While most nations have a clearly defined set of relations with their neighbours and other international partners, Lebanon’s sectarian political system has prohibited the country from having a uniform policy towards Syria. On one end of the spectrum governing coalition member Hezbollah has sent its fighters from Lebanon into Syria where they have cooperated with the Syrian government throughout the present conflict. Likewise, the Amal Movement of Lebanon’s Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri and the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun have also associated themselves with Damascus throughout the conflict. On the opposite end of the spectrum Prime Mininister Saad Hariri and allies of his Future Movement party do not recognise the Syrian government and have been rhetorically supportive of anti-government forces in the present conflict.
As Lebanon is now home to over one million Syrian refugees, the political situation in the country has complicated efforts to repatriate refugees to Syria even as vast swaths of Syrian territory have been cleansed of terrorist occupation. This difficult situation is now one step closer to being resolved due to Russia’s status a a superpower with uniquely good relations with the many conflicting factions of the Middle East.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has concluded a meeting with his Lebanese counterpart Gebran Bassil who leads the Free Patriotic Movement. According to the terms of the agreement, Russia will help establish the proper lines of transport and communication to help facilitate the peaceful return of refugees to Syria in a manner that does not put pressure on Beirut to delve into the complex issues of some factions operating on good terms with Damascus while others do not intend to acknowledge relations with Damascus now or at any time in the immediate future.
According to Bassil,
“I would like to thank Russia for putting forward an initiative aimed at resolving the refugee issue. Russia’s position confirms its principle-based approach to resolving the situation in the region, as the refugee issue has been making the matters worse.
We are interested in the initiative’s success and support it. We are guided by the principles of the fight against terrorism and protect the principles of pluralism. What Russia is doing at the moment emphasises its historic role in the region and confirms that Moscow is following its principles not only in word but also in deed”.
In helping to bring closure Lebanon’s role in the Syrian refugee crisis, Russia is aiding Lebanon in a moment of national healing as the presence of Syrian refugees has been a widely divisive issue in the small and highly diverse state. Secondly, Russia has helped all factions in Lebanon to save face in orchestrating the repatriation of refugees. If left to its own devices, Lebanon’s always tense (though stable compared to previous decades) political structure could have been plunged into a new conflict regarding how to handle the status of refugees now that it is clear that Syria’s government has been the political victor of the hybrid conflict that has raged without pause since 2011.
Because of this, both Lebanon’s pro and anti-Damascus factions have tended to speak highly of the Russian arrangement as it has allowed a possible confrontational situation to be resolved on a win-win basis that allows each political faction in Lebanon to maintain its autonomous stance regarding Syria’s government while freeing Lebanon’s territory of refugees whose presence was always controversial, all the while helping to normalise the life of refugees who will now be able to return to their home cities and towns at long last.
This reality further cements Russia’s status as the penultimate power broker in the Middle East, just as the deal that Russia facilitated to withdraw Iranian and pro-Tehran personnel from the Israeli border with the support of the United States demonstrated that even among the regions most hated rivals, Russia is able to strike productive deals aimed at de-escalating tension and reducing the propensity for open conflict.
While the United States remains a formidable military presence in the Middle East, its propensity for military stalemates as well as not being able to attain the geopolitical ends it desires has left Russia as the last power standing capable of shaping events in the Middle East and crucially one that is able to do so on a win-win basis in spite of the Middle East being one of the most conflict ridden geopolitical hot spots in the world.