The US has made it clear it wants to help free Lebanon from Iranian influence, but it cannot do so alone. The protests across the country have weakened Hezbollah, but they are unlikely to diminish Tehran’s influence, especially as the US disengages from the region.
Moderating Iranian influence requires the help of another power, which is credible with the non-Western leaning crowd and enjoys good relations with Lebanon’s neighbors: Russia.
Washington should consider coordinating with Russia to maintain stability and curb Iranian excess in Lebanon.
By challenging the status quo, the protests are a clear danger to the order Hezbollah has meticulously woven for over a decade, enabling its transformation from a non-state actor to a domineering political party. Unlike during the Cedar Revolution of 2005, Hezbollah has not been able to convincingly smear the current protests with accusations of hidden Israeli or US agendas due to their narrative of social justice.
The fact that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) have stayed neutral has further compounded Hezbollah’s position, as it shows that Hezbollah’s allies – President Michel Aoun and the Future Patriotic Movement (FPM) – no longer enjoy their previous levels of influence with the LAF. This was evident when the LAF refused to act on the demands of President Aoun to clear the streets and confront the protestors.
Combine these factors with the risk of economic collapse due to a lack of Iranian funding and poor governance, and it is clear that Hezbollah is weakened. But it is far from defeated. Given Iranian intransigence and US disengagement from the region, it will be difficult for Lebanon to get rid of Hezbollah – and Iranian influence – alone. Russia is the ideal partner for the task.
Russia’s strength is that it is a regional power broker in the Levant which has good relations with various rival powers. Since its intervention in Syria, Moscow has been an effective negotiator – it successfully established an Iranian disengagement zone in southern Syria, and was also successful in diffusing the latest Kurdish-Turkish confrontation and negotiating an understanding between the Syrian regime and the Kurdish forces in Syria.
The US could not have achieved this. Russia is better positioned in the Levant because of its neutral stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict and its good relations with various rival powers such as Iran, Israel, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Lebanon is now a similar case. Unlike the US, Russia has good rapport with all parties, including both the pro-Western and pro-Syrian factions. Despite its recent intervention on behalf of the Syrian regime, Moscow has maintained close ties with Lebanese Sunni factions. It has also forged close ties with various Christian communities, presenting itself as the patron saint of Eastern Christianity.
Russia’s enhanced status as a regional actor does not mean it cannot work the US, in Lebanon or elsewhere. Russian and US influence frequently coexist, and both countries have a vested interest in a strong central government and the stability of Lebanon.
While Russia may work with Iran in Syria, it approaches Lebanon differently to Tehran.
In Lebanon, Russia’s relationship with Hezbollah is rather formal and not a close alliance. Unlike Iran, Russia deals exclusively with the Lebanese authorities and has repeatedly affirmed its support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, in contrast to Iran’s preference for non-state actors.
The US and Russia have successfully coordinated against terrorist activities in Afghanistan and Syria, so there is no reason why they can’t coordinate in Lebanon. Most importantly, with escalating tensions between the US and Iran, both powers are concerned that an Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Lebanon could spill over to Syria. Russia can effectively mediate with the Syrian regime on important issues for Lebanon such as refugees and trade.
Despite these advantages, Washington currently fears that coordinating with Russia in Lebanon would erode American influence.
But American influence is strong due to trade, education, soft power and diaspora connections, as well as close ties to the exclusively US-trained and equipped LAF. This influence survived under Syrian hegemony, and would not be negated by coordinating with Russia.
The current standoff will not rid Lebanon of Iranian influence, and European powers will do little to help. Russia’s position may be vital to leverage against Iran and could be the only way to avert conflict with Israel. For these reasons, US-Russian cooperation is the best way forward for Lebanon.
Basem Shabb is a former member of the Lebanese parliament.