Russia Works Influence in Lebanon

The visit to Beirut by Russia's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, puts Lebanon in Russia’s sphere of influence, writes Nabil Haitham.

al-monitor Lebanon's president, Michel Suleiman (R), meets with Russia's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, April 26, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Dalati Nohra.

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us policy on syria, us, syrian, russian, hezbollah

Apr 29, 2013

The Russian president’s personal representative, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, stayed in Beirut for four days, during which he visited nearly all influential political figures. When he met with Lebanese government officials, he mostly listened. They spoke of generalities, such as sovereignty, stability, harmony, dialogue and UN Resolution 1701.

In his meetings with Christian Orthodox figures and groups, Bogdanov reassured them and spoke of protection, the minorities and the storms going on in the Middle East. He said that the Christians will not be the fuel for the region’s fires.

He listened to the March 14 movement’s complaints that Russia is biased toward a “regime that is killing its own people in Syria.” The March 14 movement called on Russia to reconsider its position and prevent the Syrian fire from spreading to Lebanon.

Bogdanov’s meetings with the March 8 movement were deeper and more harmonious. Contrary to the hopes that many are pinning on the expected Obama-Putin summit, he did not give the impression that a settlement in Syria is near.

With Walid Jumblatt, whom Russia knows well, the relations are respectful. While the two sides assess the Syrian crisis differently, their historical relationship is given precedence over their current disagreement.

On Russia’s friends in 1970s — when Bogdanov was working at the Russian Embassy in Beirut during the Two-Year War (1975-1976) — his sympathy for the National Movement was apparent. He fondly remembers Kamal Jumblatt and George Hawi, aka Abu Anees. He checked on the health of Mohsen Ibrahim, aka Abu Khaled, and other Lebanese figures.

He had two long meetings with Hezbollah. His meeting with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah lasted until dawn on Sunday [April 28]. He listened very carefully to Hezbollah’s view on the Syrian crisis. Both sides’ views were identical on many regional and international issues.

We note the following about Bogdanov’s visit:

First, he laid the foundations for a renewed and active Russian role in Lebanon and the region, thus denying the claim that the Russians are a transient guest in Lebanon. For the Russians, Lebanon, despite its small size, is part of the region’s balance of forces.

Second, he sent a message that the era of global unilateralism is over, that we are now in a multipolar world, and that everyone should reconsider their interpretation of the Russian role in the region, the Middle East and Lebanon.

Third, the visit was more symbolic than material: Russia considers Lebanon to be part of its national security sphere, even though it will not send its fleets to Lebanon’s shores.

Fourth, Russia supports Lebanon’s dissociation policy because it is aware of the sensitivity of Lebanon’s situation, the country’s sectarian and social composition, and the political, geographic, sectarian and social interdependence of Syria and Lebanon.

Fifth, on the Syrian issue, Moscow is committed to a political solution and rejects violence. Russia also rejects any outside interference, including supplying weapons to armed groups. Russia encourages the formation of an international climate so that the Syrian people can hold an internal dialogue between the government and the opposition. These are the principles of Russian policy toward the Syrian crisis. Those principles made Russia veto any outside interference in Syria’s internal affairs.

Sixth, Russia is clearly irritated at the attempts to deviate from the Geneva Accord. According to the Russians: “At first, the Americans agreed with us that the accord does not call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure but that there should be a transitional phase, whose end will be decided by the Syrian people. Russia has made strenuous efforts to find an operational mechanism to implement the accord. But obstacles put in place by the West, especially the US, blocked Russia’s efforts to implement the Geneva Accord.”

Seventh, the Russians are saying, “When we ask the Americans and others why they are holding conferences for a Syrian opposition that rejects dialogue with the regime, they say that they are trying to unite the Syrian opposition. But then we see the Americans arming the anti-regime groups, which have started bringing fighters from various Arab countries, even from Chechnya and Afghanistan.”

Eighth, despite all the complications, the “emergence of the terrorism factor in the crisis has prompted the Russians to oppose international interventions in order to prevent a precedent whereby terrorism is used to change governments regardless of the people’s opinion, which can only be revealed through free and fair elections held under international supervision."

Ninth, the understanding with the Americans has not yet crystallized. So the level of expectations of the upcoming summit between US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, should not be raised “as long as the Americans are not fully supporting a political solution. And therefore, it is the balance of forces on the ground that will determine how things go.”

Tenth, Russia will not allow a military intervention in Syria. American and Western talk of the Syrian army using chemical weapon has no value and it brings to mind the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Eleventh, the Russian-Iranian relationship has reached its highest level in recent times and the Russians are keen to maintain a high level of coordination, especially on Syria. Iran is now part of the regional balance of forces. It is true that Israel is a strong country in the region, but there is also another strong country in the region: Iran.

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