Beirut: The Geopolitics of Disaster
The tragedy of the recent disastrous Beirut warehouse explosion has brought to the forefront the high level of corruption and mismanagement within the political leadership of Lebanon, resulting in the collapse of the current government and calls for reform from inside Lebanon and without. US efforts to exploit this tragedy by linking much-needed aid to the political disenfranchisement of Hezbollah — a powerful Shiite political party and militant group in Lebanon — is a big mistake. This US approach threatens to exacerbate the political dysfunction in Lebanon, further entrenching Hezbollah politically while adding to the instability of the region as a whole.
The recent death of a Hezbollah fighter inside Syria at the hands of the Israeli air force nearly brought these two parties to war. For years now, tensions have been escalating between Israel and Hezbollah over the latter’s close relationship with Iran. Israel accuses Iran of supplying Hezbollah with precision long-range rockets and ballistic missiles. Indeed, the air strike on Jul. 20 that killed the Hezbollah fighter was targeting an alleged Iranian weapons convoy as it prepared to depart Syria for Lebanon.
Far from denying its interest in precision guided long-range weaponry, Hezbollah has bragged about its arsenal, publishing online videos it claims were taken by Hezbollah drones over Israel showing a wide range of military, political and economic targets that would be struck in any future conflict. For its part, Israel has stated that any future war with Hezbollah would be treated as a war with all of Lebanon, with the Israeli military targeting the infrastructure of the entire nation. Both Israel and Hezbollah recognize the consequences of any escalation, acknowledging their mutual capacity to inflict massive harm on the territory and infrastructure of the other. Indeed, this promise of mutually assured destruction serves as an important but dangerous deterrent to any knee-jerk escalation by either side.
The situation between Israel and Hezbollah reflects a larger geopolitical reality of the Middle East. With its militia, weapons and influence, Lebanon’s main Shiite political party has assumed the status of a state actor whose power must be factored into any decision of consequence involving the region. While Hezbollah’s reach is considerable, with forces operating in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, its source of identity and viability lies in the complexity of Lebanese history, where a decades-old power-sharing arrangement between Christians, Druze and Muslims has created a Byzantine structure of socioeconomic fiefdoms that Hezbollah has been adept in exploiting.
Hezbollah emerged in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982, and the Lebanese Civil War that followed. With considerable backing from Iran, Hezbollah was able to carve out its own area of influence in southern Lebanon, and ultimately compelled Israel to end its military occupation of southern Lebanon in 1990. Hezbollah’s status as the leader of the Lebanese “resistance” to Israel enabled it to emerge from the peace talks that ended the Lebanese civil war as the only militia permitted to retain its military. In the years that followed, Hezbollah built on this military prowess to position itself as a major player in Lebanese politics. Over time, it’s political party grew from an outlier to a member of the government, with Hezbollah holding several ministerial positions.
The integration of Hezbollah into the political structure of Lebanon threatened the colonial power-sharing arrangements set forth in the 1926 Lebanese Constitution, during the period of the French mandate, which gave the Lebanese presidency to its Maronite Christian population, the office of the prime minster to the Sunni Muslims, and the position of speaker of the Parliament to the Shiite Muslims. Since that time, the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics enshrined by this power-sharing arrangement led to the creation of socioeconomic fiefdoms that were used by the respective players as a source of personal enrichment, both politically and economically. The resulting corruption and inefficiency of this political arrangement has helped Hezbollah insert itself into Lebanon’s political hierarchy.
While Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon and its government is a domestic political reality, this status has not been embraced by Israel or some other major foreign powers with interests in Lebanese affairs, namely the US, France and Saudi Arabia. They all have enacted policies designed to weaken Hezbollah politically by imposing economic sanctions designed to compel its departure from the Lebanese government and thus reduce its regional political and military power. These policies have largely failed to weaken Hezbollah. Instead, these policies have helped empower Lebanon’s various sectarian fiefdoms to the point that the government exists largely to sustain their corruption. Hezbollah, whose finances are not linked to this corruption, has seen its position strengthened because of this rampant corruption and bad governance.
This picture describes the situation that existed on the morning of Aug. 4, 2020, when a fire at a warehouse in the port of Beirut detonated some 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate in a massive explosion killing 200, injuring thousands, and causing massive damage to port facilities and surrounding neighborhoods. While an investigation into this tragedy is still pending, initial reports indicate that the ammonium nitrate was part of a shipment seized by Lebanese authorities in 2016, and subsequently stored at the port awaiting final disposition. Inspectors from the Ministry of the Interior had warned the government about the hazards of storing so much ammonium nitrate in the city, but nothing was done.
In the days that have followed, public outrage compelled Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab to announce the resignation of the government. Diab was asked by President Michel Aoun to stay on until a new cabinet is formed. The speaker of the Parliament, Nabhi Berri, has called for an emergency legislative session to form a new government. In the meantime, a caretaker government headed by Diab governs under emergency powers passed after the explosion.
The situation facing Lebanon is dire. The blast caused an estimated $15 billion in damage, money that the already-financially strapped country does not have. Economic sanctions that had ravaged the Lebanese economy remain in place. While there have been promises of foreign aid — including those made by French President Emmanuel Macron during a dramatic visit to Beirut — they all come with the caveat that Lebanon must significantly reform its governmental institutions to eliminate corruption and mismanagement.
The US, backed by Israel and Saudi Arabia, is taking the demands for governmental reforms to another level. It is seeking to weaken Hezbollah’s influence by using economic sanctions and the promise of loans from the International Monetary Fund to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies. Not everyone supports this approach, with both France and Russia warning the US that it cannot disarm Hezbollah through sanctions, and that any effort to do so will likely backfire, strengthening the position of both Hezbollah and its Iranian allies.
Hezbollah has historically thrived from Lebanon’s political and economic chaos. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has also been a force for political reform and economic accountability. This comparative incorruptibility of Hezbollah has given it a legitimacy in the eyes of much of the Lebanese population that its political allies and opponents lack. By using the suffering of the Lebanese people as leverage to weaken Hezbollah, the US and its allies are playing a dangerous game. First, a Hezbollah-centric policy sidesteps the kind of deep-seated political reform Lebanon so desperately needs. Second, by using the existing political power structure to target Hezbollah, the US only furthers the corruption and chaos that empowered Hezbollah to begin with. It is a policy doomed to fail.
By linking economic aid to the political disenfranchisement of Hezbollah, the US is also creating the conditions for Lebanon to turn its back on the West and seek assistance elsewhere — from China, Iran or both. Lebanon entered discussions with China about economic aid prior to the Beirut explosion, and China has emerged as a leader in providing emergency aid in its aftermath. Iran, which has its own close relations with China, has long been an economic lifeline for Hezbollah, and it has likewise stepped up emergency aid.
With this US policy toward Lebanon, Hezbollah will likely become further entrenched in the Lebanese government, which will negatively impact the strategic security of Israel because it will be compelled to continue to accept the mutually assured destruction policy of deterrence that exists with Hezbollah today. By extension, this US policy will also further empower to so-called “axis of resistance,” further entrenching Iran in the affairs of both Lebanon and Syria, and further increasing the level of friction between Iran and Israel. Far from neutering Hezbollah, the US effort to exploit the Beirut tragedy will more than likely have the opposite effect, adding to the overall geopolitical dysfunction of the region.