How the road to US-Russian cooperation starts in Lebanon

In Lebanon, US and Russian interests converge; neither country needs another failed state, a fertile environment for the rise of terrorist groups, which would be problematic for everyone

  
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Lebanese Prime Minister designate Saad al-Hariri and officials attend a meeting in Moscow, Russia April 15, 2021. Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov/Pool via REUTERS

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Lebanese Prime Minister designate Saad al-Hariri and officials attend a meeting in Moscow, Russia April 15, 2021. Sputnik/Dmitry Astakhov/Pool via REUTERS

Intellectuals, professionals, activists and protest groups launched an initiative on Saturday to save Lebanon from its plight. “The Last Chance” offers a comprehensive, executable and pragmatic solution that can accommodate all Lebanon’s stakeholders, with two priorities — implementing reforms (the immediate necessity), and preventing violence.

The proposal is constructed in such a way as to avoid a violent internal confrontation between the different components of Lebanese society; between the people in power and the people on the street; and between Hezbollah and Israel. Though it was launched on the premise of being an executable solution that caters to the needs of the different stakeholders, its main requirement for success is cooperation between the US and Russia.

The first step is for the people in power to leave the government and allow the commander of the army, a consensual figure, to form an administration of technocrats that will implement reforms, prepare for elections and restore stolen funds. This proposal was well received; in his Sunday sermon, Elias Audi, the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Beirut, urged the ruling elite to step down and allow capable people to run the country.

A mixture of pressure and guarantees should be put on the table to encourage them to do so. The US can threaten sanctions against most of the politicians, while offering an amnesty in return for their exit. Washington has so far refrained from sanctioning some corrupt politicians as it sees in them a balance against Hezbollah. Here, the US needs to cooperate with Russia in order to pressure Hezbollah, with whom the US has no leverage. To start with, Hezbollah is under Russian influence in Syria, where it is being hit by Israel with Russia’s tacit acquiescence. Russia has good relations with Israel, and can also talk to Hezbollah; it is the only player that can be a guarantor of nonaggression between the two.

Relations between the US and Russia have been deteriorating, and have reached the point of animosity. There is talk of a new “cold war.” Joe Biden recently accused Vladimir Putin of being a killer. Such escalation is in no one’s interest, and will drain both countries. Nevertheless, history has shown that when interests converge, ideology and principles take a back seat. During the Second World War, Stalin suddenly became “Uncle Joe” as the Soviet Union played a key role in defeating its former Nazi allies.

In Lebanon, US and Russian interests converge; neither country needs another failed state, a fertile environment for the rise of terrorist groups, which would be problematic for everyone. It would mean another wave of refugees for Europe to grapple with. On the other hand, the world can’t pour any more money into a corrupt, dysfunctional system that has already brought Lebanon to its knees; to do so would perpetuate the problem, not solve it. The international community realizes that there is no path toward a solution with the current political configuration. The failure of the French initiative, when politicians agreed on a government of specialists then reneged on their promises and returned to their petty bickering, proves that the source of the problem cannot offer a solution. Six months since the designation of Saad Hariri to form a government, he and the president still cannot agree on a Cabinet. In addition to preventing Lebanon from disintegrating, both the US and Russia want to keep Iran in check. Though Russia and Iran are partners in Syria, Russia wants to keep the lead on the Syrian issue.

The US and Russia should cooperate to make Lebanon’s transitional government a success. Instead of being a place to score points, Lebanon should be a platform for rapprochement. There is already a general framework for cooperation —the International Support Group, which was set up by President Michel Suleiman in 2013 under the UN umbrella to mobilize support for Lebanon, and of which both the US and Russia are part.

So far Russia has been more successful in using hard power than soft power, but Lebanon represents a golden opportunity for Moscow to play the role of mediator. It is influential in Libya and calls the shots in Syria, but its diplomatic role has been limited. Its conference on Syrian refugees in November was boycotted by the West, which perceives Russia negatively and has been giving it the cold shoulder when it comes to diplomacy. Lebanon offers a chance to empower Russian diplomacy and bring about a Russian-US rapprochement.

Though this cooperation can be a platform for more cooperation on other regional problems, such as Syria and Libya, for it to work Lebanon should not be linked to any other issue. For example, Russia cannot ask the US to accept the Assad regime in Syria in return for its reining in of Hezbollah; nor can Hezbollah ask Russia to persuade Israel to cease the strikes on Syria in return for accepting a transitional government in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s activities outside Lebanon should not be part of the discussion.

A US-Russian rapprochement could lead to de-escalation in the region, and provide momentum toward the stability the Middle East badly needs. The starting point for such a rapprochement is Lebanon.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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