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Russia has won in Syria, will it challenge U.S. in Lebanon next?

Analysis | 2018-05-07 04:30:24
Russia has won in Syria, will it challenge U.S. in Lebanon next?
   A picture taken on March 9, 2018 along a highway in the southern Lebanese coastal city of Tyre shows an electoral billboard for Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing sunglasses with lettering in Russian reading "18 March 2018," for the Russian diaspora
Lebanon held on Sunday its first parliamentary elections in nine years, as citizens expressed cautious optimism that the country's rigid, oft-deadlocked sectarian political system could be swayed. Behind the scenes, however, one of the world's leading powers has quietly eyed the small state as a potential ground to project its power in the Middle East and into the Mediterranean. But it won't be easy.

With Syrian rebels and jihadis at bay, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government set to further extend its comeback, Russia has pursued a cautious overture across the border into Lebanon—a $1 billion dollar arms deal, including a 15-year repayment term at zero percent interest, as the Christian Science Monitor reported. Unlike Syria, Lebanon's precarious political makeup means there are no Kremlin-backed strongmen to turn to, but a rocky balance of power that has so far left the offer on the table.

"There is certainly an attempt to expand the soft Russian power in the region. This may translate into greater military cooperation and the signing (by the Lebanese) of a defense deal brokered last year," Maya Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told Newsweek. "The parliamentary election results may have some impact to the extent of swaying the pendulum slightly towards a pro-Russia camp. However, given the delicate power/sectarian balance in the country, this may remain limited for now."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's quest to reinvigorate his country's military and political clout from its post-Soviet coma in the 1990s has put him on a collision course with the West, especially the U.S., which sees little more than its traditional Cold War rival once again gunning for superpowerdom. The U.S. and a number of its Western allies have accused Russia of election interference, cyber-attacks and even military provocations, especially along the tense borders between the U.S.-led NATO military alliance and Russia.

In the Middle East, this rivalry is playing out as well. Not only has Russia secured a near total victory for Assad in Syria, but it has shored up its long-term military presence in the Mediterranean by creating a permanent naval task force there and leasing two coastal installations—the Hmeymim air base and a naval facility in Tartus. While this concentration of Russian land, air and sea power makes it convenient to blast ISIS targets across the country, it also provides a powerful buffer overlooking NATO's southern flank in the Mediterranean.

Arabic-language reports from pro-Russia Sputnik News and pro-Syria Al Mayadeen in February suggested that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had ordered the Russian military to look into establishing defense ties with Lebanon, specifically to open Lebanese ports to Russian warships, as The National Interest highlighted. The absence of this news in English-language or other mainstream media and the unknown fate of the $1 billion arms deal may signal that Russia's entrance into Lebanon did not go as smoothly as planned.

Lebanon, already beset by a war of influence between revolutionary Shiite Muslim Iran and ultraconservative Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia—and caught between restive Syria and proclaimed enemy Israel—may be Russia's biggest challenge yet. The country's government is largely divided by sect, with the president being Christian, the prime minister being Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament being Shiite Muslim. The country has 128 parliamentary seats equally divided between Christian and Muslim sects, who themselves have a designated number of seats.

Disruptions of Lebanon's balance of power often lead to violence, the worst being a civil war between 1975 and 1990 in which many of the country's current leading politicians and parties participated. Flare-ups have continued into the 21st century as the political landscape split into two main blocs: the March 8 alliance and the March 14 alliance. The former is closer to Iran, Russia's strategic partner in Syria. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether this relationship extends to Iran's allies in Lebanon.
Newsweek- Tom O'connor
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