Introduction from Maureen McCarthy, NSF Program & Commentary Director:

On the afternoon of 4 August, a massive explosion in the port of the city of Beirut rocked the city, killed over 170 people, injured 6000, caused an estimated $15 billion in damages, and left more than 300,000 people homeless. In the immediate aftermath of his horrific event many false and misleading stories circulated. NSF is committed to seeking truth and learning facts from experts in the field. To that end, our NSF colleague Jerry O’Driscoll, graciously offered to arrange for his colleague to pen an NSF Invited Commentary about Lebanon situation. Bashir Siman, OBE, authored this very in-depth and thoughtful piece for NSF. We are grateful to Jerry and Bashir for sharing their insights on a tragic and complex situation in the Middle East that has a direct bearing on US national security.

COMMENTARY – Beirut and Beyond

By Bashir Bernard Siman, OBE

The explosion in a warehouse in the port of Beirut occurred barely half a mile from the densely populated center of the city with its many affluent residential and office neighborhoods. For 6 years, the warehouse stored the highly combustible compound “ammonium nitrate”. The explosion didn’t just blow away buildings and shatter thousands of lives. It also blew away the cobwebs of western geopolitical complacency, which have existed since the end of the Cold War, and that have blighted the geopolitical and security significance of Lebanon, the Levant, and the Eastern Mediterranean region in general.  

This benign neglect created a vacuum that attracted the various regional players to compete for off-shore resources, military presence, and geopolitical advantage. The West, broadly defined, must urgently re-learn to “do geopolitics” in that region to protect, defend and promote its interests in security, defense, energy, migration, terrorism, organized crime; as well as in countering the malign influences of China and Iran. China is now establishing its presence in the Mediterranean region as well as along the maritime routes leading into it.

AUS serious re-engagement in the Levant and the Mediterranean would also achieve one of the key bipartisan US foreign policy objectives – that of enhancing and ensuring Israel’s security. Europe, for its part, must realize that, geopolitically, Berlin is not 2200 miles away from Beirut; but a mere 110 miles, the latter being the distance between Beirut and Cyprus which is the southeastern border of the EU. Both the US and Europe seemed to have forgotten how critically important and geopolitically close the Levant is to their own domestic politics and stability.

Who is the culprit behind the explosion? Hezbollah is squarely to blame. They control the port and their presence is pervasive in Lebanon and in its government. They knew what was in the warehouse and they let it stay — close to where people live and work. So, at best, Hezbollah is directly responsible through its sheer indifference to human life and property, and through deliberate neglect. At worst, as some reports seem to suggest from analyzing the colors of the smoke that billowed over the port at the time of the explosion, the warehouses did not just contain ammonium nitrate, but also explosives for the manufacture of ammunition, and possibly finished missiles as well.

Israel cannot be blamed this time. PM Netanyahu has no interest to stoke up such an atrocity while he is fighting off his own domestic difficulties regarding the way the Covid-19 pandemic has been managed. Moreover, Israel at that moment, was more interested in fostering the maximum acceptance of its soon-to-be-announced peace deal with the United Arab Emirates.

The explosion will, instead, ripple across Syria and Iraq to rattle the Shia militias, their political backers and the heart of the Iranian regime itself and its Revolutionary Guards Corps. The explosion is a geopolitical disaster for Iran and may in fact lead to some of the fault lines between the Revolutionary Guards’ hardliners and the “commercialists” to creak further. This will cause tremendous pressure on these fault lines particularly under the weight of the economic sanctions, rampant inflation, wiped out of savings, and the mismanagement of Covid-19.

Mock gallows with effigies of Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, have been erected in the center of Beirut. The chant of “Hang Them” can be heard repeatedly among the demonstrators, some of whom managed to break through police lines to occupy some of the ministries. The mood among the Lebanese is turning from shock and grief to extreme anger. Revolutionary zeal is in the air. This pushed the Lebanese government to resign. In his televised resignation speech, the outgoing Sunni Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, pointed the fingers of blame unambiguously but without naming names at Hezbollah, its ally the Shia Amal movement and its head, Nabih Berri (who has been speaker of the parliament for 28 years!), and at the presidency. These three powerful groups have already started their fight-back sowing the seeds potentially for civil strife: a banner appeared in Beirut by the Amal movement last week warning against “crossing a red line by attacking our movement or our chairman”.

Is this the beginning of yet another civil war in Lebanon? If civil war does erupt again (the previous one lasted from 1975-1989), this time it will not be confined to Lebanon or the Levant but will affect Europe and the US, as Russia and Iran have forces in Syria, and as China seeks footholds in the Levant and the Mediterranean. China had in fact offered Lebanon aid, prior to Covid-19, as the country’s economy teetered on the brink of collapse. Moreover, China was negotiating with Israel to buy the Port of Haifa. It already acquired the Port of Piraeus in Greece and signed a Memorandum for the acquisition of the Port of Trieste in Italy. China is very serious about its presence in the Mediterranean. The ramifications for the West and Israel could last for decades, allowing for the creation of a de facto Chinese-Russian-Iranian-Turkish block to develop in a key geographical and geopolitical location. I term such locations “Hinge Regions.” If the West cedes control of the Eastern Mediterranean the effect will extend all the way through the Red Sea (with the stability of the Suez Canal and therefore Egypt at stake, with an existing Chinese naval base at Djibouti) and into the Bay of Bengal to the China Seas. The stability of the Caucasus will also be affected as will the interests of the West there.

It took President Macron of France only a day to be the first foreign president to visit Lebanon post-explosion. He was welcomed with open arms by the Lebanese in the streets who saw him as a sign of hope. An online petition calling for France to acquire a 10-year mandate over Lebanon gathered 60,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. He subsequently convened a virtual donors’ conference that was attended by President Trump, raising initially $300 million for the immediate reconstruction effort. Search and Rescue teams from 14 countries were deployed, with the first two being the French and the Russian teams. Turkish president Erdogan dispatched his Vice President. Europe, Turkey and Russia in the Levant: welcome back to 19th Century geopolitics on steroids!

 A key priority should be to extricate Lebanon from Iranian claws and to deny China a foothold in the Levant, so that Lebanon and principally its Christian community, can be brought back into the fold of the West and resume its historic role of a successful bridge between East and West. The Christian community in Lebanon and the Christians of the East, as a whole, are the weakest group in the region with countless atrocities committed against them because they are allies of the West who have also supported friendly relations with Israel. Meantime the threat of Hezbollah and Iran continues unabated against Israel, although it is clear that war as an option hasn’t suited any of the protagonists…yet. With Hezbollah’s back against the wall it may be a matter of time before it concludes that an attack on Israel may force the hands of all Lebanese political forces and the regional players. Turkey may see no other option but to offer support to the Sunni groups. The West must this time wholeheartedly and strategically support the Christians of the Levant.

The only immediate serious western game in town is France. Europe and the US recognize this. President Trump and Chancellor Merkel pledged support for the French engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean, which included dispatching two naval ships and two fighter jets to support Greece in its maritime and gas claims against Turkey. Israel and Egypt support Greece as well. The Beirut explosion blew away more than buildings: the west needs to start to seriously engage in the chess game being played now across the Eastern Mediterranean to secure and promote its future and interests.

For Europe the stakes are very high: there are 2-4 million refugees in Lebanon from the various conflicts in the Levant (Syria, Iraq and Palestinians). Lebanon’s border with Syria houses Islamist terrorists of all hues. The terrorist- criminal nexus, mixing human, drugs and arms smuggling with terrorist activity takes advantage of the discrepancy between western governments’ perception that the Levant is far away on the one hand, and the reality of the physical proximity and the freedom the sea offers to operate on the other. This can affect the security of Israel and further agitate destitute groups who are a known well of recruitment for terrorist groups.

There is also the issue of the gigantic off-shore gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean in the waters between Lebanon/Israel and Cyprus, between Cyprus and Crete, and around the northern Egyptian coast line, stretching into eastern Libya around Sirte. It is a geopolitical and maritime chess board given that there is no agreement on the maritime borders delineating who should own what of these rich gas deposits. Two competing forces have emerged: the Greek/Egyptian/Israeli block backed by the French on the one hand, and a resurgent Turkey on the other. The conundrum this time around for NATO is very difficult as not only are three of its members in open conflict, but also stems from the fact that the conflict, from a Turkish perspective, is not an old-style nationalist push against Greece. Turkey has moved towards pushing to rearrange the key strategic interests of all states in the eastern Mediterranean all the way to Libya, and in the process is not only confronting the old nationalistic rival Greece, but also Egypt, Israel and France.  It is also sending its geopolitical research ship into the disputed waters between Crete and Cyprus, claiming ownership of natural resources there. Greece recently concluded an agreement with the Tripoli government in Libya in which it deployed Turkish forces in Libya in return for owning a large part of the Libyan oil and gas resources, the richest in Africa. Moreover, Turkey will control the African migratory route into Europe. The stakes couldn’t be higher for decades to come.

The explosion in Beirut, in addition to all the other current confrontations, can lead to a bigger explosion in the Eastern Mediterranean that will give China an opening to lead a largely anti-western block and may undermine Israel’s interests. The US and Europe need to urgently swing into action behind the French effort until a more sustainable and aggressive trans-Atlantic geopolitical and military deterrent can be agreed and put in place. The future has arrived.

Bashir Bernard Siman, O.B.E. advises on global geopolitical risk to governments, thinks tanks, investors and businesses. His areas of expertise are the Middle East, Turkey and Japan. He was born in Baghdad into a Levantine Christian family, studied in Belgium, the U.K. and Japan, and worked as an Investment Banker with Jardine Fleming, UBS and Nomura in Tokyo and London, as well as extensive on the ground engagement with Middle Eastern governments. He also lived and worked in Abu Dhabi for over 10 years as an adviser to a prominent family. Mr. Siman has also been active in international financial diplomacy as the U.K. Special Representative to the UAE for Financial and Professional Services, Co-Chair of the bilateral body on the sector (the U K.-UAE Financial and Professional Services Working Group), and co-Chair of the U.K.-UAE Shipping and Maritime Task Force. He is one of the contributors to a landmark report by LSE ideas, the security and foreign policy think tank of his alma mater the London School of Economics, on Hybrid warfare in the Middle East. He is also the author of over 50 analyses on Middle Eastern geopolitics published by Geopolitical Information Service A.G. A key area of his interest is the fate of the Christians of the East and how that is affecting East-west relations leading to misunderstanding, loss of influence, and the absence of credible bridges between the two cultures. Mr. Siman attended the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, has an MPhil in Government from the London School of Economics, and is a graduate of Kyoto University School of Engineering, Japan. He speaks Dutch, Arabic and Japanese and is at home in German. He was honored by HM The Queen with the Order of the British Empire in 2012.