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Sunni Saudi and Shia Iran perceive the Middle East as a wrestling ring of dominance. They exploit the loopholes of the tiny Arab countries to knock each other down.  Their bitter rivalry is now picking up steams in the new front- Lebanon. For years, Lebanon has been a proxy battleground for Riyadh and Teheran as they have been backing various blocks in the country. Riyadh enjoys close historical, cultural, political relations with country’s Sunni Prime minister Sad Hariri and Teheran manifests its influence through its extended Shia military quasi-political wing Hezbollah. Ironically the birth of Hezbollah was an accidental gift to Iran by its enemy Israel.  The birth of ‘sovereign’ Jewish state of Israel in the Muslim dominated region led to the first Arab Israeli war in 1948 and also led to the forcible expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their Palestinian homeland. Thus the enraged Palestine Liberation Organization, an organisation which became the face of the Palestine uprising, started attacking Israel from its established base in southern Lebanon. Israel infuriated by the Palestinian abhorrence, invaded Lebanon in 1982. To defend the Lebanese border against Israel’s attacks, Iran pushed for the creation of Hezbollah in 1985 with whom Israel fought a war in 2006. Thus the growing prominence of Hezbollah in Lebanon stems from the fact that it even though it is an Iranian pawn; it has not only secured Lebanon’s border in the wake of Israeli aggression but even delivered a bloodied nose in the 2006 Israel Lebanon war.  Through these years Iran is keeping Hezbollah militarily and economically afloat consolidating its presence in Lebanon.

But at the same time where Hezbollah acts as a buffer against Israel’s notorious attacks, Lebanon’s policy of insulating itself from the next door Syrian has been whitewashed due to Hezbollah’s involvement with Iran in guarding the throne of Al Assad. Thus the already politically and economically drowning Lebanon has constantly pressured the group to withdraw from Syria as Lebanon will be engulfed in yet another crisis which is quickly becoming a Saudi Iranian proxy war. But Hezbollah cannot sit idle as it sees its parent Iran fighting alone- who acts as a lifeline to Hezbollah’s power. With its boots on the ground in Syria along-side Russian and Iranian IRGC forces, it has not only enhanced its urban warfare capabilities, battlefield experience in collaboration with Russia and Iran but also trained and recruited thousands of Shia militia.  Their role in the conflict enabled them to expand the stockpile of weapons and to ensure a smooth pathway for the weapon transport from Iran through Iraq Syria in Lebanon. But their involvement came with a heavy price. One thousand six hundred thirty of its soldiers were killed in the war, and they were deprived of their popular base in Lebanon as its image transformed from anti- Israel force to an Iranian poodle serving for Iran’s interest in the sectarian conflict.

But the outcome of the recent Lebanese elections came as a ‘pleasant surprise’ for Hezbollah. For eight months the political and economic deadlock prevented the rival factions from forming the government and also hindered Hezbollah’s ability to formulate Iran friendly policies. The impasse prevailed due to Lebanon’s power-sharing system, based on ethnosectarian quota where equal numbers of seats are divided for parties from Shia, Sunni, and Christian community.  On one hand where Hezbollah and its Christian political ally Free Patriotic Movement led by President Michel Aoun secured 43 out of 128 seats giving them the power to veto laws. The election was a major defeat for the Future Movement party led by the Saudi and the Western-backed Prime Minister Sad Hariri won only 21 seats as compared to 32 seats in 2009. The cherry on a cake for Hezbollah was the takeover of three ministries, notably the most important key post of the Health Ministry, proving their political clout in Lebanon. While this is good news for Iran, USA has voiced concerns that the incoming funds would be diverted to provide subsidised health care and treat the wounded Hezbollah fighters and patronage job to its supporters.

Lebanon has unabashedly denied the claim that the country is kidnapped from within by Iran.  But there have been numerous instances to show that Lebanon is getting absorbed into the Iranian orbit. Western-backed Prime Minister Sad Hariri without raising any vociferous opposition handed over the Health Ministry to Hezbollah without paying much heed to USA’s warnings which have designated Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation. Further, the Trump spearheaded anti-Iran Warsaw Summit was an abject failure as not only Lebanon, Russia, China refused to attend the summit but also the Europeans tagged the summit as an “unhelpful slideshow” without the consultation of the European partners.  To celebrate the electoral victory of Hezbollah, Iranian foreign minister Javed Zarif paid a visit to Beirut and also offered “open-ended’ Iranian aid to Lebanon army.

Interestingly the visit was paid by the Foreign Minister a day before the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution of Iran led by Ayatollah Khomeini which underscores the Iran’s aim of exporting the revolution in Lebanon. According to a report, Iran which annually splurges $700 million on Hezbollah and now claims to funnel money into all the sectors in Lebanon shows that the USA’s harsh sanction regime on Iran and the entities connected to Hezbollah have not  completely bitten up the Iranian economy. With Hezbollah, now having an upper hand in the cabinet , it will be able to orient all the policies that clear the pathway for Iran’s aggressive aggrandizement and follow  anti- Israel policy.

Furthermore, the Lebanese President’s statement justifying the support for the possession of Hezbollah’s weapons also risk complicating Western policy in Lebanon which is dependent on foreign aids and loans to revive the stagnant economy. To counterweight  Hezbollah ‘s military position,  USA has spent  more than 2.5 billion on the Lebanese military since 2005 aiming to support it as the “sole and legitimate defender” of the country . Buoyed by USA assistance, the Lebanese Armed Forces conducted a successful operation the Dawn of Jurds offensive in northeast Ras Baalbek province to eject ISIS militants and at the same time, Hezbollah targeted area across the western region of Syria to wipe ISIS. The simultaneous campaign was portrayed as a joint effort by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasr Allah to undermine the image of LAF in the eyes of USA as an unfaithful army which works with Hezbollah- an organization banned by the USA for destabilizing the Middle East. This wicked move was interpreted to embarrass Lebanese Armed forces and jeopardize the military aid the country receives and shield Hezbollah’s activities with the reasonable political cover. Further, the increase in the Israel Iran confrontation in southern Syria will serve as an ideal pretext for Hezbollah to enhance its intelligence sharing co-operation with Lebanese forces. Additionally, USA smells a rat that lethal weapons supplied from the USA might end up in the hands of Hezbollah to be used against Israel. These new developments in the Lebanese political arena reflect that the USA has not been able to declaw Hezbollah or disassociate Hezbollah from Iran.

While the Foreign minister of Iran landed in Beirut to celebrate Hezbollah on its electoral victory, the visit was closely speculated by Saudi Arabia which later sent its royal envoy two days later to “congratulate” the new Lebanese government and to extend support for Lebanon’s stability and “sovereignty”. Ironically, Riyadh is talking about that sovereignty which it eroded by holding Hariri hostage in Riyadh and pressuring him to publically announce his resignation and blaming Iran for interference in Lebanese affairs. Later as soon as he flew back to Lebanon, he cancelled his resignation and retained the position of Prime minister, thus not kneeling down to its Saudi patron for which he was applauded. The month long saga of resignation ,  the intervention in Yemini war and Qatar blockade showed Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s track record of impulsive ‘reflexes ’thus damaging its credibility in the eyes of the Sunni Lebanese. Riyadh’s anti Iran and anti- Hezbollah obsession did not differentiate between the group and its ally, thus giving the Trump card in Hezbollah hands which fostered the belief that Saudi was meddling in Lebanese affairs.

With already losing grip of Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia could not afford to lose its sway in the remaining post-Lebanese elections; but it faced the same fate. The request to Hariri to not grant political concessions to the rival faction backfired as Hezbollah swiped away the key post with the largest budget for itself – The Health Ministry. Further, Riyadh’s fresh rival, Qatar’s entry in Lebanon with the pledge to buy 500 billion bonds, hurt Saudi’s ego which decided it would not pull away out of Lebanon so easily.  Riyadh bolstered its position, announcing that it will support Lebanon’s crippling economy in all way and also revoked the travel ban it had imposed a year ago due to the security concerns. This soft and ‘thoughtful’ diplomatic approach to warm the relations with once angry yet beloved ally marks a remarkable shift from an aggressive anti- Hezbollah approach. With Qatar and Iran taking the lead in shaping Lebanon’s policies, the way won’t be of plain sailing for Riyadh in Lebanon.

For Lebanon, it is pivotal to look beyond its allies’ diplomatic interests and prioritize its own economic interests. The country reels under economic debt as it hosts 1.6 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, straining public infrastructure, forcing it to loosen its purse strings.  As the country slips into the pit of economic jeopardy with the largest per capita deficit and public debt increasing to 152 per cent to the country’s GDP, it rallies international support for its economy. Through the CEDAR conference in Paris, donors committed 11 billion to revamp the Lebanese economic growth. In such a desperate condition, Lebanon won’t deny any of the aid coming in their way.

In November 2018, Lebanon accepted $5 million of Russian military aid after more than a decade as the USA continuously reminded Lebanon of its generous military overtures since 2006. Additionally, Russia and Lebanon have also promised bilateral cooperation on improving information exchanges and fighting terrorism. Though the assistance is not grandiose, it highlights the symbolic value of Moscow’s growing influence in Beirut and the Hariri’s interest in revitalizing bilateral cooperation at the expense of throwing America as well as Iran for a loop. The bitter fact that Trump administration can slap the country trading with Russian military through Countering American Advisory Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), Lebanon went ahead to accept the aid as the risk of American outburst prevails.  Russia is also tapping its influence through energy sector as Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft signed an oil storage deal with Lebanon. Further Russia is among those who dared to invest in developing offshore gas fields on the highly sensitive Maritime Israel Lebanon border. Capitalizing on the  similar distinct Greek Orthodox identity, Russia also holds a sway on the right wing Christian parties and acts as a ‘protector” of the Christian minority.   Russia has also fostered Lebanese trust by ensuring the repatriation of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees which will ease its economic crisis.

Russia’s cultural, economic, defense attempts to seduce Lebanon underlines Russia’s appetite to increase its foothold in the extended neighborhood of Syria where it has already emerged victorious by saving Assad’s office and also the sole winner after the announcement of the departure of USA’s forces. The USA has also bestowed Putin with strategic leverage and deliberately left the gaps to be filled by Putin’s soft power. As the war winds down, Putin’s order of withdrawal of all the foreign forces was embraced with coldness by Iran and Hezbollah, who want to preserve their entrenched military presence and exploit their southern Syria T4 base as a launch pad for attacking Israel in occupied Golan Heights. Though Russia’s air cover worked in tandem with Hezbollah and Iranian forces on the ground, their diverse aims will put them in direct conflict with each other. While Iran has declared Israel as its enemy, Russia has maintained peace with Israel for the sake of the stability of the Assad regime. In many accidental cross borders Israel –Hezbollah retaliation, Russia’s strategic assets have been damaged. The latest example was the downing of the Russian spy plane due to the Israeli air strike in South Syria. Looking at the escalations in the skies of Syria, Russia’s attempt at distancing the Iranian forces 80 km away from the Israeli border was considered to be yet another futile attempt as the cross border attacks continue.

The highlight of the latest collision course was when Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu publically in a real time accepted that its air strikes hit the Damascus airport thus bringing the war in open and showing that the situation prevailing in Syria is non- polar. While Russia is trying to pretend its juggling act between Iran and Israel by releasing statements in media like ‘Russia and Iran are not allies’ and ‘Israel has the right to protect itself against the Hezbollah tunnels but should respect UN resolution which ended the Israeli- Lebanon war and it should avoid ‘provocative steps. This superficial diplomatic deterrence from Russia avoids major Iran Israel clashes. From the current situation, it seems unlikely that a full- fledged war will happen in the near future as both the warring parties have been engaged in ‘subtle’ cross border attacks since 2006 and only bolstering their fake claims of declaring war. 

Russia’s ability to elevate its role as a peacemaker by negotiating with all sides is a farce. But sadly Lebanese Prime Minister’s counts on ‘Russia’s support for stability’. Putin’s neutral negotiation will and the soft influence strategy acting as a catalyst in Lebanon should ring alarm bells for not the only USA but also Iran who has ‘devoted’ invaluable time and cash to constitute its grass-roots proxy Hezbollah.  Russia might want Iran definitely out of Syria and even Lebanon as in the near future it can undermine its regional hegemony. It can tolerate the Iran’s strategy of maintaining a ‘stable corridor’ to transport weapons to Hezbollah through Syria only under ‘Russian control’. To calm down its hegemonic adrenaline rush, Russia aims at stealing Hezbollah from Iran which Iran desperately needs to shield its military buffers in Syria and score a strategic point over Russia in Syria. If Hezbollah comes under Russian umbrella, Russia will have a legit force at its disposal that will shield its Tartus and Latakia bases in the Mediterranean Sea and also guard the rebel held Idlib zone in northeast Syria. Russia’s newfound interest in Hezbollah was reflected with Russia’s stand on Hezbollah as a ‘peace force’ and at a point when the sanctions on Iran are ‘believed” to be choking Iran and hence it’s funding to the Hezbollah.

Whenever sanctions are imposed, Iran dries up its funds to a minimum for Hezbollah. However, Hezbollah has developed other financial channels that bypass the international system like entering into construction , contracting business  in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria under independent names and through khums( 1/5 of the excess income paid by Shias  to religious Shia institutions. In the face of sanctions, Iran could not fill Hezbollah’s coffers to the fullest, thus creating a vacuum for Russia to monetarily spoil Hezbollah to operate worldwide. This will diminish the dependence on Iran and push it in Russia’s arms. But from the Hezbollah’s perspective, it won’t sideline Iran even in the absence of funds as they have been capitalizing popular support on Ayatollah Khomeini’s brand of the Islamic revolution. Given Hezbollah’s powerful political play in Lebanon, Russia cannot expand its footprint without forging close ties with Hezbollah. In simple words, however unsettling it is for Russia, Iran acts as a connecting bridge to Hezbollah.

While Saudi Arabia and the USA are worried more about Iran’s influence in Lebanon, Russia’s tightened grip on Syria and now in Lebanon should worry Iran, USA and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, with Lebanon’s changing political landscape, the hunger for the hegemony of all the involved countries could turn Lebanon into a spot of yet another flashpoint of fresh rivalry. For now, Lebanon has to walk a tightrope to balance the interest of all the parties involved and exploit their economic potential as a window of opportunity in the face of its crippling economy.  Above all preserving its sovereignty will be an uphill battle as Hezbollah with its victory will grow increasingly evocative of Iran’s priorities in Lebanon and Syria.

 

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 Image credit: alaraby.co.uk

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Written By Mona Thakkar

Bachelors in Mass Media( Journalism). Middle East Politics enthusiast. The knowledge you seek, will later take you at peak.

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