US Secretary of State in Lebanon
Completing a series of visits by US officials such as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, and Assistant of Treasury Secretary for Counterterrorism Financing Marechal Billingeslea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conducted a short visit to Lebanon during which he met with high-ranking Lebanese officials and party leaders. The visit coincided with US President Trump’s recognition that the occupied Golan Heights are under Israeli sovereignty and his imposition of new sanctions against Iran. Pompeo’s discussions revolved around two key issues: Hezbollah and Iran’s immense influence and the disputed maritime border/gas fields on the Southern border. Other topics include Russia’s growing involvement and the return of Syrian refugees. Regarding the key concern of the visit, Pompeo issued a harsh statement about Hezbollah, labeled it a terrorist group threating Lebanon’s interests, and claimed sanctions were having their intended effect. The official Lebanese stance was contradicting as President Aoun, PM Hariri, Speaker of Parliament Berri, and Foreign Minister Bassil all rejected the terrorist label and stressed on Hezbollah being a key part of the Lebanese population. In spite of expected tensions on the Hezbollah issue, a possible US and UN mediation was discussed in the hopes of resolving the ongoing maritime border dispute.
In line with the Trump administration’s efforts of containing Iran through tight economic sanctions, Pompeo’s Middle East trip added a political dimension to the ongoing conflict. Even though the rhetoric used in Beirut by a high-ranking US official was unprecedented, it is unlikely that the US would expand sanctions in a way that damages the Lebanese economy as a whole. Undermining the stability of the country, especially amid the presence of over a million Syrian refugees, is not in the interests of the US. Aside from rallying support among US allies in Lebanon against Hezbollah, the rhetoric of escalation will likely remain just that. “Lebanese people must stand up to Hezbollah” and “Lebanese are missing a major chance to solve the Southern land and sea border dispute” are some of the key statements made by Pompeo during the visit. Pompeo also made a direct reference to the effect of sanctions on Hezbollah’s finances and the “continued use of peaceful methods”, thus an extension of the same strategy adopted thus far is expected.
On a domestic note, Lebanese leaders were keen on maintaining internal stability as they are aware that a confrontation with Hezbollah will not achieve great results; though, political opposition by some will undoubtedly remain based on principle. On a more regional note, the US Secretary of State’s statements, coupled with Trump’s declaration on the Golan Heights, were seen as a direct attempt to boost Netanyahu’s chances in the upcoming Israeli elections.
President Aoun’s Visit to Russia
Shortly after Pompeo’s visit, President Aoun held a meeting in Russia with President Putin following an invitation from the latter. The summit tackled cooperation between the two countries, offshore oil and gas fields, Christian presence in the Middle East, and reviving the Russian initiative for the return of Syrian refugees. The 15-point joint-statement reflected a convergence of stances regarding key topics such as the Syrian conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, and refugee returns; however, two key hurdles must be pointed to: First, it was clear in the 15 points plan that the Russian initiative for the return of Syrian refugees is dependent on international, and specifically Western financial support, for reconstruction. Until this moment, this support is not available as the US and EU link reconstruction efforts to a form of political solution to the conflict in Syria. Second, the Assad regime has been previously resistant to Moscow’s efforts for large refugee returns. Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin confirmed these claims as he stated “the Syrian regime is not in a rush to bring back refugees, maybe because of security fears emanating from large arrivals”. Whether this will change in the future is something to watch, especially as the formation of a tri-partite committee involving Lebanon, Syria, and Russia was reportedly suggested. If this constitutes an initial step towards renewed legitimization of the Assad regime by Lebanon, then domestic disagreements are expected to resurface within government as in the past months.
The visit is the latest in a series of high level official visits from Lebanese figures to Moscow, including Prime Minister (PM) Hariri as well as party leaders and members of parliament such as Walid and Taymour Jumblatt, Sleiman and Tony Frangieh, Talal Arslan, Gebran Bassil, and Sami Gemayel… These relations that extend beyond one political bloc or alliance indicate the political reach of the Kremlin based on its reconciliatory approach to the country.
Contrary to the escalating and threatening US rhetoric, Putin adopted a more compromising attitude with enticing offers of cooperation. Business meetings, investments in the oil and gas sector, increased Russian efforts for Syrian refugee returns, and expansion of relations in a wide array of fields are clear attempts to sway Lebanon into its direction. This does not negate the fact that the US has also provided billions of dollars in the past years to the Lebanese Army, civil society, and state institutions. Washington’s downside has been its attempt to balance between pressuring Hezbollah and keeping Lebanon stable which has weakened its foreign policy towards the country. While this ambiguity has been going on for more than a decade, current times could be different as Russia reasserts its influence in the region.
Alongside its growing influence in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Russia has set its sights on Lebanon as part of its Middle East power projection strategy. Lebanon is also a natural extension to its presence in Syria. Substantial arms sales deals, trade deals, competition in the oil and gas tenders, interest in setting up naval and air bases, the refugee return initiative, cultural centers, Orthodox cooperation councils, and the facilitation of the latest government formation are all signs of Russian soft power being exercised in the region. The gaps left by an indecisive, if not retreating, US policy are being filled by the Kremlin. This situation has led to a belief among political elites in Lebanon that, amid the retreat of the US, Russia will become the major power broker in the region. It also holds the key of playing a role in Syria’s future, thus a possible shift in positioning might be in order. Some analysts on the other hand have shed doubt over Russia’s ability to follow up on its promises.
The latest gain for Russia was the acquisition of a deal to purchase, redevelop, and expand an oil storage center in Tripoli. The center is connected to major oilfields in the region, such as Kirkuk, in which the Russian company Rosneft has a stake. The US was reportedly unhappy that the deal was given to a Russian company amid concerns of the developing ties between Beirut and Moscow. This also comes following intense pressure from Western powers regarding a military cooperation agreement between Lebanon and Russia, which prompted its postponement by Lebanese officials.
The deal is comprehensive as it details arms sales, military cooperation, access to Lebanese facilities by Russian troops, joint training, and exchange of military information. This is an important development as the Lebanese Army has traditionally relied on US and EU weapons, and previously rejected several Russian arms deals, including a gift of ten MiG-29 fighter jets in 2008. Aside from the above stated diplomatic pressure from the West, the rejection is also attributed to technical reasons such as operations and maintenance.
A geopolitical struggle over Lebanon is taking shape, and the US is not sitting on the sidelines just yet as evidenced by their new $1 billion embassy compound and high-profile visits to Lebanon, the latest of which is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Hezbollah Financial Troubles
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called on the organization’s support base to donate money to assist in the ongoing financial war being waged by the US. Nasrallah described the sanctions as similar to military and media wars and warned of tough times ahead. The speech comes at a time of financial struggles for Hezbollah amid reported austerity measures being imposed upon its members, supporters, and even fighters who were previously exempted from budget cuts. Examples include limiting military presence in Syria to vital areas, salary cuts among employees at its various institutions, wage decrease for fighters, hiring freeze, closure of hundreds of offices and apartments, and reduction of social services funds. The reasons behind these changes are the tightening US sanctions against Iran and proxies in general, and Hezbollah in particular, thus limiting the flow of money, US crackdown on Hezbollah sources of funding worldwide, and budgetary restructuring prioritizing plans for cementing influence in Syria. Some alternative sources of maintaining its support network among Shia constituents are the Hezbollah-headed Ministry of Health, allocation of public projects in allies’ ministries to businesses close to the party, employment in the public sector, religious tax, and smuggling operations…
Syria Relations and Refugee Return
The rift that started last month following Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib’s visit to Damascus has continued to dominate a key part of the political scene. The main disagreement lies in whether the Lebanese government should officially and directly negotiate with the Assad regime regarding the return of refugees. President Aoun, Free Patriotic Movement, Amal Movement, and Hezbollah believe that restoring normalcy with Damascus is crucial for the speedy return of Syrian refugees whereas the Future Movement, Lebanese Forces, and Progressive Socialist Party have rejected this notion. In line with this developing issue, Minister of State for Social Affairs Richard Kouyoumjian announced a framework, in the name of the Lebanese Forces, detailing the need for return irrespective of a political solution and stressed that the “return process must not be a step towards normalizing ties with the Syrian regime”. The framework proposed reviving the ministerial committee, involvement of international organizations, and key role for General Security. On the other hand, Berri, twice in as many weeks, called for coordinating with Assad on the issue, along with trade through the Nassib border crossing and reconstruction efforts. Further division regarding the official government position appeared when Gharib, concerned minster with the refugee portfolio, was sidelined from attending the “Brussels III international conference for Syrian refugees and host nations”. While Hariri seemed to adopt a position of compromise by accepting a pro-Assad minister for the refugee portfolio and following Gharib’s visit to Damascus last month, the events leading up to the Brussels conference suggest otherwise. From the practical side, reports have circulated that the Syrian military intelligence is rejecting the clear majority of those applying for return through General Security. Whether these rejections are related to the demographic changes being pursued in several vital areas in Syria or part of a blackmail tactic by the Assad regime to regain legitimacy will become clearer as the situation develops in the coming months. Furthermore, the previously quoted statement of the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon, as well as Russia’s refocusing of the return conditions and reconstruction, further indicate Assad’s fear of returns.
Regarding the controversial topic of Lebanon’s relations with Syria, the push by President Aoun and his allies towards re-legitimizing Assad, for both political and refugee return reasons, continued as Aoun called on the Arab League during the summit in Tunisia to reinstate Syria’s membership. Such calls are a continuation of the absence of a unified Lebanese stance, whether in government or on the level of high ranking officials, on key foreign policy issues since key parties in government and even the Prime Minister would disagree with the demand made.
Anti-Corruption Campaign: Doomed from the Start?
The Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee concluded that around 500 people were hired by Ogero and the telecommunications ministry, and another 500 receiving salaries from telecom companies Alfa and Touch without showing up to work. In addition, 5,000 people are believed to have been hired in spite of a freeze on public sector hiring, according to a law passed in August 2017, in the buildup to last year’s parliamentary elections. This also falls within the 15,000 public sector employees who were hired without going through proper recruitment mechanisms. An additional corruption inquiry is taking place in the security forces, education sector, and judiciary. In conjunction with these investigations, it is expected that an independent National Anti-Corruption Commission will be formed.
In spite of the highly publicized calls and campaigns for combating corruption, expectations of concrete steps remain low, especially amid the absence of an independent judiciary and proper oversight bodies. This is coupled with the inflammation of sectarian tensions and reliance on sectarian protection whenever serious accusations are made. The latest example is Hezbollah’s tacit accusation of former PM Siniora’s $11 billion worth of illegal spending which instigated similar accusations from Siniora towards Hezbollah. The back and forth accusations went hand in hand with media campaigns from both sides and even led to Lebanon’s highest Sunni Muslim figure, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel Latif Derian, to defend Siniora from the “unjust and baseless claims”. Another discouraging development is the recent clash between Hariri and Bassil over clientalist assignments in administrative and military positions as well as the future of the power sector. While such disagreement has become quite normal on the Lebanese scene, it does indicate the continuation of the same ineffective method of governance.
Even though media and political rhetoric about combating corruption has been high since the last parliamentary elections, skepticism remains high about: whether reforms will be systematic or symbolic, whether the anti-corruption campaign is genuine or linked to CEDRE funds (similar to what happened with Paris I, II, and III), whether accountability will reach high level figures or just low-level scapegoats, and whether sectarian and political interests will derail any possible efforts.
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 Al Kalima Online (2019, March 21) Russian Ambassador Blows a Political Bomb: Assad Fears the Return of Refugees. Retrieved from Al Kalima Online: http://alkalimaonline.com/Newsdet.aspx?id=374266
 Supra note 12
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 Supra note 8
 Supra note 8
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