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Lebanon: Detonation of instability

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On August 4th two powerful explosions shook Beirut destroying the port and most the city. According to recent reprots, the explosion was caused by the inflammation and detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonia nitrate. Reports of August 8th say the blast killed more than 150 people, while the number of injured exceeded five thousand. The political and social repercussions of the disaster may affect the entire Eastern Mediterranean.

In the estimates of The Economist, up to 300,000 people, or 5 percent of the population of Lebanon were left without homes as a result of the disaster. According to reports of August 6th, the authorities estimate losses at 3−5 billion dollars, which makes up about 10% of the country’s GDP. Restoration of the port infrastructure alone will require “hundreds of millions of dollars”, – the government says. Meanwhile, given the closed land borders with Syria and Israel, the port was one of the two, along with air communication, major supply channels for the country. The prime grain warehouse is now ruined, the remaining grain reserves will last “less than a month”.

On August 7th President Michel Aoun said that, according to one of the versions, the explosion was caused by “external intervension”. On August 8th Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that the main cause of the catastrophe was “years-long corruption and negligence” Diab called for early parliamentary elections without which, he said, the country would be unable to overcome the current crisis.

On August 8th mass protests rolled through Beirut with particiapants demanding the resignation of all members of the country’s leadership.Protests quickly grew into clashes with law enforcers and at some point the protesters seized offices of the Lebanese Foreign Ministry. Army units have now been brought into the city. By August 9th the number of those hurt exceeded several hundred.

Lebanon has been the scene of a fierce internal struggle which is closely intertwined with geopolitical processes in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranea, ever since it was created in 1943. In 1990, after a 15-year civil war, economic restoration began, which was based on foreign loans and foreign assistance, first of all, from rich countries of the Middle East, and on money transfers from the Lebanese diaspora. Lebanon’s economy heavily depended on the import of “practically everything” while political power and major monetary flows, including distribution of foreign aid, landed in the hands of several dozen affluent families and clans.

The current crisis takes origin in the events that took place in the Greater Middle East in the early 2010s. Iran’s leadership took the «Arab Spring» and the war in Syria as a direct threat. Using its influence, which relied on confessional and cultural similaries, Tehran created a network of “Islamic resistance”that incorporates “trans-border non-governmental actors in …..Syria and Lebanon”. Given the situation, Iran’s opponents fear that the Islamic Republic is set on “consolidating a fairly vast territory in the Middle East which is populated mainly by Shiites”.

Iran’s growing influence has affected the political layout in Lebanon. In the course of presidential elections in May 2018 the main pro-Iranian group, Hezbollah, and its allies, got an opportunity to block decisions that require a qualified majority. As a result, experts say, supporters of rapprochement with Iran acquired an effective instrument which enabled them to “manipulate Lebanon’s political system ….in their own interests”.

In turn, leading Sunni countries of the Gulf Region have been demonstrating an ever worsening discontent over the Lebanese Sunnis’ inability to resist Iran’s growing might. Кuwait, Saudi Arabia and UAE were cutting down on financial assistance to Lebanon, even after the country’s government was headed by Saad Hariri, who holds Saudi citizenship.

Simultaneously, behind-the-scenes battles have intensified on the territory of Lebanon between Iran and the USA-Israel alliance. According to western observers, the war in Syria has boosted Lebanon’s value, both in terms of logistical support, and as one of the anti-Israeli frontlines. “In the face of Trump-Netanyahu-Muhammed bin Salman partnership the pro-Iranian “resistance axis” has strengthened its positions, building a “territorial corridor” that links Tehran with Beirut via Iraq and Syria”. In Lebanon as well, the intensification of American pressure on Iran, designed to “crash this “resistance axis” and stop the “regionalization” of “Hezbollah”, was making itself felt. In 2019 Washington imposed sanctions against Hezbollah, which dealt a strong blow on currency influxes into Lebanon. Just recently, prior to the explosion in Beirut, Hezbollah and Israel exchanged mutual threats yet again to carry out strikes along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Yet another important instance of Lebanese geopolitics of late is the growing confrontation between Turkey and its opponents. Critics say President Erdogan “wants to return to the sea expanses to gain control of the Eastern Mediterranean with a view to monopolize operations to prospect for gas reserves on the Cyprus shelf and thwart the building of a gas pipeline from Lebanon into Greece”. Such a course of events runs into fierce resistance from the fledgling informal regional alliance of Greece, Cyprus, France, Egypt, Israel and Jordan.

On the one hand, Turkey has been increasing its influence in Lebanon in recent years. “Operating in the country are public organizations which serve Turkey’s interests. Meanwhile, sceptics say that “as the Turkish economy continues to deteriorate, the lira rate against the dollar sees only occasional stoppages in its ever continuing downfall”. For Ankara, given the corona crisis, excessive bluntness and a stake on open confrontation look hardly practicable. “Another scenario” provides for ‘”distracting the attention” of opponents with the help of third countries”. Extensive assistance to Lebanon could fit in well with such an “image-oriented” approach.

Yet another factor that played a noticeable role in the social and economic destabilization of Lebanon is the influx of Syrian refugees. Nearly 1 million Syrians have moved to Lebanon in nine years. (The population of Lebanon proper is just over 6 million). This produced a negative impact on the labor market and put more pressure on the already struggling public infrastructure. Experts say “a considerable part” of refugees “live beyond the poverty line”, which only makes local problems worse.

Finally, the fifth factor that has aggravated the position of Lebanon yet further is the coronavirus epidemic. Most businesses had to shut down in the middle of March in order to stop the spread of infection. Quarantine restrictions were eased only in May. Coming to the fore now is the epidemic-triggered fall of oil and gas prices. 

Gulf countries are a popular destination for Lebanese labor migrants, including representatives of highly qualified specialists. Until recently, these countries received nearly 40 percent of Lebanese exports. In turn, residents of oil and gas monarchies supplied Lebanese coffers with up to one third of tourist business revenues. A decrease in oil prices led to a new reduction of financial assistance to Lebanon on the part of rich neighbors.

By the early 2010s, given the above-mentioned circumstances, the economic model, which largely relied on loans, began to falter. Tourism revenues were running low, real estate prices dropped, trade routes via Syria were blocked. The GDP began to decrease in 2018. Deficit of the budget and purchase balance acquired a “chronic” nature. By the end of 2019 state debt amounted to nearly 180 percent of the GDP. Practicaly half of the state budget went to service debt in 2019. By the end of last year, after ten years of growth, the volume of deposits in Lebanese banks began to dwindle as well.

In autumn 2019 Lebanon was gripped by mass protests, which are believed to have been caused by the introduction of a monthly 6-dollar tax on the use of WhatsApp messenger. The protesters quickly picked up slogans that call for a battle against corruption, cronism and incompetence on the part of the authorities. In October Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, under pressure from the protesters. The “technocratic” government of Hassan Diab was formed only in January 2020. Diab’s candidacy was backed mainly by members of the March 8 Coalition, which is oriented at Damascus and Tehran. The main “achievement” of the new became the announcement in March this year of the first in the country’s history default on eurobonds. 

Lebanon turned to the IMF for help. By April 30th the Cabinet had finally agreed on the preliminary “plan of restoration” of the economy, which formed the foundation of talks with the Fund. Negotiations are still under way. The government and parliament are engaged in fierce disputes as to the losses the country’s banking sector and its clients will have to sustain in the course of implementation of anti-crisis measures. In all likelihood, the losses will amount to billions of dollars. A number of observers say measures proposed by the IMF inflict a blow, in the first place, on the interests of pro-Iranian forces in Lebanon.

At present, western economists predict a 13-percent decrease of the Lebanese GDPin 2020. “The economic catastrophe is progressively sweeping” the country. Here are facts. By early August «the electricity grid produces only a few hours of energy per day, while billions disappear in the state-run energy supplying organization. The streets are cluttered with litter». The Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value since autumn last year, while “prices are rising practically daily”. Financial hunger and deficit of commodities have put the state healthcare system “on the verge of collapse”. According to The Economist, meat has disppeared from the menu of Lebanese military. In the middle of the summer the authorities raised bread prices yet again. Meanwhile, the large-scale assistance announced by many countries of the world in the first hours after the explosion in the port can ease things only for a few weeks.

Practically all observers are positive that both the economic and political models of Lebanon are suffering a fiasco. It is unclear if there are still forces inside the country that could send it on the track of consolidation. The Lebanese society is historically divided into fiercely competing ethno-religious groups. The May 2018 elections revealed the presence of a new generation of politicians who are attempting to speak from the position of national interests. However, they are yet to prove their ability to compete for power and influence with the young generation of representatives of old clans and families.

Gaining from further destabilization in Lebanon are major ”ethno-confessional communities, frantically competing for power”. The weaker the Lebanese state, the more influence is accumulated in the hands of community leaders. Ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis each of the communities has been running their own hospitals and has been trying to attract supporters by handing out food and even money.

Of external players, the ones interested in further escalation of conflict in “the country of cedars” are those who are set on preventing the stabilization of Syria. And those who expect to continue to exert pressure on Iran. Speaking in favor of the opposite scenario are opponents to further militarizatioin of Eastern Mediterranean and to a new outbreak of geopolitical struggle on the vast territory covering Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Lebanon is in need of urgent and extensive assistance. Otherwise, the country risks stepping over the line of political chaos yet again. Given the dwindling resources, the current situation promises further aggravation of the struggle for influence, both in Lebanon, and in neighboring regions.

From our partner International Affairs

Middle East

Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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Middle East

Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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