Four days before Syrian president Bashar Asad arrived in Moscow on Monday, Dec. 19 (See HOT POINTS Dec. 19, Assad is in Moscow with Half-Billion Iranian Dollars to Upgrade his Army), a less conspicuous visitor, pro-Western Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, was received in the Kremlin
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Moscow sources disclose that their visits found Russian president Vladimir Putin prepared to stitch both into his latest strategy for re-establishing Russia in the Middle East.
Putin and his defense minister Sergei Lavrov propose to make Lebanon the new Russian center of influence in the region after dislodging Washington and Paris.
According to our Middle East sources, neither President George W. Bush‘s strategic advisers nor even the intelligence experts in the region – Israel’s included – had any forewarning of the scheme brewing in the Kremlin. Lebanon was the last place they imagined Putin would designate as his first stepping stone on the way to Middle East penetration.
Having digested the new development, some US experts see history repeating itself. In 1955, Soviet prime minister Georgy Maximiianovich Malenkov decided to furnish the main Arab countries with armaments to smooth the way for deep Soviet penetration of the Middle East. For the next half a century, the region was the stage of violent Soviet-American Cold War conflicts and turmoil.
Analysts in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Jerusalem have jumped today to the advantages offered Moscow by its focus on Lebanon:
1. Lebanon was transformed by the Israeli-Hizballah war – which in fact pitted Israel against Iran – into a forward position for Iran, Syria, the Palestinians and Hizballah to menace Israel as well as American interests in the region at close quarters.
The Kremlin appears to have deduced that, whatever Bush decides, the Iraq war will end as an American write-off and the danger point for US positions in the region has already shifted west from Iraq to the eastern Mediterranean.
Lebanon eyed as section of oil and gas pipeline to the Far East
2. The power that dominates Lebanon will sit astride the main junction of Iran-Syrian-Palestinian collaboration. The Kremlin has already settled on a policy of rapprochement with radical Islam. It now seeks the role of connecting link with the West. Lebanon is seen as the ideal venue to pursue this objective.
Russian leaders are fully aware that Lebanon has become the forward position not only of Iran – via Syria, Hizballah and the Palestinian extremists – but that al Qaeda’s cells and bases in the country are also proliferating.
3. Moscow is eying a new-old Middle East route for pumping Russian oil and gas to the Far East to slash costs and shorten the time for getting the products to destination. Before the Lebanon war last summer, the Russians pondered laying a pipeline from Turkey to Israel and on to the Far East through the Red Sea. They made inquiries about Israel’s Ashkelon-Eilat trans-Negev pipeline for this purpose. But since then, the Kremlin has dropped the plan, perceiving Israel as prey to future local wars and marked down by both Iran and Syria.
The resurrection of the old Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company – Tapline – is now contemplated in Moscow. When Tapline first began operating in 1950, transporting Saudi Arabian oil through Jordan and over the Golan Heights to the Lebanese Mediterranean port of Sidon, it was the largest oil pipeline of its day. The project was shut down in 1976 and sections of the crude oil line and installations at Sidon handed over to the Lebanese government.
Today, Moscow is considering replacing the rusted sections and reversing the flow to run from Sidon through Syria, on to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, down to the Shatt al Arab waterway and out to the Persian Gulf and the sea lanes to the Far East.
With this scheme in mind, the Russians chose to stay out of the European extension of the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in south Lebanon. Instead, Moscow sent an independent unit of two engineering battalions for deployment in the Sidon district of Lebanon, well protected by commando platoons of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division which is permanently deployed in Chechnya. These commando platoons are part of the Vostok and Zapad Battalions both of which are commanded by Muslim officers who report directly to the an intelligence department of the Russian Army’s General Staff in Moscow.
Here again is a signal of Russia’s grand design, one which confers on Lebanon the added value of a way station for piping its oil and gas for the lamps of the Far East.
Putin teaches Siniora a lesson in reciprocal back-scratching
4. The Russian president’s talks with Syrian president Bashar Asad in Moscow this week also turned on Syrian military intelligence opening doors to Russian influence within the pro-Damascus Sunni Muslim and Christian Maronite elements of northern Lebanon and Sidon, as well as Hizballah. All these groups and clans depend on Tehran and Damascus for munitions. Putin is offering to compensate Syria with state of the art weapons systems and generous fees payable to a strategic defense force that will protect the Russian oil and gas pipes running through Syria.
The Russian scheme by touching so many sensitive bases is capable of seriously undermining American and French policies and positions in Lebanon and the Levant at large.
Putin’s conversation with the Lebanese prime minister this week was a good illustration of the Russian leader’s rough-and-ready tactics for achieving his ends.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources disclose that Siniora went to Moscow to ask Putin to use his influence with Asad for him to persuade Hizballah to drop its relentless persecution of his government. Putin surprised him with a proposition, which we can reveal here for the first time.
Moscow would “adjust” the UN Security Council’s guidelines for the international tribunal set up to try the accused assassins of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Putin intimated that the new formula would keep Bashar Asad’s relatives out of the dock for complicity in the murder plot. If Siniora played along, Hizballah would raise its two-week siege on Beirut and the government compound, including the prime minister’s office.
According to our sources, Siniora first declared firmly that his government would never give up its aim to bring Hariri’s killers to justice. As the conversation developed, he agreed to consider the proposition if Russian guarantees were forthcoming for the Syrian role in reining in the Hizballah.
The Russian president had his reply pat.
Even before Siniora arrived in Moscow, he said, the Kremlin had arranged with Hizballah to relieve the pressure on the Beirut government. Hizballah demonstrators were drifting off and there was no more talk of an imminent civil war. The quid pro quo was plain: For playing ball with Moscow’s effort to rescue the Asad clan from prosecution, the Siniora government would be relieved of the Hizballah threat. Otherwise, the siege would escalate to the point of civil war.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Lebanese sources report that Siniora briefed Washington on his conversation with Putin as soon as he arrived home. He is now awaiting a counter-proposal from Washington.
In the Kremlin meanwhile, Moscow’s deal on Lebanon gathered momentum as the Russian and Syrian presidents talked. They took a hard look at the two facets of the deal: Moscow’s veto leverage for dictating the mandate of the Hariri tribunal and future relations between the Siniora government and Hizballah.