The Russians have switched their focus to Lebanon and are hailing Hizballah as a “force for stability and security” ahead of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow on Feb. 21 for talks with President Vladimir Putin. Russian diplomacy and media are for the first time coming out with high praise for Hizballah, giving Netanyahu to understand that Putin has no interest in hearing about the Shiite terrorist movement’s misdeeds or Israel’s operations against its tunnels.
On Saturday, Feb. 9, Russian Ambassador to Beirut Alexander Zasypkin said in an interview with Sputnik that a new conflict could erupt between Israel and Lebanon “as a result of the United States’ actions aimed at sowing discord in the region, as well as Washington’s campaign against Tehran and the Lebanese Hizballah movement.”
When events started unfolding in Syria, Hizballah “sided with the lawful authorities in the fight against terrorists as its duty, ” he said. “Hizballah became directly involved in military operation at Syria’s request, alongside Russia and Iran and took a responsible approach.”
Turning to Washington, the Russian ambassador said, “Instead of trying to deal with tensions in the region together with Russia and other countries, the United States has launched a campaign against Iran and Hizballah, making the situation in the region even more volatile.”
Zasypkin went on to say: “As for a conflict between Israel and Lebanon, nothing can be predicted with certainty because the region is at a crossroads.”
Moscow’s compliments for Hizballah as a “positive and responsible” force in Syria and the region, may come as a surprise to many Israelis given some of the stories appearing in local media in the past month. DEBKAfile’s military sources offer three striking examples:
- The S-300 air defense missiles Russia delivered to Syria last October were wrongly reported as having become operational. Our sources stressed that the missiles are not operational.
- Iran was misreported as having completed and started production at a factory for manufacturing precise ballistic missiles in northern Syria. This story was shown with depictions of large chambers filled with machinery and it was presented to support an purported Israeli threat to strike the plant unless it is dismantled. DEBKAfile: In reality, the factory was built, but its halls stand empty and no precise ballistic missiles are as yet being produced.
- Tehran was said to have acceded to a Russian demand to evacuate from Damascus international airport the “Glass House” – by which Iran’s headquarters are known – to ward off Israeli attacks. DEBKAfile: There is no sign of the Iranians moving out of this building.
The Kremlin appears to believe that these unfounded stories were planted by the Americans and Israelis to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran/Beirut and decided to nip this campaign in the bud ahead of Netanyahu’s arrival in Moscow.
DEBKAfile accounts for Moscow’s changed attitude towards Hizballah on two grounds:
- Next Thursday, Feb. 14, Presidents Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Tayyip Erdogan meet at the Black Sea resort of Sochi for a thorough airing of the Syrian issue. This time, unlike previous summits, Putin realizes that his Iranian and Turkish guests will expect to hear him lay out a clear, substantive policy for the next chapter of Russian involvement in Syria. A decision to recognize Hizballah’s regional standing and forge ties with the pro-Iranian Lebanese group is one of its main ingredients.
- Rosneft, the Russian energy giant, has planted a foot in Lebanon’s gas and oil industry, having recently signed a 20-year accord for the management of the oil and gas facilities in the northern town of Tripoli. Moscow may well swing its support behind Hizballah’s claim that Israel’s Leviathan gas field has commandeered some of the offshore Mediterranean gas that it says belongs to Lebanon. A dispute over control of this energy resource, with Beirut backed by Moscow, could become the pretext for an outbreak of hostilities, rather than the causes outlined by the Russian ambassador.