The New Eastern Question: Lebanon and the Russian involvement in Syria

#InsideLebanon

Putin’s intervention in Syria has been seen by pro-Assad parties as a welcome move against terrorism, while for others it is a disaster

Makram Rabah's picture
Wednesday 14 October 2015 14:10 UTC
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An old women who lived in a remote village had a chronic rodent problem. Her neighbour suggested that she approaches the two super powers at the time, the USSR and the United States for a possible solution. Desperate, this women walks up to the US and Russian embassies and at each asks to meet an official. Ecstatic at her request, the American diplomat jumps to his feet, shakes the old women’s hand and declares that the US government will stand by her in the ongoing fight to vanquish the rodents. After hearing her out, the Russian diplomat briefly leaves the room to return with a cat that will be sufficient to get rid of the rodents.

This Cold War parable is perhaps very befitting of the current situation in Syria and how the current super powers (USA and Russia) are dealing with the current conflict both in Syria as well as in the region.

Russia, and the Soviets before it, have always supported Syria in different capacities. However, Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to deploy troops in Syria marks an important departure from earlier practices of indirect involvement to the ever dangerous boots on the ground scenario.

Perhaps it is the first time since the end of the Eastern Question that the Russian Empire has been so invested in the affairs of the Levant and Syria. In the same manner that the five superpowers of the 19th century were interested in the fate of the collapsing Ottoman Empire and what would follow, Russia stands in a somewhat similar positions vis-a-vis Bashar al-Assad’s fate and that of the whole area.

Naturally, the Russian involvement in Syria was expected to spill across the border into Lebanon due to the organic as well as historic links between the political affairs of these neighbouring countries. As it stands, the Lebanese political elite have thus far failed to elect a new president for over 477 days and counting. Furthermore, this political deadlock has also left the country with a government which has failed repeatedly to carry out the simplest tasks of government, the recent waste management crisis serving as a perfect example.

While Putin’s reasons might vary from his desire to reestablish the glories of the Russian Empire to the more realist strategic goals of foreign policy, such as diverting attention from the Russian war in Ukraine but more importantly maintaining a Russian presence on the Mediterranean via the naval base in Tartus. These motives Putin has packaged as part of Russia ongoing fight against global terrorism which ISIS and Nusra are a big partisans in.

The real implications of this Russian move is not to further escalate the Sunni-Shia schism which has dominated all of the region’s activities for the past decade as well as become a centrepiece of the Lebanese political stalemate.

The different Lebanese factions, the anti-Assad (Lebanese Forces, Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party) and the pro-Assad elements (Hezbollah, Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement) at the beginning agreed to technically disassociate themselves from the events of the Syrian conflict as well as Yemen, so as not to allow these regional challenges to spill over violently. However, this was made impossible with Hezbollah’s ever growing involvement in full-scale military operations to defend Assad.

Hezbollah’s initial involvement was limited to protecting the regime western flank and to prevent the Syrian opposition from encircling the Syrian capital via the Zabadani region. However, slowly but surely, Hezbollah found itself fighting in all parts of Syria where the regime needed every man it could spare to survive.

Moreover, anti-Assad factions - primarily the Future Movement as well as the Progressive Socialist Party - have constantly supported the opposition from the onset. Russia’s strong showing therefore will add more tensions to an already delicate issue as the pro-Assad elements within Lebanon might be tempted to capitalise internally on this situation: first by electing a pro-Syrian/Iranian president, and second by neutralising what remains of the opposition they faced.

Naturally Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, whose troops have been immersed in the fighting, welcomed the Russian move. Recently Nasrallah even gloated that “In light of the internal, regional and international developments, we are past the danger zone in Syria, and a new chapter will soon begin in Syria’s case.” By predicting that the Russian direct intervention would secure the final victory for the Assad-Iranian-Russian axis, Nasrallah was adding to the already widening Sunni-Shia rift.

Ironically, Nasrallah back in 2005 had repeatedly warned the pro-Western Lebanese factions from entertaining the idea of using Western elements, in this case the Bush administration, to force local and regional changes. However, it doesn’t seem that Nasrallah is willing to practice what he already preached.

Another pro-Assad Lebanese faction which has been swept by the euphoria of the Russian involvement in Syria is the Free Patriotic Movement - FPM - and its constant presidential candidate Michel Aoun. Over the weekend Aoun and his supports commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Syrian army ousting Aoun from the presidential palace and ending his mutiny.   

Interestingly the main attraction of the day wasn’t the speech of the aging politician, but rather the banners and signs that some of his supporters hoisted during the march.

Funny enough, a number of Aoun supporters decided to link their strong leader with his Russian equivalent Vladimir Putin. Some FPM motorcades were spotted carrying the picture of Aoun and Putin perceived by them as strong Christian leaders of the 21st century.

Even more alarming is an image of Putin which appeared in the rally with a phrase that read “Putin has come for you, you immoral folks.” This was a direct reference to how Putin has arrived to protect the Christians of the Levant from the persecution of the Islamists (ISIS and the opposition) who were slaying the Christians of Syria.

This theme of holy war against the forces of evil and terrorism in Syria which was prorogated by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church seemed to have been fully adopted by Aoun and his supporters. This paradigm seems to perfectly fit within Aoun’s framework of the alliance of minorities as he believes that by siding with the unorthodox (Shia, Alawite and perhaps Jewish) powers in the region, he will be protecting the Christians from the tyranny of the Sunni majority.

While the other anti-Assad Lebanese factions have condemned the Russian move in Syria, none of them have the power nor the will to prevent this Russian undertaking from wreaking more havoc on an already sinking Lebanese ship. A vision which their counterparts do not seem to share.

The events of the Syrian crisis has thus far shown all the elements of a traditional civil war with its regional and international elements at play. While Russia can afford to play this regional game and go against the wishes of the Sunnis and their allies, Aoun as well as Hezbollah have everything to lose from this Russian gamble if it falls through.

While the allegory mentioned above gives more credence to the Russian cat rather than the American handshake, perhaps the best way for the Lebanese and their Syrian neighbours to get rid of rodents is to clean one’s house rather than rely on foreigners to do the job for them.

- Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department. He is the author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967–1975” and a regular columnist for Now Lebanon. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Members of the Sunni Committee of Muslim Scholars (MSC) hold a banner during a protest against Russia's intervention in Syria on 14 October, 2015 outside the Russian embassy in the capital Beirut. Russia launched airstrikes over Syria on 30 September, raising fears of accidental run-ins with the US-led coalition that has been bombing IS in Syria and Iraq for more than a year. (AFP)