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.
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.
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.
On the heels of President Trump’s intentions to withdraw US troops from Syria, Israel is making it known to the world that the pending US departure will not affect its own Syrian strategy. On Christmas Day Israeli warplanes went into action against Iranian military targets in Syria, striking a weapons storage warehouses, and ammunition supply points. Iran’s significant military presence in Syria has been a major concern for Israel and in 2018 a number of airstrikes were launched against Iranian targets on Syrian soil. Israel’s government has stressed that Iran’s smuggling of weaponry to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon is a red line and as long as it continues, military actions will continue.
Syrian government statements claim that its air defense forces shot down 14 of the 16 missiles launched by Israeli warplanes, however, post-strike satellite photos appear to show that most Israeli missiles reached their targets. The Russian Defense Ministry also reported that two civilian airliners were placed in danger by the air strikes. There are unconfirmed reports that one of the flights was diverted to the Russian airbase outside of Latakia. Igor Konashenkov, a defense ministry spokesman was quoted as saying, “Provocative acts by the Israeli air force endangered two passenger jets, when six of their F-16s carried out air strikes on Syria from Lebanese airspace.”
There has been concern about the blowback the US pullout might bring for Israel, but Tuesday’s air strikes should lay these concerns to rest. The absence of US ground troops in Syria will not alter, or dissuade current and future strategies, and actions of the major players in and around Syria. Russia will continue to consolidate and expand its position with an eye towards shaping how Syria develops post-conflict. The Assad government is still centered on dismantling any and all rebel groups posing a threat to its hold on power. Iran, like Russia, intends to consolidate its presence in Syria now and in the future while continuing to funnel weapons to Hezbollah from there.
And while Iran continues along this path, Israel remains committed to actively defending against it.
Things appear to have settled down in Syria following last weekend’s clash between Iran and Israel. An Iranian drone’s violation of Israeli air space set in motion retaliatory air strikes by Israeli warplanes against an Iranian command and control site that was responsible for guiding the Iranian UAV. The Iranian site was situated at the T-4 airbase near Palmyra, Syria. An Israeli F-16 was hit by an SA-5 surface-to-air missile and went down over northern Israel. Not long after the initial raid, Israel’s air force took to the skies again and targeted a large number of Syrian air defense sites, as well as Iranian-manned facilities. The strikes pushed tensions in the area high enough that Russia had to intervene in order to halt further escalation.
What transpired last weekend shouldn’t come as a shock given what has been going on in the vicinity of the Israeli-Syrian border recently. Iran has been maintaining a heavy presence and high level of activity along the border for some time. Israel has bent over backwards to send warnings to Iran, Syria, and Russia through every possible channel that it will not tolerate Iranian activity on its border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that a military option would be pursued if an acceptable diplomatic solution was not found.
When the Iranian UAV violated sovereign Israeli air space, Tel Aviv recognized the act as Iran crossing a red line. Diplomacy had failed, and the time came for Israel to unsheathe its sword.
Right now none of the major players in Syria are ready to risk a full-scale conflict. The Assad government, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, are holding most of the cards. If Tehran provokes Israel now it serve the interests of no one, and could affect the balance of power in Syria as it currently stands. Iran will continue to defy Israeli red lines, though it may choose a different arena, and other methods to continue the conflict. Lebanon comes to mind immediately as the most likely next area, and Hezbollah provides a number of options for future Iranian action against Syria.
The situation has quieted for the moment, however, the pause will not be permanent. More clashes between Iran and Israel can be expected in the coming months.