Russia, Iran, and Hizballah are all allies in supporting the Assad regime against its internal and external opponents in Syria. In Lebanon, however, there have been signs recently that Moscow and Hizballah may not be quite in tune with each other.
According to Lebanon’s unwritten “National Pact” of 1943, the President of the republic is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister is always a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament is always a Shi‘a Muslim. Since the expiration of the previous President’s term of office in May 2014, Lebanon has been without a President, who is elected by Lebanon’s parliament, because the opposing factions have been unable to agree on a candidate.
Recently, however, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri (who is both anti-Syrian and anti-Hizballah) has sought to break the impasse by nominating Michel Aoun—leader of a Christian faction that is allied with Hizballah—as president in the expectation that Aoun would then appoint Hariri as Prime Minister. After first discussing this plan with the Saudis (with whom his relations have recently deteriorated), Hariri went to Moscow, where on October 4 he discussed it with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who expressed his support (as has Russia’s Ambassador to Lebanon).
At first glance, Russian support for this plan may not seem at all unusual, since by nominating Hizballah ally Aoun for President, Hariri appears to be making a concession to the group. But during his meeting with Lavrov, Hariri reportedly denounced Hizballah for “blocking solutions” in Lebanon. Hariri had also publicly denounced Hizballah’s main backer, Iran, not long before this. Further, while Aoun insists that Hizballah supports his presidential bid, it has been opposed by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, who heads the predominantly Shi‘a Amal Movement and is also a close ally of Hizballah. The Lebanese media has speculated that, even though Hizballah has expressed support for Aoun, it secretly opposes him and prefers to let Berri “do the dirty work” of publicly saying so.
With Hizballah’s position on Aoun’s presidential bid ambiguous at best, Lavrov’s support for the anti-Hizballah Hariri’s backing of Aoun suggests that Moscow wants not only to nudge Hizballah into accepting Aoun as President, but also to engender a more cooperative relationship between Hizballah and its allies on the one hand and their various Sunni and Christian rivals on the other.
Press reports indicate that Aoun will indeed be elected president on October 31, and that he will name Hariri Prime Minister shortly thereafter. If so, the Kremlin would be able to portray itself as a successful peacemaker between Shi‘as on the one hand and Sunnis (as well as Christians) on the other. And if Vladimir Putin can do this in Lebanon, then perhaps he can do it in Syria as well. In other words, a Russian-supported rapprochement between Hizballah and its rivals in Lebanon could strengthen Putin’s claim that he not only seeks, but can actually bring about, a similar rapprochement between pro- and anti-Assad forces in Syria. Thus, Russia—and not the United States—should be seen as the best hope for achieving conflict resolution in the Middle East.
But is a compromise with the Sunnis (and others) something that Hizballah and Iran want to see in Lebanon, or that Hizballah, Iran, and the Assad regime want to see in Syria? There is strong reason to doubt this. Shortly after indicating his support for the September 2016 Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire agreement, Assad made it clear that he fully intended to reconquer all of Syria. Nor does Iran’s leadership seem interested in having the predominantly Alawite regime share power in any meaningful way with other groups—especially Sunni Arabs. And it must be remembered that Tehran’s wish to protect Hizballah drives Iranian support for Assad, who has facilitated Iranian support for Hizballah in Lebanon as well as for its past conflicts with Israel. Iran would have much greater difficulty in supporting Hizballah not only if the pro-Iranian Assad regime was replaced by an anti-Iranian one, but also if the Assad regime was transformed into a more inclusive government more focused on keeping the peace inside Syria than on supporting Hizballah’s confrontation with Israel.
And as for Hizballah itself: Even if it does support Aoun, the Kremlin’s backing of Hariri’s championship of this presidential bid is one more indication that Russian support for Hizballah is less than whole-hearted, and that Moscow prioritizes relations with other parties over it. While Moscow has been highly critical of actual or potential instances of Western military involvement in Syria, it has been remarkably tolerant of Israeli military strikes against Hizballah there. According to a recent report, the Kremlin has sought to prevent Hizballah from attacking Israel in the Golan Heights area. Hizballah would far rather fight against Israel than against Assad’s enemies in Syria, and only does the latter to ensure it can someday return to doing the former. Under Putin, however, Russian-Israeli cooperation has grown strong in the economic as well as security spheres. The Kremlin, it seems, only wants Hizballah to fight against Assad’s enemies in Syria, and not against Israel. Nor will the Russians act to protect Hizballah from Israeli reprisals.
All this indicates that while many in the West see Russia, Iran, and Hizballah as firmly allied in the Levant, they really are not. The Iranian regime and Hizballah are pursuing a sectarian Shi‘a agenda that is not only anti-Israel, but anti-Sunni. Putin, by contrast, wants to have influence over all Middle Eastern regimes: Israel and the Sunni Arab governments as well as the Shi‘a and Alawite ones. This does not mean that he is actually working for peace among them. What Putin appears to seek instead is to become the crucial party for each in keeping threats from its regional rivals in check. Each, then, would have an incentive to continue good relations with (or even make concessions to) Moscow for fear that the Kremlin will increase support for its rivals. This balancing among adversaries appears to be what Putin is attempting in Lebanon.
For Putin to pull off this geopolitical juggling act successfully, however, he cannot afford to be perceived mainly as the ally of one group, such as Iran and the Shi‘a. In the long run, that would only motivate the Israelis and the Sunnis to continue their reliance on the United States (whatever their frustrations with it) in order to hedge against a Russia they see as firmly allied with Iran. Iran’s regime and Hizballah may not like this, but Putin may well calculate that the unlikelihood (if not impossibility) of the mullahs, the Assad regime, and Hizballah improving their relations with the West makes them all the more dependent on Russia—and this dependency gives him greater freedom to take actions these three do not like. (Interestingly, just as Israeli and Saudi Arabian leaders feared that the Iranian nuclear accord would lead to a broader U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, so did the Kremlin. All three felt relieved that this did not occur.)
Can Putin succeed in staying allied to Iran, the Assad regime, and Hizballah on the one hand while preventing them from damaging Moscow’s efforts to work with their opponents on the other? In Syria, the answer to this question will not become clear unless and until Russian forces and their Shi‘a allies largely subdue the Assad regime’s opponents, and the Iranian contingent and Hizballah are in a stronger position to break free from Russian tutelage—if that’s what they intend. If this stage is not reached, Iran’s leaders and Hizballah are likely to overlook their differences with Russia, since they need its help with the common enterprise of propping up the Assad regime.
In Lebanon, however, Hizballah (as well as its Iranian supporters) is not so dependent on Russian backing in dealing with its rivals. There is no necessity, then, for Hizballah to work with Hariri, whose plan for the Lebanese presidency Moscow supports. Whether Hizballah ends up cooperating with or undercutting Hariri (by acting to prevent him from forming a government, for example), then, may be an indicator of whether Moscow’s attempt to maintain balance among all parties can prevail over the anti-Sunni and -Lebanon is a testing ground for Putin’s Middle East strategy:Israeli agenda of Hizballah and the Iranian regime not just in Lebanon, but in Syria and the region as a whole.