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|16 March, 2019

Pompeo likely to lay down red lines on Russian influence in Lebanon

Figuring high on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s itinerary during his visit to Beirut next week will be to draw red lines for Russian involvement in projects and aid for Lebanon.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signs an MOU and statement of intent with Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, the Deputy Prime Minister and Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Sheraton Grand in the Qatari capital Doha, Qatar January 13, 2019.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signs an MOU and statement of intent with Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, the Deputy Prime Minister and Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Sheraton Grand in the Qatari capital Doha, Qatar January 13, 2019.

REUTERS/POOL New

Figuring high on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s itinerary during his visit to Beirut next week will be to draw red lines for Russian involvement in projects and aid for Lebanon.

Lebanese ministers and lawmakers have made multiple visits to Moscow in recent years as Russia’s role across the Middle East continues to expand.

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While it is likely that there is some agreement between the Trump and Putin administrations, the United States has its “red lines” for Russia’s involvement in Lebanon, a political source in Beirut told The Daily Star recently.

“It is obvious that Russia has a new role as the ‘maestro’ in regional conflicts, and Russia wants to enter deeper into Lebanon,” the source said.

“They were the godfather of the agreement in southern Syria and they pushed Iranian and Hezbollah troops away from the Israeli border.”

The source added that “Russia will shoot down an Israeli jet if it crosses Iranian red lines, but it will then allow Israeli jets to fly over and bomb Iranian targets when Tehran crosses red lines.”

Last year, Russia offered military aid to the Lebanese Army. But this was met with alarm from the U.S. and the agreement fell through. Ultimately, the deal went to the Internal Security Forces, comprised of some ammunition and other minimal aid.

“The U.S. doesn’t want to lose its influence with the Army and Lebanon’s Central Bank. These are key institutions that it invests in and they are both key to countering terrorism and financing of terrorism,” the source said.

Lebanon’s Central Bank and Army are not only two essential pillars of the country’s stability; the leaders of both are always candidates to take over as head of state.

Washington has given the Lebanese Army more than $2 billion in aid since 2006.

And while Russia has so far failed in its efforts to support the Army, it has successfully entered Lebanon’s oil and gas market.

Rosneft signed a contract - the financial details of which the Lebanese government and Russia have not disclosed - to rehabilitate, expand and operate oil storage facilities in the northern port city of Tripoli.

The Russian oil company is also a part of the consortium that won a bid to explore Lebanon’s potential oil and gas reserves off the southern coast.

This type of influence has not drawn any public ire from the U.S., although multiple Western diplomats have voiced their concern over such moves behind closed doors.

Asked if Pompeo would intervene to help resolve Lebanon’s maritime border dispute with Israel, the source said it is possible. U.S. officials have consistently expressed their readiness to mediate on the issue once Lebanon has a unified stance.

As of now, some Lebanese officials want an all-inclusive solution to the land and maritime border disputes while others are for a step-by-step approach.

Pompeo’s assistant David Satterfield has failed over the last year to find a solution acceptable to both sides.

“But a proposal coming from the U.S. secretary of state is different than that of an assistant of his. Maybe he [Pompeo] will be able to convince Lebanese sides of finding a unified solution,” the source added.

Along with the increased Russian role in the region, Pompeo’s visit comes before President Michel Aoun’s official visit to Moscow where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Lebanon doesn’t expect the top U.S. diplomat to warn against making such a visit. “He can’t not allow us to go, but what he could do is ask that we not sign any military agreements with the Russians,” the source said, indicating Lebanon’s position between the two global powers. As Russia makes its moves in the region, the U.S. has its own red lines that it will not allow to be crossed - Lebanon being one of them.

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