A picture taken from Dbayeh, north of Beirut, shows smoke from a huge fire raging at the port in the Lebanese capital on September 10, 2020. Photo: Joseph Eid / AFP
BEIRUT — Squeezed geographically between a closed border with Israel and a sanctioned Syria, dominated by a proxy of Iran, and watching the last of its foreign reserves being ferried out of a collapsed financial system, Lebanon risks becoming the next Gaza. France, the last major Western power to recognize Hezbollah as a diplomatic partner, is today under increasing pressure to blacklist the movement in its entirety as a terrorist group. That pressure comes not only from Washington, which since the start of the year has ushered about similar designations by the United Kingdom and Germany, but from what Macron called a “betrayal” of the Lebanese political class to stick to the script of his roadmap for reform following a cataclysmic explosion
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BEIRUT — Squeezed geographically between a closed border with Israel and a sanctioned Syria, dominated by a proxy of Iran, and watching the last of its foreign reserves being ferried out of a collapsed financial system, Lebanon risks becoming the next Gaza.

France, the last major Western power to recognize Hezbollah as a diplomatic partner, is today under increasing pressure to blacklist the movement in its entirety as a terrorist group.

That pressure comes not only from Washington, which since the start of the year has ushered about similar designations by the United Kingdom and Germany, but from what Macron called a “betrayal” of the Lebanese political class to stick to the script of his roadmap for reform following a cataclysmic explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4.

Lebanon has yet to release the results of its ongoing probe into the explosion, an event that revealed — at the cost of nearly 200 lives and countless livelihoods — that a mammoth stock of military-grade ammonium nitrate had been seized and secretly held at the Beirut port for years.

The US earlier this month accused Hezbollah of stockpiling ammonium nitrate in multiple European countries, with State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales making a thinly veiled suggestion of a link between the group and the material detonated in the August 4 explosion.

According to a source close to the ongoing Lebanese probe, Lebanon’s Customs Directorate saw a marked uptick in ammonium nitrate imports during the course of the Syrian civil war, which saw Hezbollah intervene on the side of Damascus in 2012. The Lebanese army notably discovered an additional four tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port weeks following the August 4 explosion. Once notorious on the Syrian battlefield, ammonium nitrate also flowed copiously into Syria’s opposition territories via Turkey, as detailed by the New York Times in 2015.

But the cargo ship the MV Rhosus which delivered a 2,750 tonne motherload of ammonium nitrate to Beirut in 2013 was unique, allowed to port for the stated purpose of ferrying out seismic equipment — part of a survey overseen by Energy Ministry contractor Spectrum. Lebanese authorities have yet to offer a credible explanation as to why Spectrum, legally responsible via contract for safety breaches related to the seismic surveying, was not ordered or alerted to deal with the dangerous arrival, or why the explosives-grade cargo was taken to shore.

“We saw in Beirut the truly destructive power of ammonium nitrate,” US Counterterrorism Coordinator Sales said September 17. “That is why the United States has called for a full, open, and transparent and thorough investigation of the explosion in Beirut.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is scheduled to make a televised address this Tuesday evening, during which he is expected to respond to the growing pressure on his group and the country.

Parisian ‘fiction’

Experts say that while Paris prioritizes relative stability in Lebanon via Hezbollah’s continued hegemony, Washington seeks to ratchet pressure on Hezbollah and lasso Lebanon into a new regional alignment taking shape with recent US-brokered pacts signed between Israel and Arab states.

On September 14, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Washington to bask in the growing embrace of the Gulf states, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lambasted the French vision for the Middle East. “France Should Stand with Freedom, Not Tehran,” read the State Department’s English translation of Pompeo’s op-ed in the pages of French daily Le Figaro.

Left to Right: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House in Washington, DC, after the signing of the Abraham Accords, on September 15, 2020. Photo: AFP

The message made clear the Trump administration’s dissatisfaction with the French diplomatic maneuvers in Lebanon and President Macron’s direct engagement with what Pompeo referred to as “Iran’s proxy Hizballah”, after weeks of speculation the longtime allies were playing a good cop-bad cop routine.

“Unfortunately, Paris maintains the fiction that there is a ‘political wing’ of Hizballah, when all of it is controlled by a single terrorist, Hassan Nasrallah,” blasted Pompeo, referring to Hezbollah’s leader and using an alternative spelling of the group.

France’s proposed roadmap for Lebanon, announced by Macron in the wake of the August 4 explosion, aimed to preserve stability through a managed reform of the Hezbollah-dominated political scene.

Senior US envoy David Hale has meanwhile dangled the carrot of $21 billion in shelved International Monetary Fund aid to Lebanon. The price, as understood by Hezbollah, would be to chip away at its very existence.

On September 22, an arms depot in southern Lebanon was obliterated in a massive explosion, perceived as a deafening stick. Hezbollah denied that it was an arms depot belonging to its forces but did not allow the media to access the site. Lebanon’s state news agency noted that the explosion coincided with “enemy overflights”.

Israel, widely understood to have carried out a series of unclaimed explosions that struck sensitive military sites in Iran over the summer, and which Lebanon’s former interior minister Nohad Machnouk blamed for detonating the ammonium nitrate at Beirut port, did not comment on the incident.

The loaded IMF aid is unlikely to sway Hezbollah, whose patron Iran has long reverted under pressure to the “resistance economy” doctrine. The Lebanese Shiite party instead can preserve itself by condoning negotiations over Lebanon’s maritime border with Israel, slated to resume next month.

Those talks, which could amount to a time-buying exercise, are unlikely to slow Lebanon’s descent into an Eastern Mediterranean backwater: isolated, bankrupt, and subject to ratcheting sanctions as evidenced by the recent US blacklisting of two Hezbollah-allied former ministers, one from the Shiite Amal party and one from the Christian Marada party.

A woman sits amidst the rubble in her damaged house in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 6, 2020, two days after a massive explosion shook the Lebanese capital. Photo: AFP

Lebanon on the outside

Lebanon has already been left in the dust of a regional convergence against an expansionist Turkey, with friendly nations Greece and Cyprus joining hands with its enemy Israel on oil and gas exploration and infrastructure projects.

The expected revival of an Israeli pipeline linking its Red Sea port of Eilat to its Mediterranean port of Ashkelon could diminish any chance of investment in two defunct pipelines through Lebanon that once connected Saudi Arabia and Iraq to the ports of Sidon and Tripoli.

Israel is already generating much of its electricity from its own gas reserves, even as Lebanon’s oil and gas sector’s development has been riddled with delays, a lack of transparency and allegations of corruption.

The Emirati shipping giant DP World is now seeking to partner in a bid to manage the Israeli port of Haifa, which would provide a new outlet to the sea for the Gulf states.

In neighboring Lebanon, French shipping giant CMA-CGM owns the majority of shares in the Gulftainer Lebanon container terminal of Tripoli and has been eyeing the container terminal at Beirut port, whose contract with the British-Lebanese Beirut Container Terminal Consortium expired earlier this year.

“In 2012, at Gulftainer we realized strategically this was the port of the future for Lebanon,” said terminal manager Ira Hare. 

Not only for Lebanon but the entire Eastern Mediterranean. But with the implementation of crippling US sanctions on Syria, known as the Caesar Act, the expected reconstruction of Syria is on hold. Meanwhile, Chinese interest in the port and railway revival, which hinged on Tripoli as a gateway to projects and contracts in Syria, has failed to materialize.

“No one expected the trouble over the border was going to take so long. Our business model was that 2020 was going to be the first year we start to make some money. That’s pushed back slightly,” said Hare.

Lebanon will also be increasingly isolated by its non-recognition of Israel. The UAE and Bahrain deals are expected to trigger other Arab states to cut similar pacts with Israel in the months and years to come.

“We’ll have at least five or six countries coming along very quickly,” Trump said at the September 15 Abraham Accords ceremony formalizing the deals.

Oman, whose late Sultan Qaboos hosted Netanyahu in 2018 and which has shown keen interest in an Israeli rail proposal that would make the Jewish state the land-bridge of the Gulf states to the Mediterranean, is believed to be next. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Sultan Qaboos of Oman in Muscat. Photo: Netanyahu’s official Twitter account

If brought to fruition, the rail link would offer an alternative to shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has periodically threatened to close.

Morocco, Mauritania and Sudan are also being lobbied to conclude peace deals. But the biggest game-changer would be normalized relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, expected to happen when King Salman passes away and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman becomes king.

Lebanon’s ties with Saudi Arabia, frayed by its alignment with rival Iran, meanwhile show no sign of improvement. Should Trump be reelected in November, Lebanon will be increasingly isolated between its closed and contested border with Israel and its sanctioned neighbor Syria.

On the other hand, if the winner is Joe Biden, who served as former President Barack Obama’s vice president during the crafting of the Iran nuclear deal and who has pledged to restore the Trump-shredded agreement, Macron’s long view of Lebanon would still have a chance of bearing fruit.

French President Emanuel Macron consoles a distraught woman during his tour of Beirut. Credit: ABC News.

New French mandate

Macron’s initiative began on August 6, two days after the explosion, when the French leader landed in Beirut, beating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the diplomatic punch.

The visit now appears as a calculated political spectacle, capitalizing on the sense of abandonment felt by shell-shocked residents of Beirut, and one ultimately aimed at preserving French interests and carving out a new mandate of sorts backed by Iran.

Most notably, Macron granted unprecedented recognition to Lebanon’s most powerful force, Hezbollah, by meeting the head of its parliamentary bloc. Mohammad Raad, Hezbollah’s senior-most parliamentarian, was granted an eight-minute tete-a-tete with Macron, according to Le Figaro senior correspondent Georges Malbrunot.

The sitting marked the first time “since the birth of Hezbollah in 1982 that a French head of state held direct talks with a member of the group,” Malbrunot said.

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, on the eve of Macron’s return to Beirut three weeks later, said his group was receptive to the French leader’s proposals.

“We heard a call from the French president for a new political pact in Lebanon,” Nasrallah said in a speech on August 30. “Today we are open to a constructive discussion in this regard.”

Macron, who initially said early elections would be a key to moving the country in the right direction, later demurred to backing a roadmap of “reforms” with an emphasis on stability.

Hezbollah has rejected calls for early elections, which would likely reveal diminished support for its Christian allies who currently hold the presidency. The French-Hezbollah convergence has raised alarm bells among the Christian opposition and in the highest echelons of the Lebanese Maronite Church.

Patriarch sounds alarm

In the wake of the August 4 explosion, the leader of Lebanon’s Maronite church has shifted from a complacent partner of President Michel Aoun to raising a five-bell alarm over Hezbollah, whose Shiite support remains durable even as its Christian ally is increasingly weak.

“Hezbollah is an Iranian project. This is well known to everyone,” Patriarch Bechara al-Rai said on August 31. “Why should it be excluded from the disbanding of all militias?” Rai demanded, referring to the post-Civil War disarming of the spectrum of Lebanese factions. “Everyone offered martyrs. Now is the time to build a state, not statelets.”

Rai further revealed that his relationship with Hezbollah had been severed since his trip to Jerusalem with Pope Francis in 2014. The patriarch’s sudden shift away from the Hezbollah-allied president may be explained by the wreckage of a quarter-million homes and livelihoods the explosion wrought on majority-Christian East Beirut and the impact a new wave of Christian emigration will have on the demography and power-balance of the country.

Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East or Arab world in which Christians continue to play a powerful role in politics and are not relegated to the position of second-class citizens. While Syria, Egypt and the occupied Palestinian Territories continue to have sizeable Christian communities, they do not have nearly the influence that they wield in Lebanon, where the presidency and army chief positions continue to be reserved for a Maronite.

One Lebanese, who hails from a staunchly Aoun-supporting village, says many residents now feel his Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) was used as “window dressing” for Hezbollah to gain power. Hezbollah’s opposition to early elections is believed to stem from the understanding that Aoun would lose significant ground to Christian rivals, likely costing them the presidency.

Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Aoun who has controlled the Energy Ministry personally or through his allies for most of the past decade, ironically now appears even more radioactive than Hezbollah. He is reportedly bracing for US sanctions, buying up property in his hometown Batroun, and is blamed by rivals and a segment of his own party for the ministry’s failures.

Appearing to sense the gravity of the situation, just three days after the port explosion, Aoun asked Trump to revive US-mediated negotiations with Israel over a disputed maritime boundary. Later, asked by French television about Lebanon concluding its own peace deal with Israel, a prospect unthinkable to his ally Hezbollah, Aoun left the door open, saying vaguely: “It depends”.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun (front), Prime Minister Hassan Diab (rear L) and Energy Minister Rimun Gacar inspect a drilling ship in Beirut. Photo: Lebanese Presidency Office

Yet Aoun’s party has never been more dependent on Hezbollah for its power, having mostly burned its bridges with the main Sunni party, the Future Movement of Saad Hariri, and rival Christian parties including the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb.

The Kataeb, whose members resigned from parliament in protest following the Beirut port explosion, has been particularly alarmed by Macron’s eagerness to harness Hezbollah and its Christian and Shiite collaborators as the guarantors of future stability and reforms.

The French president’s willingness to put aside the issue of Hezbollah’s military supremacy and forgo demands for early elections “gave them some oxygen”, MP Elias Hankach told Asia Times by phone.

“Hezbollah will be happy to do these reforms as long as you don’t come close to its weapons and role in the region, and its control of the parliament, cabinet and presidency,” he said.

Civil war scenario

Macron, whose touted roadmap for Lebanon calls for a check-up in December appears to be taking in stride the weekend resignation of the Lebanese prime minister following his failure to form a cabinet.

“This is the main difference between France and the US,” said Sophia Amara, an investigative journalist, commenting on France 24 earlier this month.

“He’s doing realpolitik, Emmanuel Macron. He knows that for now if Lebanon wants to get rid of this very important player in Lebanon, which is Hezbollah, that could lead to something very dangerous. That could lead to a civil war.”

Amal Saad, a Lebanese University political science professor and author of a forthcoming book on Hezbollah’s evolution from a local resistance group to a regional power, tweeted:

“Lebanon is now split between forces who favor France’s realist hegemony over Lebanon versus those who prefer the US’ delusional variant. France seeks to supervise and control the state-building process while recognizing the current power configuration, which includes Hezbollah,” she said.

Hezbollah fighters plant Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border on July 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Mohamed Azakir

Faced with a light-touch French roadmap or an activist US role in a second Trump term, Lebanon is likely to be on the ropes either way, analysts say.

“The explosion has truly laid bare the state of decay in Lebanese state institutions. It will be very difficult for the Lebanese government to make reforms and put the country back on track. On the contrary, the country will continue to decline, the economy to falter, and misery will grow,” said Fabrice Balanche, director of research at the University of Lyon 2 and who has been doing fieldwork in Lebanon and Syria since the 1990s.

While the middle-class youth will leave in droves, the poor, he warns, will be increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by militias as earlier civil war factions reconstitute themselves.

“The political elites in Lebanon are not interested to make reforms even if there’s a crisis or a civil war. For people like Geagea, Berri, and Joumblatt, this will bring back memories of their youth! They made a lot of money during the civil war,” Balanche said, referring to the leaders of the Christian Lebanese Forces, the Shiite Amal Movement, and the leading Druze party.

“These are the people who run the country who have arms and militias, while the civil society — the middle class — is weaker and weaker. They’re leaving, while there is a mass of people who are ready to join a militia for $100. You have all the ingredients to have an explosion of violence.”

Lebanese protesters scuffle with security forces near the parliament headquarters in the capital Beirut’s downtown district on Tuesday. An unprecedented protest movement against the ruling elite entered its second month with the country in the grip of political and economic turmoil. Photo: AFP

Earlier this month, Ismail Hanieh, the leader of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which runs the Gaza strip, visited Beirut and met with Hezbollah leader Nasrallah.

For many Lebanese, the sight of Hanieh being carried on the shoulders of Palestinian gunmen through a refugee camp off limits to the Lebanese army brought back still-raw memories of the civil war, in which Palestinian militants played a significant role in early battles against Christian nationalist forces.

In recent weeks, another wartime memory was evoked, that of the intra-Christian battles of the early 1990s, which pitted forces loyal to then-General Michel Aoun against those led by Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea. Geagea, a quarter-century later in 2016, would make peace with his old rival, paving the way for Aoun’s elevation to the presidency — a decision Geagea later said may have been an error.

On September 14, confrontations erupted between supporters of Aoun and Geagea, with gunfire discharged in the middle of the densely populated Sin el-Fil district of Beirut, raising fears that the first shots in a new civil war could well be sparked between the Christians themselves.

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.