What Does the Lebanese Prime Minister’s Visit to Russia Mean?

The visit to Russia by Saad Al-Hariri, who became Prime Minister for the second time about a year ago (after helping his former implacable opponent, Gen. Michel Aoun, to assume presidency), generally fits in well with the logic of Russian-Lebanese relations. Moreover, his visit can be regarded as a natural consequence of the current state of affairs in Lebanon itself as well as that of Russia’s changed role in the region, particularly after Russia’s military success in Syria. Certain elements of change in home policies of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, some other Gulf countries, and Israel are also facilitating a Lebanese-Russian rapprochement.

The Lebanese Prime Minister’s meetings with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on September 12 and 13 and his subsequent reception by President Vladimir Putin were a sequel to February and March meetings and agreements on almost the same main points as were discussed during this visit:

-         chances for Russian arms supplies to Lebanon,

-         infrastructure investments, specifically in expanding the Tripoli port,

-         plans for an economic area in northern Lebanon,

-         involvment of Russian companies in the  development of Lebanese offshore gas fields, etc.

An important foreign policy framework for the visit was … Saudi-Russian top-level contacts that have much significance for Lebanon as well. The May agreements plus the working meetings in July have yielded a $3.5bn contract for Saudi purchases of Russian arms. The contract is supposed to be signed during the Saudi royal visit to Russia in early October. King Salman bin Abdelaziz Al Saud together with members of his delegation intend to discuss with the top Russian leaders a number of regional problems and, in all evidence, compare notes on possible purchases of Russian arms by the Lebanese with the money promised by the Saudis as aid to the Lebanese army (almost $3bn). This aid program was unfrozen in January 2017, as announced during Michel Aoun’s visit to Riyad, where he had talks with the Saudi monarch.

An important event that originally influenced the intensification of Russian-Lebanese contacts was a successful joint operation carried out by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah to force almost 300 jihadi militants out of the country. Achieved in northern Bekaa Valley (Ras Baalbek) and Al Qaa, this success enabled the Lebanese military and Resistance forces to reestablish control over the entire national territory. According to some observers, including Russian analysts, these antiterrorist engagements revealed Hezbollah’s “fatigue” after it suffered huge losses in Syria, something that allegedly made it yield precedence to government forces.

However, these conclusions do not reflect the state of affairs in Lebanon, where a radical reformatting of former political blocs is accompanied by “militarization” of the state. The obvious trend is towards bolstering up the combat capability and image of the Lebanese army which is integrating all Hezbollah units that have proved efficient. Moreover, the militarization drive seems to have received an impetus from Saudi Arabia that has finally overcome so to say a foreign policy barrier to its far-reaching plans as well as  regional ambitions in opposition not only to Iran but also other Gulf countries. The widely advertized US, British and French military assistance to the army was not considerable (running into millions rather than billions of dollars). The current project of military-technical cooperation with Russia may prove unprecedented for Lebanon, but it will also depend on the approval from the  Saudis.

Incidentally, a large-scale agreement on military-technical cooperation with Russia, which the government approved back in 2011, has been stuck in Lebanese parliamentary committees under the pretext that it needs to be amended. The possible reason is that Saudi Arabia and France signed an agreement back in November 2014, under which Saudi-sponsored purchases of military equipment and weapons for the army to the tune of $3bn plus another $1bn worth of equipment and weapons for the security forces should be made in France. True, the agreement was suspended for political reasons somewhat later. The current contacts are likely to suggest a totally different perspective on military-technical cooperation with Russia.

There were several high-level visits to Russia over the last few months, including those made by the Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, MP and businessman Amal Abou Zeid, plus the current Minister of Defense, Yacoub Sarraf, who attended the Army-2017 forum in August and had meetings with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov to discuss chances for Russian military equipment supplies to Lebanon. Following the Hariri visit, the PM’s personal representative, George Shaaban, held working meetings in Moscow to promote the agreements that had been reached.

An important element of the regional backdrop for the Hariri visit is a growing US military presence in Israel. A compact logistic support base was opened in mid-September in addition to a US radar near Beersheba (in operation since 2008). Clearly, this is directed primarily against the “Iranian threat, but the Israelis believe that Hezbollah actions against Israel are likely too. They realize that the contemplated arms supplies to Lebanon may theoretically strengthen the Resistance organization and therefore are watching closely the prospects for Lebanese-Russian military-technical cooperation.

It could be assumed that the above facts have been put on the same scale and that this Middle East scale seems to be pointing to a new balance. As always, Lebanon responds promptly to its vacillations and ends up involved in all regional multi-factor processes. Their analysis may prove highly fruitful for Russia, particularly in view of its grown influence in the Middle East.However, for this to happen, Russia should give up a simplistic approach that regards events as an isolated consequence of a geopolitical, military, ideological or interfaith confrontation in the region.                

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.