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Hizbullah supporters hold images of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's late founder of the Islamic Republic, during celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution in Beirut last week. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanon Could Be Next Geopolitical Battleground Between U.S., Russia

Moscow recently issued sharp words about America’s potential to spark an ‘ethnic and religious’ conflagration in the region

A diplomatic spat has arisen between the United States and Russia over the former’s policies on Iran and what they could entail for the Middle East. Alexander Zasypkin, Moscow’s ambassador in Beirut, accused Washington of inciting “new conflicts” which “could involve many countries as well as ethnic and religious forces” in the region.

The envoy also championed Iranian-backed Hizbullah—which the U.S. and most Western nations have designated a terrorist entity—as a legitimate partner in Moscow’s military intervention in Syria.

“When events started unfolding in Syria, Hizbullah sided with its lawful authorities, seeing the fight against terrorists in the region as its duty,” Zasypkin said, echoing the rhetoric of the Assad regime which labeled all those opposed to it as “terrorists.”

While the war has wound down with the Assad regime victorious, Israel has been carrying out air strikes to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons from Iran into Hizbullah’s hands. But Russia has also made clear it will not stand for “arbitrary attacks on sovereign Syrian territory,” as Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said in a recent interview.

The sharp words coming out of Russia point to Lebanon as the next potential geopolitical battleground between Moscow and Washington.

“Lebanon has been in this complicated situation for a long time—with powerful players competing for influence,” Nicu Popescu, Director of the Wider Europe Program and Senior Researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Media Line.

“It’s obvious that Russia is much more present in the Middle East, but we are also seeing more outreach from Lebanon which is sending its diplomats more often to Moscow.

“When it comes to the U.S. we don’t know when the announced troop withdrawal [from Syria] will be. But I don’t see the U.S. then becoming much more engaged in pushing Russia out of Lebanon.”

Turning to Israel, Popescu explained that Russia is unlikely to seek stronger alliances with Iran and Hizbullah, nor ramp up the presence of Iran-backed groups in Syria and Lebanon, which would risk upsetting Jerusalem. “From a Russian standpoint, there is sympathy with Israeli desires not to see too much of Iran in these countries,” he concluded.

Professor Eyal Zisser, Vice Rector of Tel Aviv University and an expert on politics in Syria and Lebanon, told The Media Line that it is “logical from Russia’s point of view to move forward to Lebanon after establishing itself in Syria.”

But Lebanon is more complicated because, unlike Syria, there are more actors such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, he explained. “I wouldn’t call it a ‘battleground’ because even in the case of Syria it is not that there was a competition. America, for good reasons, gave up.

“U.S. President [Donald] Trump and former president Barack Obama said very clearly that they have no strategic interests in Syria. This can also be the case in Lebanon because it offers very little to the U.S,” Zisser added.

“A major segment of the Lebanese population is more Western, modern, and enjoys a high-standard of living. Clearly Russia has nothing to offer here. What did it give [Syrian President Bashar] Assad? Only his political survival. But when it comes to economic growth and prosperity, Russia can offer very little.

“This is why all parties, Lebanon included, understands that when it comes to standards of living it is important to maintain good relations with the U.S.”

Robert J. Riggs, Associate Professor of Religion and Politics and a specialist in Shiite history at the University of Bridgeport, told The Media Line that Lebanon could see conflict again, but more likely it would be sparked between Israel and Hizbullah’s leadership, not between Russia and the U.S. directly.

“Recently, with the conscious policy of maximum pressure on Iran being exerted by the Trump administration, Hizbullah has been targeted as well. [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu’s government has been emboldened to challenge Hizbullah—destroying the group’s tunnels into Israel—and this is partially due to the perceived support of the Trump administration.”

However, what has changed from the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah is the ongoing Syrian civil war, Riggs explained. “For the first time, Hizbullah openly sent its troops into Syria [then Iraq and Yemen] to fight alongside local militias and the national army in Syria, bringing them into close proximity to the Russian military leadership.

“Therefore, it is not surprising that the Russian leadership would praise Hizbullah, but doing it publicly is something new. Perhaps this can be attributed to the rising tensions between Russia and the U.S., and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s opportunism.”

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