What is/are the Truth/s Behind the Beirut Explosions?

Tuesday, August 25, 2020
Opinion By Jean AbiNader

I prefer not to think in terms of conspiracies, even when they feed my perceptions of certain events. Certainly, the US political landscape thrives on plots and claims built on muck, reminiscent of countries where rumors are the dominant form of news coverage. Having spent most of my life working on US-Arab issues, conspiracies are part and parcel of the territory. I can remember staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman, Jordan, in the early 80s, checking with the hotel switchboard operator as to who was in town and catching up on the latest gossip. Even earlier, in the 70s in Lebanon, it seemed that all the regional players had a captive press outlet that provided their particular spin to the news.

Although the media has exponentially expanded, whether it’s the gray zone of social media or friends sending Whatsapp clippings, the bottom line is the same: a competition of “truths” that are seemingly endless and bottomless. So we are confronted in Beirut with competing narratives, long on claims and short on facts. Ironically, the long-anticipated judicial decision on the elephant of all conspiracies in Lebanon, the assassination of former PM Rafic Hariri, was rendered in the middle of the current imbroglio and only added more competing narratives. Although his son, former PM Saad Hariri said that, “I see that the tribunal issued a judgment that we must accept and move forward,” this still hasn’t stopped those drawing a straight line between that past devastation of Beirut and this month’s horrible events.

Adding a chorus of “of course” to the cesspool is the unequivocal opposition of the ruling oligarchy to an independent international investigation as called for by France, the US, and others. President Aoun, Hezbollah Secretary General Nasrallah, and Speaker of the Parliament Berri all categorically rejected an international inquiry limiting the current investigations by France, the FBI, and Lebanese investigators to the causes of the blasts, not the maddening trail of why. This has given conspiracy fans free rein to claim:

  • Hezbollah’s role in storing munitions and other lethal supplies at the port

  • Israel’s role in attacking the Hezbollah stores while the US is incapacitated by the 2020 elections

  • Syria’s role or conversely, the Syrian opposition’s role in siphoning off the materiel for use in explosives

  • The oligarchy’s role in oversight at the port, blaming Christians, Sunnis, or Hezbollah officials for mismanaging their control over various sections of the port

  • The lack of LAF precautions regarding the stores since it has a base in the port area and must have known

  • That the ammonium nitrate was always destined for Lebanon in a plausible deniability episode to cover its acquisition by Hezbollah/Syria/Syrian opposition…take your pick

While these various versions do not “cover the waterfront,” they do indicate the realm of possibilities, some with more credibility than others. Suffice to say, any party that would knowingly allow even the remote possibility of such blasts to occur should be criminally arraigned on more than charges of negligence, mismanagement, and misappropriation. The largely Christian areas and poorer sections that were seriously damaged require more than cosmetic repairs. The trauma and psychological scars may diminish but will hardly heal.

So how is it possible to bring some degree of clarity to the investigation process and findings? First of all, the need for an independent international investigation must be insisted on by the international community in its discussions with the caretaker government and the president. This can be tied to the incremental provision of direct assistance to NGOs for reconstruction of housing for the neighborhoods. The more cooperation means more funding…to the NGOs and communities.

The Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA) notes “The importance of conducting an open and transparent inquiry with far-reaching powers able to establish legal, administrative, and criminal responsibilities.” A Lebanese court will not suffice as many judges are still beholden to various political parties. At the same time, various Lebanese officials are engaging in off-the-record selective leaking of information designed to further conspiracy theories and undermine their rivals.

With international assistance increasing into Lebanon even though Beirut is no longer in the daily news cycle, the need for establishing culpability and motives behind the blast cannot be allowed to diminish. An international investigation may take more time than the current analysis of the site and documents pertaining to the ammonium nitrate, but it is the only way to separate the searing memories of the explosions from conspiracies that reflect political posturing rather than truth-telling. Otherwise, the people, the victims, and the city will become the latest casualties in Lebanon’s war on itself.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.