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Is Lebanon preparing to support Russia's intervention in Syria?

When Russia asked airlines in Lebanon to change their routes for conducting military drills to ensure air traffic safety, the matter was blown out of proportion to the point that some considered Russia to have violated Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Smoke rises after what activists said were cluster bombs dropped by the Russian air force in the town of Maaret al-Naaman in Idlib province, Syria October 7, 2015. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RTS7DHL

The Russian Sukhoi storm that started in Syria on Sept. 30 has reached Lebanon. While no military operations or airstrikes were executed against Lebanon, news about military drills by Russian naval forces in Mediterranean waters led airlines to change their routes in Lebanese airspace. The news also led to a political debate in Beirut and to expectations that further heated developments would follow.

The story of the Russian-Lebanese airspace intersection started on the afternoon of Nov. 20, when member of parliament Walid Jumblatt shared his thoughts on his Twitter account: “The Russians ordered Lebanon that for three days our airspace is to be closed.”

The following three days brought a storm of news. It should be noted that Jumblatt is the majority leader of the Druze community in Lebanon and an opponent of the Syrian regime. His tweet stirred a series of political positions in Beirut by supporters of the Syrian opposition and opponents of the Russian participation in the war in Syria, mainly Jumblatt, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s allies and the March 14 camp.

Those criticizing the Russian measures and opposing Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian war deemed Russia's alleged order to close the Lebanese airspace for three days a violation of Lebanese sovereignty, and said that it would implicate Lebanon in the Syrian war as standing with Bashar al-Assad's regime and against the regime's opponents.

A few hours after Jumblatt shared his tweet, Al-Monitor contacted the chairman and general manager of Middle East Airlines, Mohamad El-Hout, who confirmed that Lebanese airspace would not be closed and civilian flights to and from Lebanon would not be suspended.

“Beirut International Airport received a direct communication from the Russian naval forces deployed in the Mediterranean Sea within the international waters off the coast of Lebanon that Russian warplanes would be conducting military drills from Nov. 21 to Nov. 23 over international airspace. A list of airspace routes that may be affected by the Russian military drills was attached to the communication. The Russian naval forces hoped this communication would be taken into consideration and the specified airspace would be cleared,” Hout explained.

He said that Lebanon was not the only country affected by Russia's order. Larnaca International Airport in Cyprus was also in contact with Russian authorities regarding the drills, and air traffic there was affected.

Hout told Al-Monitor that the issue has been completely addressed. “Following consultations between Lebanese and Cypriot authorities, a mutual decision was reached to adopt a new air route passing over the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, which will ensure Lebanese air traffic does not approach the Russian military drills area,” he said.

All flights to and from Beirut's airport followed new routes during the three days of maneuvers, partly affecting flight times.

The matter did not end there on the political front. Positions denouncing the Russian move continued. It should be noted that the Russian order was issued outside of diplomatic and government channels, and news circulated in Beirut that the Russian Embassy in Lebanon had no idea of such an order.

The Lebanese government, therefore, was not officially informed of the order. Some in the March 14 coalition even tried to link the Russian move to the official visit made by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to Moscow two days before the release of the news on Nov. 18.

Some media outlets even suggested that the Russian action was discussed in Moscow between the Lebanese foreign minister and his Russian counterpart, within the scope of coordination between Moscow and Beirut on the war being waged by Russia in Syria against Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

Bassil denied this to Al-Monitor, asserting that the discussion he held in Moscow did not include any military or field issue.

In this context, Ghazi Zaiter, the minister of public works and transportation in the Lebanese government, told Al-Monitor that the whole issue was blown out of proportion and was clearly being exploited on the domestic political front, and used by internal Lebanese parties to take specific positions according to their stances on the Syrian war.

Zaiter, who is in charge of Lebanon’s air traffic and the Beirut airport by virtue of his position, said, “What happened was an ordinary procedure that was not worth all the brouhaha it stirred.”

He explained that the drills of the Russian navy in the Mediterranean were conducted over international air and waters. “Russia did not violate Lebanon's sovereignty at all. The Russian communication was accurate and in line with international treaties adopted by the competent international civil and commercial aviation institutions, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association,” said Zaiter. 

He added, “The adopted procedure is completely sound and conformant to internationally retained rules and norms. There is no need for any governmental notification, since the Russian actions did not penetrate Lebanon's territorial waters and airspace. All there is to it is that Russia notified Lebanon that Russian aircraft will be executing military drills in a specific area, rising from zero to 60,000 feet for a period of three days, which may affect three air routes used by civilian flights. But after only two days, the Russians notified Lebanon in the same manner, at 6 a.m., Nov. 22, that the military drills were over and thanked it for its cooperation. This is how the whole thing started, and it should have ended without any ruckus.”

Regardless, a Lebanese government source believes the matter is not likely to end here. The source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the recent Russian military drills constitute a new, advanced and more expansive stage in the framework of the Russian military involvement in the Syrian war.

The source also believes that Russia's request is a kind of test or prelude to other requests in the near future for greater Lebanese cooperation in the context of Russian military operations in Syria. He indicated that the most prominent development that may occur at this level is that Moscow will request Beirut to provide some military and logistical facilities to the Russian troops, in particular in the Bekaa Valley region bordering Syria.

The source believes that Russian troops are setting their sites on Lebanon's Rayak military airport in the Bekaa Valley region close to the deployment sites of armed groups opposed to Assad's regime in Damascus. The airport’s close location to the Syrian border would allow Russian airplanes — if they chose to use it — to get to Damascus and its countryside within minutes.

Such a request might face Lebanese objections by the same parties opposing Russian intervention in Syria under the current circumstances, unless international negotiations at the recent Vienna conference advance and lead to a unified international coalition against terrorism in Syria.

Until then, Lebanon will distance itself from what is happening in Syria, even if everything that is happening in and around Lebanon implicates it in the Syrian war and causes repercussions.

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