Lebanon Following the State Visit by M. Pompeo – Dr. Habib Malik, April 15, 2019
Recent Events in Lebanon Following the State Visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Assistant Professor Dr. Habib Malik
Lebanese American University , Beirut
April 15, 2019
In the escalating US confrontation with Iran, Lebanon is a part of the picture. So far that confrontation has been verbal, as well as involving sanctions. Verbally we just saw all the recent American designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and the same thing applies to Hezbollah in Lebanon as an extension of that in American eyes.
We also saw on the recent visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Lebanon, some very clear warnings both to the Lebanese government, and to Hezbollah, and in fact in a few minutes of public statement he mentioned Hezbollah about 18 times, which was taken by the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as an indication of how strong they actually are And, we have of course the sanctions on Hezbollah which have carefully tried to avoid implicating Lebanese banks but so far, Hezbollah has not been using the banking system in Lebanon they have other means of transferring cash to and from the country for their own purposes. Also in this context, US military moves are I think important in Lebanon. First of all the continued support by Washington of the Lebanese Armed Forces, the Lebanese army, in terms of training and in terms of equipment, also the dramatic enlargement of the US Embassy in Lebanon, almost making it perhaps the largest compound for the United States in the region, and clearly going well beyond being defined as a purely diplomatic mission.
There has been some interest by the United States in further north in Lebanon, in expanding an airstrip there that the Lebanese army uses, for possible extended American use in the future, and maybe even creating a another military base there so all of this we see activity on the ground by the United States Lebanon is also concerned with the US support for the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.
The reason is that that annexation would also cover the Shebaa farms that Lebanon considers as Lebanese territory occupied by Israel, and that has been a sore point and in fact it has been the most visible excuse for Hezbollah to carry arms and to carry on what they consider to be their resistance movement against Israel because some Lebanese territory remains in Israeli hands. There are also some disputes, lingering disputes, over how to demarcate the so-called blue line that separates Lebanon from Israel. so all of this seems to have been thrown into jeopardy with the blanket annexation or a US endorsement of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. Another noteworthy theme or item in in Lebanon these days, which the United States focused on in secretary Pompeo recent visit here, was the question of the demarcation of the oil and gas maritime lines between Lebanon and Israel. The United States has been offering itself as a third-party arbitrator to bring about this kind of demarcation, and by extension of course once extraction begins on the Lebanese side the issue of unitization, unitizing what both and Lebanon are entitled to. The fact that the Lebanese have hesitated and procrastinated and voiced all kinds of reservations about this so far has not been very helpful, I mean even if there are some feelings that the United States may not completely be impartial when it comes to Israeli interests, there is no better third-party arbiter than the United States in this particular situation.
I think the United Nations or any other international body of that sort is a non-starter, so it’s the Lebanese who need to come to a decision fairly quickly on this one. Now the president of Lebanon, Michele Aoun, has openly stated that Lebanon will not be part of any arrangement on the Gaza oil situation that would include Israel and the Lebanese have taken some steps with both Cyprus and Greece to try and forge links there, and perhaps even begin a like a new licensing round that would have in mind future cooperation with both Cyprus and Greece. How to integrate that with what Cyprus and Greece have already agreed to on the issue of maritime energy reserves with Israel, is going to be quite a challenge I think, because at the end of the day from a purely economic perspective it makes absolutely no point to duplicate pipelines or refinery access simply because of considerations of not wanting to deal with Israel and so this is going to be a challenge moving forward for the Lebanese. We’ve already seen some indications of disagreement within the Lebanese government some have said that the recent American proposals are a good opportunity to begin working as quickly as possible on settling the maritime line issue. Others have said no we should press for a comprehensive deal, meaning to include both the land and sea demarcation lines that would then bring in the blue line issue and perhaps eventually Sheba as well. So even on the Lebanese side there is much agreement as to the best way to proceed another important issue is the recent win by Benjamin Netanyahu for a fifth historic term as Prime Minister in Israel. From the Lebanese perspective this is seen as pretty much a continuation of the more of the same as it were because Netanyahu is a known quantity. So the expectation is that the mutual deterrence status quo between Israel and Hezbollah in the South will continue, and certainly from Hezbollah’s perspective there seems to be very little desire to shake or upset that kind of modus vivendi right there.
What is also to be expected is that Israel will continue launching raids against Iranian positions in Syria using Lebanese airspace. We’ve seen that as recently as yesterday and this has been a pattern that has continued throughout. Lastly many are apprehensive about the so-called deal of the century that might be announced by the Trump administration sometime in the near future regarding the Palestinian issue but most people agree that there are so many difficulties in the face of what we’ve at least already heard about the contours of that deal that in many respects it’s really a non-starter another very important issue for is the question of the Syrian refugees which are at the present more than a million in number and they are quite a drain and a burden on the Lebanese economy the official position of the Lebanese government has been to insist that these refugees need to be repatriated to Syria as soon as possible and not to wait until a final settlement of the Syrian problem and of the war there in Syria. The idea is that there are many parts of Syria that are tranquil and at transferring these large numbers to those areas again pending they returned to their respective villages would be an important first step. The problem is that the Syrian regime and President Assad himself don’t seem to be eager to want to bring back all these Syrians into Syria. If that’s the case then we are facing an impasse and that impasse can only be broken by direct intervention from Moscow. The Russians can make a decisive difference in altering the Syrian regime’s view on this but then the question from Lebanon perspective is at what price will Moscow ask in return from Lebanon.
Now we have seen recently a visit by President Aoun of Lebanon and a high government delegation to Moscow, and it seemed that the approach was to kind of use Moscow as a counterweight to the United States and to some of the displeasure that the Lebanese have had regarding certain recent American moves and policies. Frankly I think this is a faulty approach because there is no need actually for an either/or here the ideological tensions between East and West are gone, communism is over, and that element of the Cold War is gone. Yes, the United States and Russia are rivals on the world stage, but there are many points of intersection especially in the Middle East that can be exploited by a country like Lebanon to further its own interests and so working with the Russians need not be crafted in terms that would appear anti-American and vice-versa, so I think in keeping with the you know Lebanese policy aspiration of distancing Lebanon from delicate or tricky disputes both regionally and internationally, and I think that’s the healthy approach for a country like Lebanon, both the United States and Russia should be approached vigorously and robustly and meaningfully in order to solve a variety of issues including the question of the refugees. The Europeans are very anxious that Lebanon remains stable because any instability in Lebanon might mean a new huge influx of refugees in Europe’s direction, from Lebanon meaning mostly the Syrians, and that is something that the Europeans don’t want and so they’re also on board and trying to facilitate perhaps a repatriation, or the beginnings of a serious repatriation of Syrian refugees back to their country.