Lebanese and foreigners alike have long nurtured nostalgic images of what Lebanon supposedly represents. But the tragic explosions in Beirut on August 4 demonstrate again how far that reality is from the truth.
John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
A self-reverential joke once common in Lebanon posited that God bestowed Lebanon with beautiful mountains, stunning beaches, freshwater resources, fertile soil and fruited plains, and creative, attractive people: paradise. But then God realized that heaven is reserved for the afterlife — so he created Lebanon’s neighbors. Indeed, the history of Lebanon, approaching its centennial on September 1, is a story of vexed relations with its neighbors.
The comforting myth of Lebanon as a would-be paradise was shattered well before this week’s astonishingly destructive back-to-back port explosions. Videos and testimonials from Beirut are simultaneously shocking and heartbreaking. Preliminary information about the blasts suggests that the Lebanese are most likely culpable, not the Syrians and not the Israelis. This appears to be yet another example of irresponsible or even criminal neglect on the part of Lebanese officials. As if the Lebanese people needed more evidence of the abysmally low performance of their successive governments.
And yet, it does not take a creative conspiracy theorist to devise a logical explanation that involves Lebanon’s frequent antagonists: Hezbollah and Israel. Without question, Hezbollah plays a dominant but murky role at the Port of Beirut (as well as the international airport). Israel has concentrated on interrupting Hezbollah arms smuggling across the Syrian-Lebanese border. If Israel has been sufficiently successful in disrupting Hezbollah’s illicit arms flows — the arms flows that Hezbollah claims protect Lebanon, when they actually put Lebanon at grave risk of war — then perhaps Hezbollah relies increasingly on importing and storing arms via the Beirut port. The port, if it contains Hezbollah arms depots, then becomes an irresistible target for Israeli sabotage, setting off the conflagration that killed scores and injured thousands.
Hezbollah’s interest in the port has primarily been linked to its economic network, perhaps including drugs, more than its arms smuggling. Hezbollah’s economic tentacles are widespread and extend to Africa and Latin America: used car smuggling, independent telecom and internet networks, and so forth. By having effective control of, or dominance in, Lebanon’s ports, Hezbollah masks its activities and avoids paying customs and taxes — mafia-like behavior of less concern to Israel than precision-guided missiles. Israel blockaded but did not destroy Lebanon’s ports in 2020. Perhaps Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seeks a “wag-the-dog” diversion from political protests in Jerusalem, but it seems more likely that Israel does not seek to initiate war with Hezbollah — especially over Hezbollah’s economic networks, which the port represents. Quick Israeli denials of involvement cannot be verified but seem credible.
Other theories posit that Hezbollah initiated the port explosions as a deadly diversion from the upcoming August 7 verdict announcement of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which indicted four Hezbollah operatives in the February 14, 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. While Hezbollah’s disdain for the safety of Lebanese citizens is well documented, it would be quite a leap to go from providing murderers-for-hire (as has been alleged before the STL) to willfully destroying a large section of Lebanon’s capital, at tremendous human cost. Unlike the deaths during the 2006 war with Israel that Hezbollah unilaterally provoked, these deaths can’t as easily be pinned on Israel.
The more mundane theory is that a fire in a port warehouse or workshop (perhaps holding fireworks) caused the initial blast, and then flames and heat from that blast ignited stores of ammonium nitrate used for fertilizer (and for explosives) that were stored at the port. The alleged ammonium nitrate explosion accounted for the larger blast that damaged and destroyed buildings — structures that had survived Lebanon’s civil war and the 2006 war with Israel — and broke windows all across the capital, sending thousands to hospitals with glass shard wounds. Prime Minister Hassan Diab has said that around 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, confiscated from a ship years earlier, were at the port. This compares to the two tons of ammonium nitrate that destroyed the Alfred E. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
The warehouse fire ignition theory is not as sexy as those involving Hezbollah and Israel, but it is plausible — and it is consistent with the overall sense that Lebanon suffers from deep, pervasive, self-inflicted rot. If this theory proves correct, then successive Lebanese governments — whether they were pro-West, or (as now) pro-Damascus, or a muddled amalgam of the two — are culpable for, at a minimum, neglect. Criminal neglect. Someone took the decision to place ammonium nitrate next to Lebanon’s grain storage silos, and others were surely aware, or should have been, of the dangers. Now, during a financial crisis, Lebanon’s grain reserves, purchased with dwindling foreign currency reserves, are reportedly all contaminated by the explosions, with the grain storage silos damaged and unusable.
When the dead are buried and the injuries addressed, the port explosions will surely further deepen Lebanese cynicism and despair about their government and political system.
When the dead are buried and the injuries addressed, the port explosions will surely further deepen Lebanese cynicism and despair about their government and political system. A responsible government would launch an investigation and demand accountability. People would overcome political divisions and forge solidarity to uncover the truth. A legitimate inquiry would necessarily shine light into how Hezbollah has privileged itself in the port and how others involved have long evaded public scrutiny, with deadly consequences.
But this tragedy, this crime, happened in Lebanon, Paradise Lost. Given the powerful interests in keeping the port operations in shadows and avoiding public accountability, it seems improbable that this Lebanese government — which relies on Hezbollah and its allies for its parliamentary support — or any Lebanese government would be courageous enough to take on an honest reckoning of why scores of families are now mourning. Nor is it likely that this Hezbollah-reliant government would turn to outsiders to conduct a comprehensive investigation, as happened in 2005 when the Lebanese accepted a series of U.N. probes into the Hariri assassination — probes that eventually morphed into the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. (At the time, the fear was that Lebanese investigators and judicial officials would be intimidated and even liquidated, should they uncover the truth. Those risks remain.) Instead, expect dismal, predictable finger-pointing by Lebanese political figures as they seize on this tragedy to score political points. With so much evidence of governmental paralysis, weakness, and even venality, it is hard to imagine that even a good-faith probe by Lebanese authorities would be deemed credible by the beleaguered citizenry.
The enormous truck bomb that killed Rafik Hariri in 2005 devastated a smaller part of Beirut than this week’s port explosions. Yet it caused a political earthquake that changed Lebanon’s history, with the forced departure only a couple of months later of Syrian troops and intelligence operatives who had occupied Lebanon for years. (Unfortunately, the pro-Damascus tilt of the current government demonstrates that the Lebanese forgot to lock the door once the Syrians left.)
One hopes that the shock of the August 4 port explosions will provoke a new political earthquake in Lebanon, one that gives the Lebanese authorities no way out but to conduct a credible investigation or — as in 2005 — forces them to turn over the forensic task to credible outsiders. A political earthquake that at last forces Lebanese leaders and warlords to clean up the governance and financial mess they have created. But will the Lebanese react in mass, as they did in 2005? Even before a large section of their capital was leveled with horrific human casualties, the Lebanese already suffered from a culmination of their country’s financial collapse, de facto currency devaluation, coronavirus, soaring poverty rates, food insecurity, and more. One can hardly blame the Lebanese if, instead of mobilizing for accountability and political change, they hasten to find an exit from their once beautiful but seemingly doomed country.