Our translation from the Arabic of an article from Arabic Post appears below, with commentary by Vince Dhimos.
Lebanon is the gateway to Putin's dream in the Middle East .. Moscow signs an important agreement with Beirut whose objectives go beyond the support of Bashar al-Assad
Russia's intervention in the ongoing war in Syria gave Moscow a golden opportunity to fill the American vacuum after Donald Trump's administration sought to withdraw from the region. The intervention also met Putin's desire to maintain what he has gained from his support to the Assad regime. But the Russian president has a greater ambition than that expressed by the recent deal with Lebanon.
The British Financial Times said Russia was expanding ties with Lebanon through energy deals and regional policy mediation as it sought to fill the vacuum left by the United States as it withdrew from the Middle East, a dream for Russian President Vladimir Putin. [Oh please! This is not just a dream of Putin’s. It is the dream of all peace-loving people everywhere to see the US, which has massacred countless innocents in Iraq, with casualties ranging from the US’ own estimates of a little more than 4,000 to estimates done by medical professionals ranging upward to over a million.]
Efforts accelerated last month when Russian government-controlled oil company Rosneft expanded its presence in the Mediterranean by signing a deal to manage and modernize a 20-year oil storage facility in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city. Analysts and diplomats said the deal (value undisclosed) was the latest sign of Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to expand Moscow's influence as the United States reduced its presence in the Middle East.
US President Donald Trump announced last month that the United States would withdraw its troops from Syria, which shares a porous border and a history of tragedies with its smaller neighbour. "The volatile policy of America in the Middle East has helped Russia find a way to enter," said Shawki Bonsar, the Lebanese ambassador to Moscow.
After the Russians began their intervention in Syria in 2015, the Americans were retreating, so to speak. "Russia is filling the breach and trying to be present in the region," said Muhannad al-Haj Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
More Russian influence in the region
Moscow's attempts to support the Syrian regime have allowed Russia to expand its military presence and gain access to Syria's warm water ports, assets Moscow has always wanted.
The location of the storage facility is likely to raise questions about whether Russia will use it to conceal fuel supplies to Syria, an activity the US Treasury Department has sought to thwart by using economic sanctions. [Western-biased reporting like this never mentions that the US sanctions are illegal and not approved by the UN]
The Lebanese city of Tripoli is only 30 kilometres from the Syrian border on the road, 60 km from the port of Tartus under Russian control, Moscow’s only maritime centre on the Mediterranean Sea.
A number of tankers transporting fuel from Russia to Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime have been sent to “Lebanon” according to global satellite surveillance systems before the transceivers were shut down near the Syrian coast.
"Putin was interested in gaining influence rather than finding real solutions to pressing issues," said Shahab Mukalla, chief executive of the Mukalla advisory group. "Russia's involvement usually manages conflicts instead of solving them, because in order to solve them, there should be broad cooperation with the United States," he said. [In fact, the US refuses to cooperate with Russia in any issue as if Mukalla would not know that. Clearly, Mukalla is anti-Russian and pro-American ]
Lebanon’s regional role
Lebanon has always been a focal point for regional conflicts over influence, and the country's leaders have found reasons to be courted by the Kremlin. Muhannad al-Hajj explained that one of these reasons is that Beirut wants Russia's mediation in Damascus once the war is over.
"According to Lebanese perceptions, Russia can help manage and regulate the relationship with Syria, a relationship that has been bloody in the past," he said. Syria occupied Lebanon for nearly three decades. After its withdrawal in 2005, Damascus was blamed for the political assassinations that rocked Beirut in 2005 and 2013.
[The bombing in 2005 killed former Rafic Hariri, former Lebanese PM. The UN prosecutor, who was named under pressure from pro-Israel arch Neocon John Bolton, did not investigate Israel for this crime even though Israel has committed numerous assassinations in the past bearing the same signature as the Hariri killing. Eventually, Bashar al-Assad was blamed, though there was no evidence pointing to his guilt. In fact, it was counter-intuitive to blame Assad because his father Hafez was friends with Rafic Hariri, and Rafic’s son Saad, who is currently PM of Lebanon, is perfectly comfortable in the presence of President Putin (see photo), who supports Assad against terrorists in Syria. If Saad had any suspicion whatsoever that Bashar al-Assad were behind the murder of his father, it is hard to imagine he would be friendly with Putin. Finally, something is fishy to say the least in this assassination and the accusation that Assad was behind it because a year later, Israel invaded Lebanon and virtually destroyed the country in a bid to defeat it and perhaps claim its territory as its own. The assassination of Hariri led to the elimination of the Syrian occupation, which would have been a marjo obstable to the Israeli invasion. Hezbollah defended Lebanon successfully, garnering considerable popularity as a political party in Lebanon. No one in Lebanon today, including most Lebanese Christians, thinks of Hezbollah as a terrorist group, despite US/Israeli efforts to frame it as such. This was the first time Israel had ever failed to carry victory in any war and it explains much of Israel’s – and the Washington Establishment’s – seemingly irrational hatred for Hezbollah. The bombing in 2013 killed Hezbollah commander Hassan Howlo al-Laqqis. Hezbollah blamed Israel, and this time the UN could hardly say Assad was behind the killing.]
Moscow has also offered to help Beirut facilitate the return of Syrian refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 950,000 Syrian refugees officially registered in Lebanon, but other estimates suggest that the number is as high as 1.5 million. Lebanon turned to Moscow for help with other local problems.
As Bonsar, the Lebanese ambassador to Moscow, pointed out, when Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri was struggling to form a government after the elections in May 2018, Russian envoys pressed allies in Iran and Syria to urge their political partners in Lebanon to end the impasse. "The Russians have urged their allies in Iran and Syria to facilitate the process of forming a government or to help facilitate it," he said.
It's not easy!
The presidential institution in Lebanon ended months of debate and bickering by announcing the formation of a new national unity government late on Thursday, January 31. However, the coveted expansion of Russia's influence in Lebanon does not appear easy. [It has just come one step closer to reality with the phone call between PM Hariri and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and with the subsequent expulsion of invading Israeli bombers in Syria by Russian Su-35s]. "On the security and defence front, Russia has faced specific resistance," said Mona Sukkaria, risk management consultant and co-founder of Middle East Strategic Perspectives.
The proposed agreement on military cooperation between the two countries was "repeatedly postponed due to pressure from traditional partners [primarily the US] supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces," the British newspaper said. Lebanon receives millions of dollars in military aid from Western countries, which want to prevent the extension of the Syrian civil war to Lebanon, and to strengthen the Lebanese army to balance the large military force of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, the Iranian-backed paramilitary group. [The British newspaper neglected to point out that this paramilitary group saved Lebanon from destruction by Israel in 2006! For the US-controlled Western press, there is no such thing as an Israeli threat. Therefore, the focus of this biased article is Western interests. So what if Israel invades Lebanon again? ]
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to control the Middle East
But some Western allies have responded angrily to the $1 billion proposed loan from Moscow to buy weapons. The deal eventually changed to shipments of ammunition destined for the Lebanese Interior Ministry rather than the army [under pressure from the US].
In addition to defence, the trade volume between Russia and Lebanon has doubled from $423 million in 2016 to about $800 million last year, and trade between them is dominated by Russian energy exports.
Search for investments
Meanwhile, Lebanon wants to show that it can still attract foreign investment such as the Rosneft deal, and Russia has a strategic interest in gaining a foothold in the growing oil and gas sector in the eastern Mediterranean.
"The agreement will allow Rosneft to strengthen its presence in the region," said Igor Sechin, Chief Executive Officer.
Russian gas producer Novatek won a 20 percent stake last year to explore oil and gas at two sites in Lebanese waters. More sites will be auctioned off in 2019.
But some Lebanese activists raised concerns about the DEW's [Dept or Ministry of Energy and Water] silence on the terms of the contract with Rosneft, which should be announced in accordance with last year's legislation.
"We are fully aware of the political dimension of the deal, which adds to the need to be transparent," said Diana al-Qaisi, executive director of the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative, a civil society organization that is pushing for higher standards in the oil and gas sector. This sector should not be part of the political game."