Lebanon’s Choice

Last week’s clashes in Beirut represented the deadliest violence the capital city has seen in decades. At the core of the violence is Hezbollah’s attempt to derail the judicial investigation into the August 2020 port explosion. If Hezbollah is successful in its venture, the rule of law in Lebanon will be pushed to the side permanently. Hezbollah and its allies have been pushing for the dismissal of Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of investigating the 2020 blast. Through this effort, Hezbollah has intensified Lebanon’s political crisis and crippled the new government, which was already in a precarious state. The message from Hezbollah and its political allies to the Lebanese people is clear. Their demands for justice will bring on another civil war.

The governmental stasis, coupled with the violence seen last week is conjuring up dark memories of the past. Specifically, the Lebanese Civil War that raged from 1975 until 1990. The Lebanese people have lost faith in many of the nation’s institutions. They overwhelmingly blame the corrupt political class for the condition of the country. The bungled aftermath of the port explosion created a powder keg of sorts which the nation and its population is presently perched upon. The drive to remove Bitar threatens to be the spark that ignites Lebanon and transforms it into either a true failed state, or on the flip side, an Iranian vassal.

Sunday 16 August, 2020 Iran Update: Israel-UAE Deal The Latest Headache For Iran This Month

Thursday’s agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations is attracting its fair share of backlash in the Middle East. Predictably, Iran is not too thrilled with the deal. On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech in which he called the move an act of betrayal by the UAE. “They [the UAE] better be mindful. They have committed a huge mistake, a treacherous act,” he said. The remarks caused the UAE government to summon the Iran’s charge d’affaires in Abu Dhabi. The UAE foreign ministry called Rouhani’s speech “unacceptable and inflammatory and had serious implications for security and stability in the Gulf region”. Iran was also reminded of its obligation to protect the UAE diplomatic mission in Tehran. Considering Iran’s history of encouraging protests in front of the embassies and missions of its neighbors in Tehran when their policies go against Iranian interests, the move was smart.

Iran has had a difficult August. The Israel-UAE deal is only the latest heartburn for the regime. Tehran was already dealing with an uncertain future for Hezbollah in Lebanon following the Beirut explosion, a still unsolved string of fires and explosions at energy  and nuclear sites inside of Iran, the worsening COVID-19 situation in the country, and the prospect of deeper economic sanctions looming in the future. After a US resolution to extend the arms embargo on Iran was defeated at the UN on Friday President Trump has vowed there will be snapback sanctions. The exact mechanism for bringing the snapback into play is being contested. The European Union claims since the US unilaterally removed itself from the JCPOA it does not have the power to bring about snapback sanctions. Washington claims otherwise. Either way, the Trump administration does have the power to levy even stricter sanctions on Iran, and pressure friendly nations to do the same.

Iran will be on the radar for the next couple of weeks at least so I suggest keeping an eye on news coming out of the Persian Gulf region.

Lebanon Update 15 August, 2020: Hariri Verdict Coming Next Week

Lebanon has captured the attention of the international community with the Beirut port explosion in early August and subsequent renewed anti-government protests across the nation. Official corruption has been a way of life in Lebanon for decades. Only now does it seem that the proverbial chicken is coming home to roost. The government resigned earlier this week as backlash against the political class has reached new heights. There are many questions emerging now about Lebanon’s political future. How Hezbollah will figure into the mixture is one of the more significant ones. Although many Lebanese like the idea of political change coming to their country, Hezbollah support remains considerable among the people.

Early next week the verdict on the 2005 killing of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri will come down from the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The verdict had been scheduled to come earlier in the month but the port explosion in Beirut brought on a postponement. The verdict, regardless of which way it goes, could spark fresh violence in Lebanon between Hezbollah, and Hariri supporters. Given the present political climate such clashes will be counterproductive for Hezbollah to say the least. This reality could be the reasoning behind Hezbollah’s claim that it will ignore the Hariri verdict when it is handed down.

What Hezbollah says and does are generally two entirely different things, as the world has learned. The world will be watching the verdict carefully as well. For the first time in decades Lebanon could be on the verge of genuine political change. It would be an absolute tragedy if the Hariri verdict, and Hezbollah were somehow able to derail that chance.

Eastern Mediterranean Heating Up

The Eastern Mediterranean has gone from lukewarm to a rapid simmer over the past week. In Lebanon the political winds of change appear to be descending upon Beirut following the massive explosion at Beirut’s port facility on 4 August. The incident reinvigorated protests, and heavy anti-government sentiment across the nation. This morning the Lebanese government saw the writing on the wall and resigned. In an address earlier today Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation, and his intent to “take a step back,” and “fight the battle for change alongside them.” Diab went on to denounce the political ruling class and lay blame for the explosion squarely on their shoulders. Diab’s cabinet resigned earlier in the day, and it appears now that at least some of them will remain on in a caretaker role until a new government is formed.

The dissolution of Lebanon’s government is drawing considerable attention from Western nations, as well as from some of Lebanon’s neighbors and longtime allies. Questions about the future are being asked, with no answers readily available. What shape will the new government take? Is the present mood in Lebanon one that will see the removal of Hezbollah and its influence from Lebanese government and society? How far is Hezbollah, and Iran willing to go in order to keep the nation afloat and in their corner? Three of many questions that will need to be considered as the situation plays out in the coming days and weeks.

The Greek-Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) deal is drawing a decidedly negative reaction from Turkey-as was anticipated. The deal is seen as a direct challenge to the EEZ established by Turkey and the Western-recognized government of Libya. On Monday, Turkey issued a Navtex international maritime alert to conduct ‘seismic research operations’ south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo over the next two weeks. The Turkish research ship Oruc Reis and two auxiliary vessels are presently underway to the area. Turkish naval forces are also presently conducting a two-day naval exercise off of Kasetellorizo and Rhodes. The exercise was announced on 6 August, the same day Greece and Egypt signed their EEZ agreement. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with his military chiefs today as both sides exchanged accusations of fueling regional tensions.

While all of this was going on today the lira continued its tailspin, reaching record lows against the dollar and euro. Despite Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes, Turkey’s foreign adventures do not seem to be having a positive effect on the economy. Turkey is dealing with serious economic, and domestic issues. The lira has a history of being influenced by domestic politics. If the economic outlook does not improve soon enough, Erdogan may be faced with the unpalatable choice of either having to request IMF assistance, or call snap elections. Either one will cost him a fortune in political capital and perhaps leave Erdogan and his government in a vulnerable spot at the wrong time.

Lebanon’s Ambivalent Path Forward

Lebanon is coming to terms with the horrific explosion in Beirut earlier this week. Aid is pouring into the nation from every direction. Old allies, and even old enemies are joining in the effort.  The explosion has focused international attention on Lebanon for the moment, and the world is beginning to see how mismanaged, and corrupt the Lebanese government has become. Granted, Lebanon has always had to deal with this to one extent or another, but in recent years the levels of graft, and negligence have skyrocketed. The Lebanese people are seeking a solution and are not confident one can be found within their government. This was evident on Thursday night as anti-government protests flared up outside of the parliament building in Beirut. Fires were set, stores vandalized, and clashes with security forces broke out. Last night could be an indication of larger unrest to come in the future unless the Lebanese government can convince the people that it is committed to being the solution instead of the problem.

France has wasted no time in coming to Lebanon’s side in support. Less than 24 hours after the explosion French aid was arriving in Beirut and French president Emanuel Macron arrived in the city yesterday. French ties to Lebanon run deep so Macron’s arrival, and France’s swift response come as no surprise. The role that Paris will take in the near future remains to be seen. Macron is calling for politicians in Lebanon to come together and bring about change. In short, Macron is demanding reform, as are many other regional, and Western governments.

Lebanon’s people simply want change. A petition calling for Lebanon to fall under French mandate received the signatures of 50,000 Lebanese. This is indicative of the festering mood in the country and the populace’s almost complete lack of confidence in their government. The people want change, and if it is to come from the outside so be it. A dangerous message. Doubly so in uncertain times like these.