When I was a kid, "Beirut" became a cultural shorthand for any chaotic and violent urban setting. In the 1990s, my hometown rappers – the Wu Tang Clan – repeatedly shouted out the Lebanese city (plus one of its civil war antagonists, the P.L.O. – Palestinian Liberation Organization); but so did Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Neil Young, Snoop Dogg, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eminem, and the Dead Kennedys. In the 2001 Hollywood blockbuster Spy Game, CIA agents played by Brad Pitt and Robert Redford sprint through rubble and gunfire along the Green Line dividing war-torn 1980s Beirut’s Christian East and Muslim West (all to eat at a specific restaurant – per Redford: “This better be the best damn breakfast I’ve ever had.")
That’s about as far as most Americans interest and knowledge goes. So when, this past week, 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at the Port of Beirut – Timothy McVeigh only needed 2 tons to take down the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995 – it seemed par for the course. From within and without, Lebanon was abound with analogies: the blast – which killed more than 200 people, wounded 6,000 others, and left some 300,000 homeless – "was akin to" Hiroshima (the Governor of Beirut), the 9/11 attacks (New York Times), and/or the Soviet Chernobyl nuclear disaster (Foreign Policy). None of this hyperbolic allusion captures the contemporary context of a Lebanon already collapsing under the combined weight of economic contraction, Covid, and endemic corruption.
Now throw in the explosive accelerants of dormant – but hardly dead – generational sectarian warfare plus an imminent verdict in the international trial of the alleged Iranian- and Syrian-backed assassins of the prominent pro-Western Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Then, for good measure, add the destabilizing effect of the country hosting perhaps 1.5 million refugees (nearly one-fifth of Lebanon’s population and the highest per-capita ratio in the world) from bordering civil war-torn Syria.
Plus there’s maybe another 200,000 seemingly permanent Palestinian refugees – whose presence sparked the fighting with traditionally dominant, Western-backed, but shrinking, Lebanese Christian population in 1975, leading to the country’s infamous fifteen year civil war. Afterwards, the one-time sectarian warlords of that cataclysm traded assault rifles for tailored suits and largely form the political elite now botching Lebanese governance and economics. These former antagonists – and sometime peculiar bedfellows – seem to bear immediate responsibility for the cronyism and clumsiness that contributed to Beirut’s latest detonation. But they weren’t alone in their culpability.
Almost immediately, and without evidence or explanation, President Donald Trump threw his hat into the already intense conspiratorial ring, offhandedly surmising "It looks like a terrible attack," and that his unnamed generals "seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind." And why not? It’s not as if Lebanon was a stranger to air strikes, car bombs, or other terrorist attacks. The Donald was already a 37-year old real-estate media magnet – and about to open his first Atlantic City casino – when twin Beirut suicide bombings in 1983 killed 241 American and 58 French service members.
It was the deadliest day for the Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima, and the ghosts of those devil-dogs are still alive and well in Trump’s imagination, since the bombers were supposedly – but not really – directed by his current nemesis: Iran. Tehran still ostensibly – again not exactly – pulls Hezbollah’s strings – the Shia militia regularly blamed for the bombing (despite not officially existing at the time). But have no fear: per the president’s remarks on the 25th anniversary of the attack, "we are doing a big number on Iran today, in case you haven’t noticed. (Applause.)" Trump failed to mention that even the colonel then commanding the Marines in Beirut, has criticized the U.S. intervention and (anti-Muslim) side-taking in Lebanon’s Civil War.
Still, within hours of Trump’s latest Beirut diagnosis, three unnamed senior Pentagon officials contradicted him – "there was no indication" this was an attack. In reality, Beirut’s blast was apparently accidental – more a function of the incompetence and corruption plaguing Lebanon’s labyrinthine multi-confessional politics and society than of foreign conspiracy. On the other hand, Trump’s breezy assumption had a certain logic. Lebanon has long been a ground zero for conspiracy theories – somewhat understandably for a country plagued by foreign machinations and military interventions. In Lebanon, the line between real victimization and victim-complex is a fine one indeed. And it has a backstory.
Playground of the Powerful
If "all of" Lebanon’s "stage,” it sometimes seems as though the Lebanese are "merely [bit-]players." The real thespians – regional and global powers – have long acted out their grandiose fantasies in and on a "set" that’s one-third the size of Maryland. This, the most religiously diverse state in the Mideast, has been sequentially invaded, occupied, or proselytized over these last two millennia by, for starters: Pagan (then Christian) Romans, Orthodox Christian Byzantines, Zoroastrian Persians, Muslim Arabs, Catholic Crusaders, Muslim Egyptians, Muslim Turks, and the Christian French. Then, since gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon has suffered interventions and occupations by: the Americans (1958), Palestinian fighters/refugees (1970-), Syrians (1976-2005), Israel (1978-2000, 2006), the United Nations (1978-), Iranians (1982, 2006), and the Americans, British, Italians and French (1982-84).
The outcomes, for average Lebanese, have almost always been disastrous. Indeed, while the long Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) – which killed the proportional equivalent of 17.5 million Americans – had its roots in the kindling of sectarian division, its immediate catalyst was a destabilizing Palestinian refugee influx. It was also one of the region’s first modern proxy wars. Anyone who was anyone on the geopolitical stage contributed to and intensified that bloodletting.
In a macabre sort of ‘80s throwback theme party, nearly all of the players are the same in the current battle for Beirut. Syrian soldiers officially withdrew in the wake of the sudden – and rather hypocritical – international (well, Western) outcry after the 2005 Hariri assassination. Still, the Assad regime and Iran’s Ayatollahs hold considerable – but exaggerated – sway with the current Shia-Christian governing alliance. On the flip side, Washington, Riyadh, Tel Aviv – which is still technically at war with, and occasionally bombs, Lebanon – and formerly imperial Paris, back the official opposition; these mostly Sunnis and a different Christian faction. Last fall, Washington even tried mightily to co-opt the more organic – and disturbingly less-controllable – "street" opposition to the corruption of both elite brands.
Everyone has their favorite flavor among Lebanon’s 18-recognized religious sects. The Syrians and Iranians like Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent Amal (the other main Shia party). The Saudis and their Gulf State cronies unsurprisingly prefer the Sunnis and any Christians or Druze unfriendly to Damascus or Tehran. When even a Sunni prime minister – say, the son of the martyred Rafik Hariri – dared so much as work within an "Iran-friendly" coalition government, he was essentially kidnapped, coerced, and maybe tortured, into tendering a hostage-video-style resignation from Riyadh studio.
Israel supported some of the most right-wing Christian death squads in the civil war – the IDF even enabling the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres of at least 800 Palestinian refugees. Tel Aviv now endorses whichever Sunni-Christian bloc Iran doesn’t. Lebanese memories are a long, and anti-Israeli rancor transcends – as did casualties of 40-years’ worth of IDF bombings – the Shia community, so its unsurprising that Tel Aviv can’t seem to give away its promised medical equipment since the bombing. The Americans, well, they tend to let the Saudi royal- or insufferable Israeli-tail wag Washington’s dog, and back whomever irks Tehran.
As in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and seemingly everywhere else, so it is in Lebanon. That classic narcissist Uncle Sam manages to makes everything about him, and befitting his clinical paranoia sees Iranians under every regional rug. But the US is hardly alone in its meddling. So long as foreign powers enable this colonial creation’s addiction to sectarian quota – Lebanon’s collapse is a matter of when, not if.
Lebanon hasn’t conducted an official census since 1932 – eleven years before it gained independence from France. A country that afraid of demographic reality must be stunningly, and embarrassingly, insecure and unstable. The late George Carlin’s sage wisdom on the American brand of "bullshit” definitely applies: "If honesty were suddenly introduced into [Lebanese] life, the whole system would collapse." Well dark times, and dark places, demand dark humor.
Lebanon’s capital city was once known as the "Paris" of the erstwhile "Switzerland” of the Middle East. No longer. Beirut’s blast sent massive shock waves through a country already on the brink of implosion. Potential collapse pivots on Lebanon’s big lie: that there’s an even population split between Christians and Muslims. This informs Lebanese "democracy’s" long con: the Parliament’s constitutionally mandated 50/50 Christian/Muslim split – which, generally, "also applies to high-level positions in the civil service, the judiciary, military and security institutions, and public agencies at both the national and local levels of government." Near obsessive commitment to fairness and balance is an inherently Lebanese mirage: this is governance, and society, by quota.
More problematic, administration by sectarian "proportionality" actually amounts to Christian affirmative action, and its flip-side – Muslim, particularly Shia, disenfranchisement. That’s because, despite many Westerners’ romantic attachment to Christian Lebanon, this has long been a Muslim-majority nation. The U.S.-Saudi-Israeli bloc, Lebanon’s ruling class – and to some extent its people – willfully deny this inconvenient truth in the belief that the big lie might maintain a precarious post-civil war "peace."
The delusion of Christian parity is belied by the CIA’s own public calculations. As of 2018, the Agency’s "World Factbook" estimated Lebanon’s citizenry to be 61.1 percent Muslim (almost evenly split between Sunni/Shia), 33.7 percent Christian, and 5.2 percent Druze (an eclectic faith, counted as Muslims for political representation). That’s even lower than the voting age population estimate published by the Economist in 2016 – when the magazine obtained a registration list which had been accidentally posted on the Interior Ministry’s website (and subsequently removed).
Running these figures against Lebanon’s official sect-allocations, the 37 percent of voters who are Christian compete for 50 percent of Parliament’s seats. The remaining 63 percent of mostly Muslims (with Druze and Alawites lumped in) contest the other half. The Druze and Alawites communities, too, are actually slightly over-represented – further disempowering the Sunni and Shia franchise. Thus, the Shia’s 29 percent of total voters can only win 21 percent of Parliamentary seats. So, according to Lebanon’s bigoted-brand of unjust arithmetic: every Christian gets 1.35 votes to a Shiite’s 0.72 of a ballot.
None of the above even accounts for the approximately 1.75 million (mainly) Syrian and Palestinian refugees sheltering in Lebanon. The vast majority are Sunni Muslims. Refugees can’t vote, even if – like many of the Palestinians – born there, since Lebanon has strict patrilineal citizenship laws. Nonetheless, given the government’s non-encampment policy, most Syrian refugees live among native Lebanese – scattered in some 2,000 urban and rural communities or informal settlements. That means, even excluding the Druze, some 70 percent of the Lebanon’s actual residents are now Muslim.
While certain to inflame the Christian community’s demographic anxieties, the refugee influx also concerns the Shia. By a conservative estimate, factoring in refugees raises Lebanon’s resident Sunni population to 40 percent and drops the Shia share to about 24 percent (and Christians to some 27 percent) of the whole. That intra-Islamic imbalance is problematic since Lebanon’s (native or transient) Sunnis and the Shia-Christian-led government support opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War just over the porous border.
This much is certain: from Iraq to the Balkans to North Ireland, significant disparities between ethno-religious population counts and government representation has been a formula for communal bloodletting. Toss in outside patrons and proxies and it’s off to the civil cataclysm races. Itself a synthetic colonial-relic, Lebanon’s archaically flawed foundations, fugitives-inundation, and salivating foreign interlopers, have forged a perfect storm for state implosion. Given this ticking time-bomb, Beirut’s latest burst may prove but a foreshock of Lebanon’s existential earthquake to come. Should that hit, the seismic-sectarian aftershocks may rumble region-wide and usher in a good long Arab Winter.
Since the Beirut blast, courageous – if exasperated and unorganized/leaderless – Lebanese have spilled into the streets for the second time in 10 months. Yesterday, yet another prime minister and his cabinet – the second in just eight months – reluctantly resigned. On Sunday, the French president – whom clever Lebanese have meme-monikered "Macron Bonaparte" – organized an emergency video conference of 30 world leaders, urging them to fast-track financial and humanitarian aid. At best, this is a band-aid on a gaping and gushing Lebanese wound – widened for decades by these same polite practitioners of leadership-by-Zoom.
If past actions inform future behaviors, few of the prominent players will offer support absent self-interest or ulterior motives. Desperate Lebanese – some 30 percent unemployed and half living in poverty – like their ex-ex-prime minister, are hostage to foreigners’ point-scoring in a purposeless and unwinnable proxy war over a patch of land smaller than Connecticut (with fewer people than New York City absent the Bronx). Now that’s tragicomedy worthy of Shakespeare..
The first of many books I read about Lebanon was Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation. I poured through its 700 pages on a cot or in a HMMWV during Iraq’s civil war. Consider it tragic-irony then, that my masters in Washington were even then transferring the very ethno-confessional governance quota model that’s failed in Beirut, over to Baghdad. There, mandating a Kurdish president, Shia prime minister, and Sunni speaker of Parliament, proved as unsuccessful at ensuring lasting peace as Lebanon’s traditional model of Christian presidents, Sunni PMs, and Shia speakers.
Beirut and the Lebanese have seen this stage-play before, and weathered many a previous storm. Yet even the most resilient of peoples have a breaking point. Revolution is in the air. Within days of the port explosion, anti-government protest banners read "Resign or Hang!" Demonstrators paraded gallows and nooses, and strung up effigies of prominent politicians, even Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah.
Yet, again and again, the country’s elites – propped up by power outside patrons – have held the line, if barely. Only this time, all the ex-warlord kings, clerics, and foreign leaders may not be able to put a foundationally fractured Lebanon back together again.
Lebanon doesn’t need our tears, or pity. It requires empathy, some no-strings aid, and for once…our hands off its political jugular.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen