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Beirut explosion exposes Lebanon's many villains — and some in the West

Their motivations vary wildly, but all of them have set the Lebanese people against one another to further their own interests.
Massive Explosion Near Port Area Of Beirut
A view of the port after the explosion on Tuesday in Beirut.Fadel Itani / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The scene in Beirut following a massive explosion Tuesday that killed at least 100 people, wounded over 5,000 and displaced 300,000 was like every nightmare from my childhood come to life.

My mother was born and raised in Beirut. She met my father while they were journalists covering Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which officially ended in 1990 but has been periodically flaring up ever since. Some of my first memories are of images just like those from this week's blast — survivors covered in blood, bodies sprawled on the streets, petrified children watching the horror unfold.

I've been witnessing Lebanon bleed since before I was born, in my mother's womb as she covered the violence of the civil war.

Growing up in and out of Lebanon during the war, I never saw the very worst of the violence firsthand, and for that I will always be grateful. But as my early years were spent around conflict reporters, there was no avoiding the footage. And later, as a journalist partly based in Beirut, I documented much of the past 10 turbulent years myself.

I was safe in Canada when the latest devastation took place, watching the horror on a screen. But as someone with a long-standing front-row seat to the excruciating deterioration of Lebanon over the past several decades, what I saw was not only the carnage of a seminal event, but also the culmination of the monumental tragedy that is the story of this tiny, tenacious and desperately tired country.

There are few heroes in the tale of a nation with a government so incompetent that it apparently allowed thousands of tons of confiscated ammonium nitrate explosives to sit in a port at the heart of a densely populated city center for six years — but there are plenty of villains, including some in the West.

I obviously do not have enough space here to do justice to the historical saga of a dizzyingly complex land populated by people from 18 different, fractious religious sects and ruled by political actors and proxy armed forces directed by powerful countries across the globe. From England and France following the fall of the Ottoman Empire to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States and Syria in more recent years, foreign countries have been invading Lebanon and meddling in its affairs since before it was officially a country.

This fact often makes it easy to cast blame for Lebanon's woes outside its borders, as many Lebanese political and military actors frequently do: at Israel for its long conflict with the powerful militia Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, at Iran for backing Hezbollah against Israel, at the United States for supporting Israel's hostility, at Saudi Arabia for encouraging radical Sunni violence in the country.

There is more than a grain of truth to the idea that foreign governments have a history of sabotaging Lebanese politics and society, so in the wake of spasms of violence, it has usually been simple to find outside actors to point the finger at when convenient. That legacy contributes to the continuously unstable security situation in the country, as well as the lack of competent governing institutions so important to avoid and cope with tragedies like the port explosion. But beyond that structural backdrop, there appears to be no obvious external culprit to blame for the most devastating mass casualty event in Lebanon since the civil war.

It remains to be seen whether there is any truth to speculation by President Donald Trump and others that the blast was caused by a bomb or, perhaps, sabotage. (Trump's own defense officials have contradicted his assessment). But whether or not political motives and external plotting were behind the explosion, the fact remains that no foreign oppressor neglected to dispose of a calamitous amount of explosive material stored in the center of Lebanon's capital city for six years. And no powerful outside actor allowed the Lebanese state to crumble to the extent that its infrastructure is utterly incapable of supporting Beirut's population in the wake of the carnage.

Although Lebanon's recent economic collapse appears to have been exacerbated by the Trump administration's crippling sanctions against institutions linked to Hezbollah, which controls a majority of the government and thus interacts with most institutions in Lebanon, the roots of the financial crisis can again be traced to the rot at the heart of the multisectarian Lebanese government and banking system.

These massively corrupt entities, which work hand in hand, have turned the country's economy into a massive Ponzi scheme, a con that reached the end of its sustainability in recent months. Massive nationwide protests against this political corruption and governmental incompetence that began in October and at times erupted into violence were quickly followed by the socioeconomic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving countless Lebanese facing abject poverty even before Tuesday's catastrophe. The explosion was the blow that brought a long-staggering Lebanon to its knees.

The ultimate truth of Lebanon's crisis is that there are too many domestic and international culprits to choose from. Their reasons and motivations vary wildly, but these forces all share one characteristic: For too long, they have set the Lebanese people against one another to further their own interests.

As the aftermath unfolds, it's all but certain that politicians, parties and armed actors will follow a familiar script and try to cast the blame for this tragedy on opposing sects or outside actors. Conspiracy theories regarding potential masterminds behind the explosion are predictably proliferating across social media, but given its massive influence in the government, Hezbollah appears to be emerging as a primary target of ire. Prime Minister Hassan Diab has vowed that those found responsible will "pay the price," although that seems unlikely from a government with an incredible talent for avoiding accountability.

If Lebanon has any chance of recovering from this horrific event, it lies in the unified effort of its population to utterly reject the forces of division.

For their part, thousands of Lebanese from all sects are sharing shelter in the two days since the explosion, digging their fellow residents out of the rubble and bandaging one another's wounds. Nothing erases sectarian divides like a disaster that did not ask its victims which village they hail from before they were killed.

If Lebanon has any chance of recovering from this horrific event, it lies in the unified effort of its population to utterly reject the forces of division that exploited its differences for so long. All hope for the future of this country rests upon the will of its people to stand together now.

I've been witnessing Lebanon bleed since before I was born, in my mother's womb as she covered the violence of the civil war. I hope with every ounce of my being I will one day have the great fortune to watch it heal.