli claims of ownership of ‘block 9’ that is rich in both oil and gas and, which is in Lebanese economic waters.
So what is behind the current Russian decision? Russia has taught us in the last decade or so that all that pertains to matters of energy resources, especially in the area between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea is considered by Russia to be matters of strategic and national security. From this perspective, we can understand Moscow’s position vis-a-vis Damascus’. After all, Syria’s strategic position which can potentially control oil and gas exports from the region to Europe, explains the steadfastness of Russia in its defence of President Bashar al Assad and the unity of Syria and bolstering their own military presence in Syria. From this same perspective, it can easily be concluded that the Kremlin’s resolve to expand its influence on the area must include Lebanon as well in order to complement Russia’s energy management strategy in between the Black sea and the Mediterranean. It is only logical to assume that the Russians who were successful in fighting side by side in the same trench with Iran, Hezbollah and Syria, now feel that the security of Lebanon has become a part of the security of Syria and inadvertently part of their own.
In light of the diminishing Saudi influence in Lebanon, the Russians can expand their own influence there based on those fundamentals, it seems highly likely that Russia is planning to be the sole partner of Lebanon with its energy resources, especially since a large number of Russian oil companies have expressed interest in putting in tenders for gas and oil exploration in offshore Lebanese areas.”
If the above analysis of the new development is accurate, it can possibly mean one thing and one thing only that is, apart from the obvious. It can only mean that Russian diplomacy is working hard on averting any military conflict in the Levant between Arabs and their regional nemesis Israel.
Economic targets aside, as mentioned above, Russia has many international scores to settle with America; and perhaps none is worse than the humiliation that the Kissinger shuttle diplomacy has brought upon the USSR and which eventually turned the so-called peace process between Arabs and Israel into a charade in which America alone dictates the rule of the game without any role at all left for the USSR to play.
The rules of this game were set to change on the 28th of September 2015, when Russian bombers conducted their first raid on ISIS targets within Syria. That said, as Russia re-entered the role of a major global power, not to say a super power, it became incumbent on Russian leadership to play the role of international mediator and arbitrator.
America does not give a damn if Israel and Hezbollah have a new war, but Russia does; especially if Russia is well and truly intent on becoming the new peace maker, all the while protecting her strategic and economic interests.
In brief, Russia does not seem to want to shield Syria only, but also Lebanon, and inadvertently of course Israel. A new round of military conflict between Hezbollah and Israel will be devastating not only to Lebanon, but also to Israel. But more than just the material carnage and loss of life that such escalation will result in, it will have a devastating effect on any potential new peace initiative; and for Russia to assume a leading role in this process, she is under pressure to make pre-emptive measures in order to avoid such an eventuality.
The way it is, without any external deterrence and go-betweens, the next war between Hezbollah and Israel is only a question of time. The July 2006 war has destroyed most of Lebanon’s infrastructure, killed hundreds, but at the same time, Hezbollah rockets sent waves of terror across Israel.
Since then, Israel has made many pre-emptive measures. The ammonia tank in Haifa has been drained and the Israeli fertilizer manufacturing giant ICL moved its operations to China. Furthermore, Israel has worked hard on bolstering its rocket defense capability, but not to the extent that will give it an effective deterrence. This is why Israel keeps reiterating that the next escalation will see a total destruction of Lebanon in the hope that this threat in itself will be the necessary deterrence. Hezbollah on the other hand has since gained much ground battle experience in Syria, attained a huge arsenal of surface-to-surface rockets that can reach any corner of Israel, and last but not least, developed smart-bomb capable drones that have been seen in action in Syria and the Lebanese North East against ISIS.
Will the proposed Russian-Lebanese treaty make Lebanon a redline for Israel? Will it prevent any future possible escalation between Israel and Hezbollah? Will Russia be able to control Israel and replace America as the new peace negotiator who has good relationships with all parties concerned?
*Ghassan Kadi, a native of Beirut, is an analyst of Middle East affairs and the author of An Epic of Integrity: The Chronicles of the War on Syria (June 2016). Visit Intibah and Ghassan Kadi’s website.