Post-Explosion Worries Grow For Lebanon

It has been around thirty hours since the ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut devastated parts of the city. The initial of the investigation now underway strongly suggests that the explosion was the result of negligence, and a number of variables coming together at the most inopportune time. The investigation is nowhere near complete yet though and this should be kept in mind. A final verdict will not be rendered for some time. It is worth noting, however, that as Lebanese officials and authorities continue their investigation, at the same time the intelligence services of many Middle Eastern, and Western nation-states are conducting their own investigations of the incident.

Accident or otherwise, the explosion has come at a very delicate time for Lebanon. First there is the COVID-19 pandemic. Infections are on the rise, and the nation’s healthcare system and hospitals are struggling to cope. Economic conditions are another factor. Lebanese are dealing with an economic crisis worse than any since the 1975-1990 civil war. Brownouts are a part of daily live, and clean drinking water is not readily available on a consistent basis.  Large scale street demonstrations against the government were a regular occurrence until the pandemic arrived, and the mood of many Lebanese has turned decidedly anti-government, and anti-Hezbollah.

The explosion occurred at Beirut’s port and caused an immense amount of damage. Significant quantities of stored grain have been destroyed, leading to worries about a possible food crisis in the near future. To exacerbate matters, the destruction caused to the port is leading to questions about its operational capacity. The Lebanese government is releasing 100 billion lira in emergency funds to help offset any economic consequences, but there is a growing consensus among economists, and geopolitical analysts that the impact of the blast on Lebanon’s economy will be long-lasting.

Lebanon: Protests Turn Violent, Economy Remains in Free Fall

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Over the past week protests in Lebanon have turned violent. Following months of relatively peaceful demonstrations across the small country anti-government protesters and security forces clashed in the streets of Beirut. The past weekend saw the most violence with over 100 citizens injured. Police and security forces made dozens of arrests, with most coming as protesters attempted to storm Lebanon’s Parliament building. The situation on the ground deteriorated to the point that the Lebanese government called in the military to bolster the ranks of police and security personnel.

Political corruption has been at the heart of the protests. Frustration with the ruling class had been rising for quite some time in Lebanon. As has been the case in other nations across the region, the people have taken to the streets to demand change. Lebanon is in the midst of a severe economic crisis, and the government appears unable or unwilling to address it properly. Inflation and unemployment continue to rise, the national currency’s value is diminishing, and Lebanon’s credit ranking is in the basement.

To make matters even worse, cash is running short in banks around the nation. Commercial banks have placed restrictions on withdrawing dollars, and blocked money transfers abroad. These moves have sparked a number of extreme incidents at banks ranging from scuffles between depositors and bank employees to depositors physically occupying branches.

Unfortunately, even if the government brings on early elections as the protesters have demanded, there’s no guarantee a new parliament and cabinet will be able to stave off the looming economic catastrophe.

November DIRT Project: Iran’s Influence and Power Around the Region

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To most of the world, the present unrest in Lebanon and Iraq have to do with citizens protesting against the reluctance or inability of their governments to improve the lives of the people under their care. To an extent this is true. However, an underlying reason for the violent unrest in Iraq, and destabilizing protests in Lebanon, has been the amount of influence Iran holds in both countries. In effect, Iran is the deep state in Lebanon and Iraq. This has never been a closely guarded secret of course. Tehran’s influence in Iraq has grown by leaps and bounds since the US withdrawal. Iranian militias and Tehran-sponsored politicians and clerics swooped in to fill the vacuum. As the years have gone by, Iran’s power and influence in its one-time enemy has increased immeasurably. With regards to Lebanon, Iran’s power there has long been known. Through Hezbollah, Tehran wields influence and power.

That influence is now being challenged on a broad scale from Beirut to Baghdad and beyond. In November, Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and the challenges facing it will be looked at and discussed. Articles will be posted on Mondays and Fridays starting on 10 November. Regular updates will continue to be posted as well.

Lebanese Protests Lead to Cabinet Resignations

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Tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens took to the streets Saturday for a third day of protests aimed at tax increases and government corruption. Following today’s demonstrations, four ministers from the Lebanese Forces Party, a traditional ally of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, resigned from his cabinet. Samir Gaegea, the head of the party released a short, simple statement explaining the reasoning behind the resignations: “We are convinced that the government is unable to take the necessary steps to save the situation.” Protesters in Beirut responded to news of the resignations with cheers and celebration. So far, the demonstrations and protests have been peaceful and there are no indications that will change anytime soon.

Still, the Lebanese government has reason to worry. The rising costs of living, and tax increases are what prompted the protests. Right now, even though the tone of the demonstrations has been peaceful, citizens are angry and frustrated at what is largely perceived as the government’s inability to address the nation’s poor infrastructure, official corruption, and high unemployment. These frustrations are very similar to those recently voiced by Iraqi citizens, which led to violent, bloody demonstrations across Iraq.

Cronyism, unemployment, and crumbling infrastructures have become common issues around the Middle East. Iraq and Lebanon are not alone. In other nations civilian frustrations are simmering though it remains to be seen if the recent protests in Iraq, and Lebanon inspire similar actions in Tunisia, Egypt, or even Kuwait, and Bahrain. If so, do not expect the next wave of political instability will not become the radical-fueled conflagration that Arab Spring did in 2010 and 2011.

Waiting on Iran & Hezbollah

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Today the Pentagon, and US intelligence community continue to monitor the Middle East for indications that Iran is preparing to retaliate against Israel for its recent strikes against Iranian weapons facilities in Syria and Iraq. Israel also struck targets in Lebanon and Gaza in the last few days, escalating its campaign to deny Iran the ability to establish forward bases in close proximity to Israeli territory. With the attacks over, Israel, the United States, and the rest of the world have been waiting ever since for the Iranian response. It has yet to come though there is little doubt it will eventually.

The latest Israeli attacks differed from previous ones made against Iranian targets in Syria, and other areas. In the past, Israel has been covert regarding these efforts. This time, it was quite open about them. Some analysts believe the change has come at the behest of the United States, which has intensified pressure on Iran in recent months. Whether this is the case or not, it does not appear Iran is ready to confront Israel militarily. Tehran would be more likely to respond through its surrogates in Syria and Lebanon, most prominently Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has blamed Israel for a drone attack in a Beirut neighborhood early Sunday morning. One of the helicopter-type devices crashed and was recovered by Hezbollah members. The problem with the claim is that the physical characteristics of the recovered drone do not look like any type that Israel operates. This has led to much speculation about the origin of the drone. A number of military analysts around the world have suggested the drone is actually Iranian, leading to the assumption Sunday’s attack was a less-than-elaborate ruse on the part of Hezbollah and Iran.

If this is the case, it seems clear Iran and Hezbollah are either attempting to establish a faux justification for future hostilities against Israel, or simply building an equally as deceptive public relations campaign against their enemies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

In either case, expect there to be more activity in the region over the coming weekend.