Lebanon: Hezbollah’s Potemkin Village

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Two days after the port of Beirut was destroyed last Tuesday, the first of three U.S. military C-130 cargo planes arrived in the devastated city. U.S. relief from the three shipments is valued at $17 million.

U.S. commander of Central Command (Centcom), Marine General Frank McKenzie, called the chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Gen. Joseph Aoun and expressed “U.S. willingness to continue to work with the LAF to help provide aid and assistance to meet the needs of the Lebanese people during this terrible tragedy.”

If Lebanon were a normal country, McKenzie’s statement would make sense. But it isn’t. And as the circumstances surrounding the destruction last Tuesday of the port in Beirut—and much of the surrounding 10 miles of the city—demonstrate, Lebanon is not really a country at all. Its national institutions and leaders are not actually national institutions and leaders. The best way to describe them is as front companies and front men for Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has long been the most powerful military force in Lebanon. And in 2008, Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese legion, seized control of the country in a coup. Ever since, nothing has happened in Lebanon without Hezbollah’s permission.

Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon isn’t a secret. In 2018, Hezbollah’s political bloc won an absolute majority of seats in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab—who resigned along with his government, on Monday—was hand-chosen by Hezbollah for the post. President Michel Aoun, too.

International “experts” have long downplayed the significance of Hezbollah’s control of the country. True, they acknowledge, Hezbollah is a terrorist organization with one of the largest missile arsenals in the world. True, the LAF operates in support of Hezbollah and has never challenged it on anything. But, it is argued in places like the Pentagon and the French Foreign Ministry, Lebanon is a state. The government is elected. It makes decisions beyond Hezbollah—and its arsenal of well over 200,000 missiles pointed at Israel from launchers located in private homes and schools throughout the country.

Aside from that, supporters of continued aid to the LAF argue, LAF forces cooperate with Centcom. They train with U.S. soldiers. If given sufficient arms and training, maybe one day they will challenge Hezbollah—or better yet, make it disappear in a poof.

All of these fantasies, which have informed U.S. Lebanon policy since 2006, went up in the mushroom cloud over the port of Beirut last week. Those explosions showed that despite its national trappings, Lebanon’s government and national institutions are fronts.

Like front companies, they perform duties not directly related to covering for Hezbollah, like opening docks in the morning. But they do so to hide their primary purpose, which is to enable Hezbollah’s operations.

Two aspects of the blasts at the port last Tuesday drive home this point. First, there is the issue of ammonium nitrate—widely viewed as the cause of the destruction.

The Lebanese government and Hezbollah insist there was only one explosion at the port last Tuesday. An initial fire broke out in a warehouse holding fireworks and that fire, they maintain, detonated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port since 2013.

The official government/Hezbollah line is that the ammonium nitrate arrived at the port on the Rhosus, a Moldovan-flagged ship that set sail from Georgia with its ammonium nitrate cargo en route to Mozambique. The ship was impounded because port authorities declared the leaky ship was not seaworthy, and its crew couldn’t pay the transit fees. Port officials then offloaded the ammonium nitrate and stored it at Hangar 12, the warehouse that exploded.

There are many problems with this account. For starters, the Georgian ammonium nitrate firm Rustovi Avot, which allegedly exported the ammonium nitrate seven years ago, has only been active in ammonium nitrate for the past three years.

Second, as strategic analyst David Wurmser explained in a detailed forensic analysis of the blasts published over the weekend, Lebanese experts claim Beirut, not Mozambique, was always the ship’s true destination. The port inspectors who initially seized the Rhosus told a Lebanese television reporter that Iran paid for the ammonium nitrate cargo.

Wurmser noted Hezbollah controlled both Hangar 12 and Hangar 9, the site of the initial fire. Both hangars were located directly adjacent to the sea—prime real estate for parties keen to bring in and export items without having them examined or noticed by anyone.

As for Mozambique, officials there claim they had no knowledge of the shipment.

In 2015, Britain and Cyprus arrested Hezbollah operatives caught with thousands of kilograms of ammonium nitrate. This past May, acting on information from Israel’s Mossad, German intelligence agencies discovered hundreds of kilograms of ammonium nitrate stored in southern Germany by Hezbollah cells. Germany responded to the discovery by outlawing Hezbollah, which until then had been legally operating throughout the country.

Connecting the dots, Wurmser concludes Hangar 12 was not a storage area for a single shipment of ammonium nitrate transiting from Georgia to Mozambique. Instead, it was Hezbollah’s shipping dock for ammonium nitrate to its cells around the world.

Following Tuesday’s devastation, President Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, announced that those responsible for the blasts would be held to account. Twenty port officials were arrested. But it is hard to argue they are responsible for what happened. Port officials tried repeatedly to get the ammonium nitrate removed from Hangar 12, only to be blocked by Hezbollah.

The second aspect of the devastation that points to the true significance of Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon is the fact that Hezbollah and Aoun are lying about the blasts. There were two blasts at the port, 28 seconds apart, not one.

As the videos of the blasts show, about half an hour after the fire broke out at Hangar 9, a first explosion occurred. Whereas the official story claims the blast came from fireworks stored at the warehouse, Wurmser and other experts dismiss this. The explosion, Wurmser explains, “produced thick whitish-gray ‘dirty’ smoke, consistent with some high explosives and even rocket fuel.”

Wurmser contends the second, and most destructive, blast was weapons-grade ammonium nitrate, although arguably a larger quantity than claimed.

Sunday, Italy’s Corriere Della Serre interviewed explosives expert Danilo Coppe, who argued that ammonium nitrate was not the cause of the second blast.

“You can clearly see a brick orange column tending to bright red, typical of lithium participation, which in the form of lithium-metal is the propellant for military missiles. I think there were armaments there,” Coppe said.

Lebanese politicians also point their fingers at Hezbollah, and its missile stores at the port. Lebanese Minister of Administrative Progress May Shadiaq said, “We have time and again called for closing all illegal routes, but Hezbollah wouldn’t agree. Hezbollah smuggles arms from Iran through illegal passages. Beirut’s port and airport is completely controlled by Hezbollah.”

Lebanon imports 80 percent of what it consumes, and 90 percent of its wheat. Seventy percent of Lebanese imports entered the country through the now-destroyed port in Beirut. Yet, despite their country’s utter dependence on it, Lebanese port officials had no ability to secure the port.

Notwithstanding their official titles and procedures, Beirut’s port officials were Hezbollah’s front men. The officials now being blamed for the port’s destruction couldn’t seize anything Hezbollah wanted to keep, or see anything Hezbollah wanted to keep hidden. They had no control over what entered or exited the port that they ostensibly controlled, as officers of the ostensible Lebanese government. They had no power to secure the installation they were ostensibly running.

This then brings us to the U.S., and its pledge to work with the LAF to provide humanitarian aid to Lebanon. Following the port’s destruction, protesters by the tens of thousands took to the streets demanding a revolution and the ouster of Hezbollah and Iran from Lebanon. Footage released Sunday showed LAF forces, joined by civilian-clad gunmen, shooting protesters in cold blood and LAF forces beating protesters with truncheons.

Aside from the despair, there is nothing new about the protests or the calls for Hezbollah and Iran to be chased from Lebanon. For nearly a year before the outbreak of COVID-19, millions of Lebanese protested throughout the country with the same demands.

The U.S., and the world governments now lining up to fund Lebanon’s reconstruction and relief, should listen to the cries of the Lebanese people. The LAF is not the solution to Lebanon’s problems. As a front company for Lebanon, like the port, it is a façade for Hezbollah’s power.

It is hard to see a happy end to Lebanon’s problems. But the first step towards rationally coping with them is for the U.S. and its allies to recognize the truth revealed last Tuesday. Lebanon has no independent “national institutions” that can serve as counterweights against Iran’s Hezbollah, the most powerful terrorist organization in the world.

Originally published in Newsweek.

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