In the final instalment of Richard Silverstein’s exploration of the massive changes going in the Middle East, he looks at just how effective Russia has been in filling the gap left by the United States. – Ed.
The Russia factor
It’s unclear how the Saudis believes he will force a much larger and distant state like Lebanon to submit. He can turn off the spigots and declare a boycott. Indeed, Bahrain, one of the Saudi vassal states, directed its citizens to return from Lebanon and declared a travel ban like the Qatari ban which preceded it.
All this will only strengthen Hezbollah’s hand. It will also serve as a tacit invitation to Iran to play a much larger role in Lebanon. When there is a vacuum, it will be filled.
There is an even larger power looming behind this all: Russia. The stalemate in Syria between the Saudi-funded rebels and Assad permitted Putin to intervene decisively and effect the eventual outcome of that conflict. If Putin perceives a similar Saudi strategy in Lebanon, I see little reason Iran and Russia might not team up in the same fashion to support their allies on the ground.
It’s interesting to note that King Salman made the first ever visit by a Saudi royal to Moscow this past month and held talks with Vladimir Putin.
Wouldn’t one like to know what they discussed? It certainly had to have involved Syria and Lebanon, since those are the two places in which Saudi interests either conflict, or potentially conflict with Russia’s.
Perhaps the Saudi king warned Putin not to take advantage of chaos in Lebanon as he did in Syria. I doubt that Putin would be much intimidated given the Saudi failure in Syria.
Russia’s future actions will be determined by how much Putin feels he has to gain if he were to side with Hezbollah and Iran in a future conflict in Lebanon.
It’s important to remember that during the days of the Soviet Union, with the US a dominant force in the region, it supported most of the frontline Arab states in their conflict with Israel.
Putin is well-known for seeking to restore the former glory that was the Soviet empire. No doubt, it would please him no end to engineer a fully fledged Russian return to power and influence in the Middle East.
Military strategists in Riyadh and Tel Aviv
Israel is the elephant in the room here. It borders Lebanon and has fought two major wars there, along with a 20-year failed occupation of the south. Hezbollah is Israel’s sworn enemy and Iran, the movement’s largest backer, is also one of Israel’s chief adversaries.
The Saudis have the financial wherewithal to support a protracted conflict in Lebanon (they also spent $1bn in support of Israel’s sabotage campaign against Iran). They may be more than willing to bankroll another Israeli invasion.
For their part, the Saudis may be willing to create yet another Lebanese government cobbled together by collaborators and bought-off politicians, while shutting Hezbollah out of political power.
Similarly, the history of Israeli intervention is filled with such sham political constructs. In the West Bank, they created the “village councils”. In south Lebanon, they created the South Lebanese Army. And in Syria, they funded the al-Nusra rebels fighting the regime in the Golan Heights.
One can only hope that the military strategists in Riyadh and Tel Aviv aren’t mad enough to contemplate such a scenario. But given the gruesome history of Lebanon, and its role as a sacrificial lamb in conflicts between greater powers, one cannot rule it out.
Finally, the US which had played a decisive role in preventing an Israeli attack on Iran for years, is now led by a president who’s quite enamoured both of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s first foreign visit as leader of the country was to Saudi Arabia. His warm relations with Netanyahu and support for Israel’s most extreme policies is also well-known. No one should expect this administration to restrain either the Saudis or Israelis. If, anything, they may goad them on.
The entirety of this post originally appeared in Middle East Eye on 7 November 2017.