BEIRUT — While Lebanon could face potentially serious economic impacts as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the immediate political impacts are likely to be limited, analysts watching the region told L’Orient Today.
Political observers expect Syria to see more immediate impacts, due to Russia’s prominent military and political presence in the country, but direct Russian involvement in Lebanese politics has been limited; the most prominent Russian foreign policy initiative in Lebanon in recent years was an attempt to broker a large-scale return of refugees to Syria, which fell flat.
As such, analysts noted, any political fallout on Lebanon is likely to be felt second hand, as a result of increased tensions in Syria or a breakdown in the nuclear talks between Iran and the United States.
“Russian involvement in Lebanon is limited because of the limitations of Russia's interest in Lebanon,” Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told L’Orient Today. “... Russia is basically putting its resources in Syria and trying to figure out the way forward there.”
As such, he said, “the extent of its involvement [in Lebanon] is limited to having relations with everybody and trying to keep Lebanon afloat, just to kind of prevent any repercussions on the Syrian crisis,” including doing damage control on the spillover of the Lebanese financial and currency crisis into Syria.
Randa Slim, director of the conflict resolution and track II dialogues program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that in her assessment, the direct impacts of the Ukrainian crisis on Lebanon “will be limited to economics.”
However, she noted, those impacts “can be significant, given the severe economic crisis in the country.”
Some have raised concerns that Lebanon’s food supply could be impacted by the conflict, given that Russia and Ukraine are the country’s two top foreign sources of wheat. Meanwhile, the crisis in Ukraine has driven global oil prices to a seven-year high. As a result, prices at the pump, which are already well beyond the means of many Lebanese, are likely headed for a sharp increase. Unable to afford fuel for generators and heaters over the winter, many have resorted to illegal tree cutting for firewood, while in many of the country’s Syrian refugee camps, families are burning trash and old clothes and shoes to stay warm.
As for the longer-term potential ripple effects on Lebanon, experts said those will largely depend on what happens in Syria as a result of the increased tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
“It's going to ratchet up tensions in the region,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “So for example, as far-fetched as a political dialogue around Syria was before, now it's become a lot more difficult.”
And any increased tensions in Syria, Hage Ali noted, “might impact the Lebanese indirectly.”
But as for how the increased tensions might play out in Syria, that depends on a number of interrelated and sometimes conflicting moving parts.
Slim noted that “there are different stakeholders in Syria that have different relations with Russia.” Perhaps most prominent among them vis a vis the current conflict is Turkey, which controls portions of northern Syria, and which has come out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ankara may see in the Ukrainian crisis an opportunity to repair its relations with Washington, Slim said, which in turn “will strengthen Turkey’s position in Syria.”
While Turkey’s siding with Ukraine could inflame tensions with Russia, Aron Lund, a fellow at The Century Foundation and Middle East researcher at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), said, “I don't necessarily think that either side has any interest in escalation in Syria.”
Lund noted that the Ukrainian crisis could also lead to tensions in northeast Syria, where both US and Russian troops are present, and in the Mediterranean, where Russia has a substantial naval presence.
Israel, too, has its own interests in Syria, Slim noted, where it “will want to keep the carte blanche Russia gave it, to date, to attack Iranian targets in Syria.” Israel had at first tried to stay on the sidelines as tensions rose between Russia and Ukraine, but on Thursday joined the United States in condemning the Russian invasion, albeit in relatively tepid terms.
“Will the Russian carte blanche in Syria be withdrawn now [as a result]?” Slim asked.
As for Syria’s Bashar al Assad, whose political rule has survived in large part due to Russian intervention, Slim predicted that in the short term, “Putin will double down in Syria, including his support for Assad. However, in the long term, a protracted war in Ukraine that exacts a high Russian death toll will impact their military commitments in Syria. And that then could spell trouble for Assad.”
While a preoccupied Russia could weaken Assad’s hand, some see Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the international community’s reaction to it as paving the way for a return to Syrian control in Lebanon.
Ronnie Chatah, a podcaster and political commentator and the son of assassinated Lebanese politician and diplomat Mohamad Chatah, who was a prominent critic of Assad, said he sees the eventual result of events in Ukraine as “more leniency towards Assad's gradual grip within the Lebanese political context being reestablished.”
"If you look at what's happening in Ukraine, and try to apply that here, medium term or long term, I think the diplomatic either disinterest or inability to change the circumstances, will be felt here," Chatah said, because it "clearly shows that Ukraine's allies and more importantly, American and European diplomats, don't have much they can offer beyond sanctions."
Other regional considerations
The other regional question with clear implications for Lebanon is how the Ukrainian crisis will affect ongoing talks in Vienna to revive the deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program, which the United States walked away from in 2018.
Russia has a prominent seat at the table in the discussions, and Hage Ali noted that if the talks are impacted by the events in Ukraine “and there's an escalation between Iran and the West … given Russia's role in the talks, this will definitely have an impact on [Lebanon]. But as I said, it's all indirect.”
Meanwhile, while Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry came out with a statement late Thursday saying that it “condemns the invasion of Ukrainian territory and calls on Russia to immediately stop military operations and withdraw its forces from it and to return to the logic of dialogue and negotiation,” the response to the invasion has been relatively muted in the Middle East more broadly.
Many countries in the region, Yahya said, are “hedging their bets, basically, between the United States and Russia. So until now, the result is that when it comes to Ukraine, they still have yet to take up a clear position.”