Russian Sukhoi Su-25 ground-attack planes at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria. Photo: AFP

Lebanon’s Defense Minister Yacoub Sarraf flew back to Beirut empty handed from Moscow over the weekend where he had attended the seventh International Security Conference on April 4-5.

Many were expecting him to bring home a highly controversial military agreement with Russia, put forth by Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev last February – at the request, of course, of President Vladimir Putin.

He didn’t, and Russian allies in Lebanon are blaming Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri for the delay, claiming he is under pressure from “donors, allies in the west and the United States” to turn down the Russian offer.

The military pact had created waves among Lebanon’s political elite, and for good reason. Many argued that far from being benevolent or friendly, it aimed solely at satisfying Putin’s territorial ambitions and expansionism in the Middle East.

In addition to opening Lebanese airspace, airports and naval bases to Russia’s military, the proposed agreement called for the interest-free delivery of Russian arms to Lebanon, like T-70 and T-72 tanks, and for intelligence sharing, the training of Lebanese troops and cooperation in counter-terrorism.

Deal taken off the agenda

Over the last two weeks, two regular meetings of Lebanese cabinet ministers were held, chaired by Hariri. Both times, on March 27 and April 3, the topic of the Russian deal was not included on the agenda, reportedly scrapped by Secretary-General of the Premiership Fouad Flayfel, a protégé of the prime minister.

Last March, Hariri met in Rome with Putin’s special Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov and discussed the stalled agreement, which the Lebanese Prime Minister remains committed to – at least in lip service.

Speaking within Parliament, Hezbollah MP Nawaf al-Mousawi commented on the Russian proposal and Hariri’s delay, saying: “Why don’t we head towards Russia and China and get arms from these great countries? Why is the Lebanese government hesitating in signing the agreement with Russia? Syria has a relationship with the Russian Federation, so why doesn’t Lebanon get included underneath Russian air cover as well?”

Hezbollah insists on the deal

Sending shivers down the spine of pro-American MPs, he boomed: “If the Russians want military bases and airports, why don’t they use Beirut and Riyak [in the Bekka Valley], just like the Americans?” Before wrapping up, he noted that the arms used by Hezbollah came from Russia, a country that like his party, was deeply involved in the Syrian civil war.

This was no slip of the tongue, of course, and nor was an ad hoc intervention by the Hezbollah MP. It was carefully timed and worded, ahead of the Defense Minister’s Moscow visit. Hezbollah insists on the deal, wanting to avoid the mishap of 2008, when due to political bickering within Lebanon, a similar yet smaller offer was turned down, mainly by then-President Michel Suleiman.

Pro-Hezbollah media, like the al-Akhbar political daily, have been showering the Russians with praise and lobbying hard on behalf of the military agreement. Hezbollah is reciprocating Russia’s willingness to engage with Lebanon, which is only natural due to the paramount influence it now has in neighboring Syria. The modern Republic of Lebanon was carved out of Greater Syria, after all, by colonial France back in 1920, and ever since, the fate of the two countries has been incredibly intertwined, often far closer than the people of the two countries would want.

A military pact with Lebanon could be nice, after the Russians crept into Lebanon economically last February through Novatek, with a license to drill for oil and gas in Lebanese waters, side-by-side with Italy’s Eni and France’s Total. This is no small feat for a country that until recently had little to no influence in the tiny Mediterranean country, neither politically nor economically.

For now, though, a military pact, backed by economic cooperation, is enough for President Putin. He has no plans to venture further or to encourage Russian investors to put more money in before stability is restored in Syria, given its ripple effects on Lebanon.

But once that changes, Putin will find an encouraging fan base, not only within Hezbollah, but among Greek Orthodox Christians as well, in addition to Arab nationalists, seculars and some ideologically driven parties like the left-wing Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Ordinary Lebanese are willing to listen to what the Russians have to offer, giving them the benefit of the doubt, now that Saudi money has dried up and no US or EU investment is forthcoming, because of Hezbollah’s presence in the Lebanese government. Many dread the thought of further Iranian investment, and if forced to choose between Tehran and Moscow, would certainly go for the latter.

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