Novaya Gazeta Correspondent El-Hayek: Hizbullah Told by Moscow Not To Interfere In Russia’s Syrian Settlement Push

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On March 15, 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a meeting with the head of the Hizbullah parliamentary faction Muhammad R’ad. The Russian Foreign Ministry laconically announced “We confirm the fact of the meeting”[1] At the meeting, Lavrov told R’ad that Russia backed the speedy formation of a Lebanese government under Rafiq Al-Hariri as well the return of refugees to Syria, many of whom are in Lebanon .[2]

Russia has taken note of the tenth anniversary of the Syrian fighting. and the Duma Defense Committee announced that 112 Russian soldiers had died since Russia launched its military operation in Syria on September 30, 2015.[3] Russia would like to see a political settlement in Syria that would ratify the success of this military mission. Part of attempts to accelerate a political process in Syria was the formation of a new format comprised of Russia-Turkey and Qatar. During Lavrov’s March 10 visit to Doha, he was joined the next day by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. On March 11, Lavrov held talks with the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani. Later, the foreign affairs ministers of Russia, Turkey and Qatar had a meeting following which they announced:  “Russia, Turkey and Qatar also expressed their intention to actively participate in international efforts aimed to ensure the secure and voluntary return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people to their homes.” [4]

Lavrov took pains to clarify that “The trilateral format on Syria between Russia, Turkey and Qatar doesn’t replace the Astana Platform, consisting of Russia, Turkey and Iran.” However, the new format will meet regularly with the next meeting to convene in Turkey.[5] Lavrov, on his recent Middle East swing, met with the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh before going on to Doha. Russia needs the Saudis to influence the Syrian opposition but bin Farhan told him that Syria must return to the Arab fold (i.e. cut ties with Iran) to facilitate a political settlement.[6]

Novaya Gazeta’s Middle East correspondent Wadih El-Hayek connects the arrival of the Hizbullah delegation to Russia’s push for a Syrian settlement. His take on the visit is that Moscow is laying down the line to Hizbullah not to interfere in Russia’s efforts. Given the crisis in Lebanon and the erosion of popular support for Hizbullah, El Hayek believes that Hizbullah will find it hard to resist Russia’s demands.

El-Hayek’s analysis follows below:[7]

 

“An official delegation from the Lebanese office of the pro-Iranian Shiite Hizbullah party has arrived in Moscow.

“Hizbullah is not only a significant political player in the Middle East region, it is also a powerful armed faction, with a quasi-state structure that duplicates the state institutions. In February, Lebanese Hizbullah received an invitation to visit Moscow. The itinerary includes meetings at the Foreign Ministry, the State Duma, and the National Security Council. Hizbullah gladly accepted this invitation, because the movement has fallen on difficult times for the movement (and Russia was involved in this).

“The visit, which will last for 4 days, will obviously be dedicated to a discussion of the situation prevailing in Syria. Russia is noticeably fatigued with the eleven- year-long Syrian war, which turned into internal clashes between the players on the ground.

“Even at the last meeting of the Astana Process, which took place in Sochi in February, the most repeated refrain on the Russian side was the call to stop the war in Syria and begin a peaceful political process.

“The plan proposed by Russia suits neither Iran nor Hizbullah, which is under Iran’s control.

“Iranian interests in Syria became threatened after Russia introduced a military contingent to Syria in late September 2015.

“Tactically, Russia, Iran and Hizbullah all support the government of Bashar al-Assad; however, they have different strategic goals.

“The Assad regime (which has a significant financial debt to Iran) has found a lifeline in Russia not only financially speaking (the current Syrian leadership owes Russia colossal amounts), but rather in terms of decreasing the Iranian influence.

“Shi’ite Iran has long-term relations with the Alawite Assad family in Syria.  Analysts gently characterize the essence of the current relations with Bashar Assad as a “protectorate.” This ‘protectorate’ does not leave Assad many options. For many years, Syria has been at the forefront of the grandiose Iranian geopolitical plan to unite states with a significant Shiite presence into the so-called ‘Shiite crescent’.

“[This crescent] extends from Iran and arcs through Iraq and Syria and reaches Lebanon. It stops at Israel, whose destruction, it should be recalled, was declared an ultimate goal of Hizbullah’s existence.

“The war in Syria played to Iran’s advantage. For many years, human rights activists have been talking about ‘demographic engineering’ in Syria: Shiites from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq settle in certain, mostly Sunni-populated, areas of Syria. The opposition-minded indigenous population is deprived of any rights and opportunities to return due to the harsh laws adopted by the regime.

“Bashar al-Assad hardly enjoys his instrumental role in the construction of a ‘Shiite crescent’. Russia’s participation in the conflict has significantly increased his opportunity to bargain [with Iranians]and choose his ally.

“By joining the Syrian conflict Russia greatly interfered with the plans of other parties.

“For example, the majority of smuggling routes along the Lebanese-Syrian border were blocked. Weapons and drug smuggling is of vital importance to Hizbullah.

“Later, thanks to Russian influence the famous Fifth Assault Regiment of the Syrian army was formed. [The Fifth Regiment] consisting mainly of Lebanese and Syrian volunteers, did not welcome Hizbullah’s methods. Fighting alongside the Russians, the Fifth Corps servicemen often took part in direct armed clashes with the same Hizbullah and other pro-Iranian formations.

“The agreements on joint patrolling of Idlib’s outskirts concluded last year between Russia and Turkey also did not work to Iran’s advantage. The latter had until then justifiably considered itself to be the dominant power in the region.

“Peace negotiations between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition initiated by Russia are a direct threat to Iranian influence in Syria.

“Now at stake is [Iran’s] last card in the region –Lebanon, the terminus of the “Shiite crescent”.

“Last week in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a meeting with Lebanon’s elected Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Lavrov’s message was clear: Russia will support Hariri’s efforts to create an independent government, and Hizbullah needs to fall in line and stop undermining Lebanese state-building.

“Today in Lebanon, Hizbullah has practically monopolized the domestic political market. Since 2005, when the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon, every government was effectively formed upon the agreement of this party.

“Key ministries such as finance, health, defense and energy were under control of Hizbullah and its allies. The mass rallies in Lebanon, which have been going on for the last year and a half and which have practically paralyzed the country’s economy, led to a tightening of the screws. Hizbullah strengthened its control over the various areas of public life via its armed wing, which is stronger and better equipped than the Lebanese army.

“However, these actions do not help much, the party is losing its ‘popular base’. Thus, last weekend in Lebanon, residents of the Shiite district of Baalbek drove the Hizbullah deputy Hussein El-Hajj Hassan from his own home, accusing him of corruption. People surrounded the deputy’s residence, burned tires and blocked the entrances. After that the deputy fled.

“Over the long years of dominance in the region, Hizbullah created a strong administrative infrastructure. They have their own street cops, their own taxation system, their own prisons and detention centers, in which people who criticize them are deposited. However, after the explosion in Port of Beirut in August of 2020, Hizbullah’s prisons lack places for such critics.

“Let’s recall that on August 4, as a result of the explosion in Port of Beirut more than 200 people died, and numerous neighborhoods in the center of Beirut were destroyed. According to one version, the explosion was caused by the detonation of Hizbullah ammunition, which was stored in the same hangar with 2.7 thousand tons of ammonium nitrate impounded back in 2013. An international investigation of the explosion has gathered evidence indicating that the ammonium nitrate, which was stored at the Port of Beirut and guarded by Hizbullah militants, was probably intended to make barrel bombs, which were used by Assad regime against civilians in Syria.

“All these circumstances are prompting Hizbullah, which is not much loved by the international community as it is, to submit and heed the diplomatic signals sent by Russia.


[1] Tass.ru, March 16, 2021.

[2] Mid.ru, March 15, 2021.

[3] Kommersant.ru, March 15, 2021.

[4] Iz.ru, March 11, 2021.

[5] Ria.ru, March 11, 2021.

[6] Kommersant.ru, March 11, 2021.

[7] Novayagazeta.ru, March 14, 2021.

Published by MEMRi

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Novaya Gazeta Correspondent El-Hayek: Hizbullah Told by Moscow Not To Interfere In Russia’s Syrian Settlement Push

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