No accountability 1 year after Beirut blast

by Hussein Ibish

It’s been one year since the devastating Beirut port explosion, perhaps the worst non-nuclear blast in a heavily populated area in human history. A large stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored at the port ignited in a devastating eruption that left much of the city shattered.

The anatomy of the disaster, one of numerous calamities that have befallen Lebanon over the past two years, sums up all the essential dysfunctions destroying the country: corrupt and incompetent administration; a complete absence of transparency, accountability and justice; and the willingness of powerful forces to place the entire society in extreme jeopardy for their own narrow, selfish purposes.

The official explanation of how the chemicals, which can be used as either fertilizer or explosive material, arrived in Lebanon was always implausible and now appears beyond ridiculous. In 2013, a Moldovan-flagged vessel arrived at the port, supposedly en route to Mozambique. Eleven months later, the dangerous cargo was offloaded to hangar 12, where it remained until the explosion that killed at least 218 people and injured thousands.

But according to a 2020 FBI report completed shortly after the catastrophe, of the original shipment of 2,754 tons of ammonium nitrate, only 552 exploded. Lebanese authorities quietly agree with that assessment, according to Reuters.

There are two obvious conclusions. If the full amount had still been in hangar 12 and exploded, most of the city would have been wiped out and the death toll unimaginable. Second, while the ammonium nitrate was supposedly being stored at the port, in fact most of it was being used, and almost certainly not for agriculture.

It’s not absolutely impossible that most of the ammonium nitrate didn’t explode but was instead blown into the sea. But in the broader context that strains credulity.

It is likely that these dangerous chemicals were brought to Beirut to be used in explosives. Ever since the blast, many Lebanese have cast suspicion and blame on the pro-Iranian Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and its close ally, the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Assad. It would not have been the first time these forces have used the Lebanese state and society as a cover and vehicle for their nefarious activities, for which the Lebanese people have again paid an exorbitant cost. (Hezbollah has denounced allegations it was to blame.)

But there will be no accountability. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, authorities promised a quick and thorough probe. That was never going to happen. The first investigative judge was summarily fired after he sought to question key officials. His replacement has been completely unable to secure testimony from security officials and members of Parliament, or to lift the lawmakers’ legal immunity to get at the facts.

If it were merely a question of protecting incompetence, or even corruption, some semblance of an investigation could be possible, even in Lebanon. But a real inquiry can’t be allowed because it would more than likely reveal that the Mozambique cover story is fiction and that the chemicals were, in fact, destined for Beirut from the beginning. Eventually, it would uncover what really happened to the missing 2,200 tons and, most importantly, who is really responsible.

But the Lebanese state is in no position to hold Hezbollah and the agents of the Syrian regime accountable, or even admit to much of their activities. The irony is that the Lebanese government institutions that seem so helpless, and even hostages, to these forces are the only real alternative to the domination of Hezbollah and its allies. Calls in the U.S. to stigmatize the Lebanese government and deny it badly-needed aid will only strengthen their grip on the country.

Even targeted sanctions can backfire. U.S. Treasury Department sanctions, richly deserved on the merits and imposed in 2020, against Gibran Bassil, the son-in-law and would-be heir to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, mainly had the effect of hardening the Lebanese political gridlock that has prevented the country from reaching a desperately needed bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

The port explosion and its wretched aftermath do indeed illustrate everything that is wrong with Lebanese realities, and institutions. But if the rest of the world is rightly disgusted with the corruption, unaccountability and hijacking by extremists of Lebanese institutions, the answer is to help strengthen — not to shun — them.

The sudden devastation at the port a year ago is mirrored by a more slowly unfolding, and far worse, social and economic calamity. In both cases, the only reasonable answer is to help the Lebanese rebuild and restructure. Turning away or penalizing Lebanon will only make the tragedy, and the problem, worse.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.