A Troubling Time in Lebanon

Tensions are high, there have been violent outbreaks, and mystery surrounds the investigation into the 2020 port explosion.

It’s a truism to suggest that Lebanon is a disaster. The nation has lurched from crisis to crisis, government to government, and killing to killing for decades. It is out of energy, with regular blackouts, food shortages, and lawless militias patrolling the streets. Beirut is dominated by a rotating coalition of crooks and terrorists, with the government of Iran ultimately calling the shots. Each time you think it’s hit rock bottom, there’s another disaster to plumb the depths. And no, it’s not the port explosion of August 2020—one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history—that destroyed a large chunk of Beirut and killed more than 200, mostly Christian, Lebanese. It’s the search for justice in that apocalyptic event that appears to be Lebanon’s final straw, the road to yet another civil war. And worse.

For those who have (understandably) turned away since then, the explosion precipitated the fall of the Lebanese government, with then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab explaining, apparently without irony, that “[w]e are taking a step back to stand with the people, to wage the battle for change with them.” Many expected the judicial investigation of the port disaster would also go the way of all such inquiries in Lebanon (does anyone know who actually murdered former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri?); but to the surprise of Lebanon’s political class, the investigating magistrate in charge actually began to ask difficult questions.

How did 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate sit in storage at the port of Beirut for years without anyone knowing? Why was it being stored so close to private homes, risking exactly the kind of explosion that occurred? Who was paying for its storage? Who shipped it? Who signed the regulatory papers? Inevitably, even in a government as rickety as Lebanon’s, people want to cover their rears with paperwork. But almost equally inevitably, most government ministers and officials were uninterested in answering questions about that paperwork.

The first magistrate in the investigation, Fadi Sawan, was forced out by politicians claiming he was biased. His successor, Tarek Bitar, is now under similar pressure, and his investigation has been suspended multiple times. Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy-army-cum-Lebanese-political-leadership, has demanded his resignation. Last week, fighting over Bitar’s efforts to question two members of Amal—a Shiite party aligned with Hezbollah—descended into violence; seven people were killed.

Though the investigation seems a set piece, designed, Lebanon-style to go nowhere, the fighting about details has become important. Ali Hassan Khalil, one of the Amal leaders and a former minister, denounced the entire investigation as illegal and pronounced himself free to ignore the judge’s summons. The state’s supreme defense council, chaired by President Michel Aoun, reportedly denied another request to question Tony Saliba, director general of state security. The most recent shoe to drop was the resignation of Ibrahim Hoteit, a spokesman for the victims’ families, following his surprising call for Judge Bitar to resign—a reversal of his position of a mere 24 hours early insisting the judge hang tough. Most in Lebanon assume Hoteit, whose brother was killed in the port explosion, was threatened into calling for Bitar’s resignation.

Why are the sordid details of yet another political and human debacle in Lebanon of any interest to the outside world? The first, and more local reason, is the fighting that left seven dead last week. The death toll itself is but a drop in the Lebanese ocean, but the players are engaged in a larger game. Trouble began when demonstrators headed for the Palace of Justice in a predominantly Christian part of Beirut. As the Amal and Hezbollah crowd entered the area, a sniper began firing; Amal and Hezbollah shot back. Long story short, the seven dead. Who were the snipers? Why were the “peaceful” demonstrators armed for a fight?

Consensus has gelled around the notion that the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia headed by Samir Geagea, was behind the outbreak of gunfire. Geagea, a veteran of Lebanon’s civil war and an experienced Christian militia leader-turned-politician, appears poised to escalate sectarian fighting in Lebanon. Why? Because the public is disgusted with Hezbollah and its cronies, and blames them and Iran for their economic and political woes. And because there isn’t a “defender of Christians” at the forefront of Lebanese politics at the moment. But most importantly, as Michael Young writes in a fine analysis, because the “country is now locked in a logic of civil war.”

Civil war in Lebanon is not something to be dismissed. The country borders Syria and Israel, and it’s controlled by Iran through Hezbollah. There are tens of thousands of “militia” members, terrorists (including al-Qaeda) and hundreds of thousands of weapons. The last civil war there took hundreds of American lives and spawned a training ground for killers that operates to this day. Still, even that tragedy might be dismissed; Israel has learned to contain Hezbollah, and the United States is hardly overexposed. But there is another wild card.

Rewind back to the port explosion for a moment. Why has Hezbollah been so intent on ousting the investigating magistrates? Of course, no one wants to shoulder the blame for one of the worst disasters in the country’s history. But Hezbollah has escalated—and caused its cronies in Amal to do the same—in ways that are notable for a party hoping to repair its tattered reputation. Friends tell me Shiite areas are being patrolled by masked Hezbollahis carrying heavy weapons, a show of force that would seem … exaggerated, given that Hezbollah already runs Lebanon. Vehicle checkpoints have sprung up, and there is an air of fear unseen since the decades of the civil war at the end of the last century. What gives?

Word of mouth in Beirut, ably articulated by veteran journalist Raghida Dergham, is that Hezbollah doesn’t want anyone to know what else was coming in to the port of Beirut. She alleges that satellite data about port activities is being withheld by a variety of powers, the United States included. Team Biden doesn’t want any inconvenient facts about Iranian weapons procurement to interfere with the restart of nuclear talks. And there’s more; Dergham writes:

From the Russian captain of the ship to the Georgian owner, to the holding company registered in Britain and European companies that quickly vanished, something fishy went on, involving Lebanese, regional, and international actors, and the story goes way beyond shadowy brokers and nitrates. Indeed, according to intelligence sources, illicit imports and exports were transiting from Beirut port not just to Syria but also to Iran. And this is not exclusively about the nitrates, which were reportedly used in barrel bombs dropped by the regime in Damascus on rebels. According to the sources, the biggest concern for the Iranians thus is anything that could uncover what was passing through Beirut port to Iran, including chemicals, spare parts, chips and electronics, and sensitive materials for its missile and nuclear programs.

Beginning in the late 1970s, what began in Lebanon never stayed in Lebanon. Iranian revolutionary expeditionary forces were born in the crucible of the Lebanese civil war; Palestinian refugee camps became breeding grounds for terrorists, and then Sunni Islamist hothouses. Kidnapping for political gains began its modern heyday in Beirut. Indeed, poor Lebanon has been the fulcrum—though rarely the progenitor—of many of the worst developments in the modern Middle East.

Something different is happening again in Lebanon. It will not stay there, and it bears watching.

Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.