Analysis — Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil is in Moscow where he has spoken of elements within Lebanon attempting to sabotage joint initiatives and cooperative agreements with Russia.
Bassil who is a member of President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement has stated the following to Russian journalists,
We are about to conclude the first in the history of our country agreement with Russia on shell gas exploration. And now we see an attemp to hinder this effort. Certain parties are trying to intimidate Lebanon.
We hope that Russia will continue building up its influence in the Middle East in order to form a balance of powers in the region”.
He continued, offering an obvious criticism of Saudi Arabia, although refusing to name it,
“Some countries are trying to use certain forces to remove the head of Lebanon. The same forces that unleashed the war in Syria and those who are feeding into terrorists are now trying to damage Lebanon”.
Bassil affirmed that he looks forward to expanding Lebanon’s relationship with Russia, while praising Russia’s constructive position in the region. During his official visit to Moscow, Bassil also praised Hezbollah. He said,
Hezbollah defended Lebanon against ISIS terrorist when the government and army failed to do so”.
At face value, Bassil’s remarks are a clear criticism of Saudi Arabia for trying to meddle in Lebanon, something which among many other things, would seem to have an aim of retarding Beirut’s growing relationship with Moscow.
In reality, the remarks signify something even more important. Russia’s position as the de-facto mediator/balancer of interests in Middle Eastern disputes has been affirmed by the foreign minister of the Middle Eastern country which has historically been prone to the highest levels of instability. In reality, Bassil’s remarks, offered from a position of confident defiance, serve to illustrate that if anything, the recent political crisis in Lebanon has only strengthened Moscow’s bonds with Beirut.
This reality is a further indication of the emergence of two new blocs among Middle Eastern states which are divided between a northern bloc and a southern bloc. Bassil’s remarks further confirm that most Lebanese see themselves as part of the northern bloc.
Russia’s traditional Middle Eastern allies as well as her new found partners are in this northern bloc. Syria, Iraq and certainly forces in Lebanon have always favoured close ties with Moscow. In recent years, Iran has very much joined this list. Turkey and parties in Lebanon which previously took a more agnostic or oppositional approach to Russia, also appear to be fully gravitating towards this bloc.
While the southern bloc includes the GCC states, Jordan and Israel which have tended to be US partners as well as Egypt which is developing a foreign policy involving strong links with both Moscow and Washington, the entirety of the southern bloc is also realising that good relations with Russia are unavoidable if one wants to be a stable Middle Eastern power.
The leaders in Qatar, Saudi, Kuwait and Egypt have all praised Russia for its genuinely neutral role in helping to ease tensions and engage in dialogue with all sides in the Qatar diplomatic crisis. This demonstrates a level of respect for Russia among not only traditional Middle Eastern allies but also among traditional US partners, many of whom have grown exacerbated with the zero-sum mentality of US diplomatic initiatives.
The proximity in time of the Saudi Arabian King’s first ever visit to Moscow and the phenomenon of Saudi Arabia forcing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to “resign” on Saudi state-run television is important for the following reason. It serves to demonstrate that while de-facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has certainly ratcheted up rhetoric against Russian partners like Iran and those sympathetic to Russia in Lebanon, that such a move is not mutually exclusive to also seeking the development of further, deeper and more meaningful relations with Russia and also China.
In this sense, a Lebanon in which Hariri’s Future Movement is weakened and where the prestige of parties such as the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal Movement and Hezbollah is strengthened, could actually work to the medium and long-term benefit of Russian interests in the region.
As I wrote shortly after Hariri’s infamous “resignation” speech,
Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) sees China and Russia as crucial partners that will help realise his Vision 2030 project to diversify the Saudi economy. This means that Saudi will have to increasingly play by both Russia and China’s rules, which mean abandoning proxy imperial ambitions, abandoning military threats against nearby states and possibly move towards selling energy in the Petroyuan.
Therefore, a radically different explanation for yesterday’s events in Saudi begin to emerge. Perhaps the Hariri ‘resignation’ and the great purge are meant less to encourage Israel and provoke Iran, Syria and Hezbollah than they are events used to send subtle messages to Russia and China, possibly with communiques made behind the scenes to clarify the meaning.
Such a message is summarised as follows: Saudi has surrendered in its attempts to politically influence the Levant and will allow the chips to fall where they may. The Saudi puppet is out of Lebanon and Saudi won’t do anything meaningful to oppose Hezbollah in the post-Hariri era in Lebanon. Instead, Saudi will focus on domestic political changes to pave the way for a more ‘eastern friendly’ MBS regime in Riyadh.
Here, the implied advantage to Russia is that President Michel Aoun will be allowed to form a new government in Beirut that will be more amenable to Russian and consequently Chinese interests in the region, thus giving the eastern superpowers an unbroken chain of partners in the region stretching from Pakistan to Iran, into Iraq and Syria and finishing on the Mediterranean with Lebanon.
In return, it is implied that Russia will continue to resist any US attempts to slow down MBS’ ascent to power.
To be absolutely clear, I do not believe for a moment that this is a ‘Russian plan’. Instead, Saudi is doing something whose long term outcome is naturally in Russia’s interest and Russia, a country which does not even intervene in the affairs of its enemies, will surely not intervene in the affairs of a Saudi state which is pivoting (however awkwardly) towards Russia and her partners”.
In this sense, while Saudi’s relationship with Russia is largely dependant on internal Saudi matters, Saudi Arabia’s meddling in Lebanon in respect of removing Prime Minister Hariri, has already largely forced other leading parties, including that of the Lebanese President, closer to Russia.
Ultimately, the smooth consolidation of a northern bloc of Middle Eastern countries would allow Russia to have a stream of partners stretching from Pakistan in South Asia to Lebanon on the Mediterranean. This of course is happening not to the detriment, but rather, simultaneous to Russia cultivating new economic partnerships with the countries of the southern bloc.
Russia’s ability to leverage its diplomatic weight over Saudi Arabia through agreements on cutting the production of oil in order to stabilise prices, remains a key element to the Russo-Saudi relationship. If Russia were to flood the marketplace with oil, Saudi Arabia would lose its economic raison d’être. By contrast, if Russia continues to cooperate with Saudi over stabilising world oil prices, Russia will be in a position to extract concessions from Saudi Arabia that incidentally are also in the Saudi economic interest. The fact that this clear carrot and stick approach has been implement with tact and respect from Russia, has not been lost on the Saudi leadership, irrespective of their intrinsic feelings towards Russia’s partners in the northern bloc of the Middle East.
Muhammad bin Salman stands at a crossroads of his emerging leadership. He can either continue to wage war in Yemen, threaten war on Lebanon and Iran and provoke Iran’s other regional allies such as Syria and Iraq; or he can focus on his internal reforms known as Vision 2030, a highly ambitious set of plans intended to desecrate Saudi’s dependence on oil sales through the diversification Saudi’s limited economic portfolio.
Irrespective of the penultimate success of Saudi’s aggressive foreign policy or its internal reforms, the fact of the matter is that Saudi can only attempt to do one or the other. It cannot logically accomplish both at the same time.
Russia would clearly prefer Saudi to focus on Vision 2030, rather than on foreign policy aggression. This is because Russia seeks to de-escalate all major tension points in the Middle East as part of its long-term strategy for the region. Secondly, Russia stands to economically benefit from joint investment projects regarding Vision 2030, as of course would Russia’s closest partner, China.
Muhammad bin Salman’s final decision is still not entirely foreseeable, although logic would dictate an exit (however loud this exist is) from his aggressive foreign policy moves and a pivot towards domestically driven economic projects as the the only means of Saudi achieving long term success and comparative self-sufficiency through economic diversification.
Irrespective of what Muhammad bin Salman decides however, Russia’s role as an intrinsically valued partner by the countries of the northern bloc of the Middle East is no longer a theory, it is a matter of fact. Saudi’s recent meddling in Lebanon may have well been designed to test this and like most of Saudi’s foreign meddling adventures, it has failed. The recent events in Lebanon which Saudi has orchestrated, have only made Beirut and Moscow’s relationship stronger while failing to weaken Russia’s relationship with Riyadh.
Top photo | Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, left, attends a joint presser with His Turkish counterpart Mavlut Cavusoglu, right, following their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)
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