Some of Lebanon’s own leaders believed the country was of the verge of becoming a “failed state” even before this week’s horrific Beirut blast, and foreign policy analysts now fear that the carnage — and the apparent failures of government that contributed to it — could fully unravel the country and fuel further chaos across the region.
U.S. and international officials say the cause of the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut on Tuesday has yet to be confirmed, but an accidental fire seems to have set off a warehouse loaded with highly flammable ammonium nitrate. The blast killed at least 135 people, wounded thousands more, left tens of thousands homeless, caused at least $10 billion in damage, and leveled a huge swath of the historic city once hailed as “the Paris of the Middle East.”
The political aftershocks may be just as unsettling.
Combine rising food costs, high unemployment, civil unrest and government corruption with a raging COVID-19 outbreak, and international specialists warn that the tragedy has left Lebanon close to the breaking point.
Unexpected events have been known to spawn revolutionary change, analysts said. The Somoza regime’s corrupt response to the 1972 earthquake helped spark the Nicaraguan civil war, and many say the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine drove the final nail in the coffin for the legitimacy of Soviet leadership.
A collapse of Lebanon, whose 17-year civil war three decades ago proved equally destabilizing for the region, would have ripple effects throughout the Middle East and could threaten the security of the U.S. and its key ally, Israel, especially if the Shiite militant group Hezbollah seizes the opportunity to expand its power and influence.
Lebanon’s neighbor to the east and onetime occupier, Syria, has been fighting its own civil war for the past decade. Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Iran have supported Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Should the government in Beirut collapse, Hezbollah, Iran and even Russia — also an ally of the Assad regime — likely would move to fill the power vacuum.
Israel and Hezbollah had been trading blows across the tense border in the disputed Golan Heights just days before the port explosion. A political meltdown in Beirut that enhances the power of Hezbollah and its tens of thousands of armed fighters could force Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond.
So many in Lebanon thought Israel was behind the port explosion that the Netanyahu government offered a rare total denial of any role barely an hour after the blast.
Against the backdrop of such high geopolitical stakes, experts say, the country faces a defining moment.
“The idea that Lebanon could fall back into civil war is always front and center in the minds of Lebanese …,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Not in almost 50 years, however, has there been such a crisis of legitimacy inside Lebanon.”
He added, “The Lebanese are angry not just at one faction or another, but at the whole system. Disgust is easy to come by; consensus on what comes next is harder.”
Mr. Rubin argued that the Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, failed to develop a clear strategy with respect to Lebanon and often neglected the country while focusing on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya and elsewhere. Because of that, analysts say, Lebanon feels it has been forced to turn to other Western powers for help in its hour of need.
French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut on Thursday and promised an international aid package. That aid, however, must not fall into the “hands of corruption” inside the government, he warned.
“If reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink,” said Mr. Macron, hinting at the international community’s reluctance to commit huge sums of money directly to a dysfunctional government.
The U.S., meanwhile, delivered its own aid package. Three C-17s Globemaster transport jets were en route to the nation Thursday with relief including food, water and medical supplies, officials with U.S. Central Command said. U.S. officials also have been in contact with their Lebanese counterparts to discuss the country’s security situation.
The government of President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab already was facing a backlash.
As the international aid made its way to Lebanon, crowds of protesters gathered in Beirut and chanted “Revolution” and other slogans that highlight the deep, widespread anger among the population.
Even before the explosion, top Lebanese officials warned that the country was headed down a dangerous path and seemed unable or unwilling to change course. Lebanese Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned Monday, saying the government lacked the will to address corruption, fix a broken economy and institute necessary reforms.
“I participated in this government on the basis that I have one employer named Lebanon, and I found in my country many employers and conflicting interests,” he said in his resignation letter. “If they don’t come together around the interests of the Lebanese people and save them, then the ship, God forbid, will sink with everyone on board.”
Lebanon today, he added, “is sliding towards becoming a failed state.”
Mr. Hitti also seemed to take aim at Hezbollah, the face of Lebanon’s Shiites and the most organized and militarily potent of the country’s various factions and religious minorities.
Propped up financially by Tehran, Hezbollah holds significant sway inside the Lebanese government. Lebanon watchers warn that Hezbollah’s power and influence could hamper investigations into the cause of the explosion, especially given speculation that the accelerant may have been kept at the Beirut port as it awaited sale or auction to other entities. Officials with Lebanon’s customs department reportedly tried to sound the alarm about the 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored there, but their concerns apparently fell on deaf ears.
“A responsible government would launch an investigation and demand accountability. People would overcome political divisions and forge solidarity to uncover the truth,” wrote Jeffrey Feltman, an international diplomacy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “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,” he said. “Given the powerful interests in keeping the port operations in shadows and avoiding public accountability, it seems improbable that this Lebanese government … would be courageous enough to take on an honest reckoning of why scores of families are now mourning.”
As the U.S. assesses the damage and the potential impacts on its own security, top American officials have sent conflicting messages about the cause of the blast.
Hours after the incident, President Trump said top U.S. generals had told him the blast was likely an attack on the city.
The next day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper seemed to shoot down that theory.
“Most believe it was an accident, as reported,” he said at this year’s virtual Aspen Security Forum.
Pentagon officials on Thursday tried to clean up the clear discrepancies.
“The president and [Secretary Esper] have both been consistent that we’ve reached no definitive cause for the explosion,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters.
• Lauren Meier and Mike Glenn contributed to this report.