Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally

Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally
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The massive explosions that rocked Beirut this week are posing a test for how the U.S. and international community provide humanitarian assistance amid frustration with corruption among Lebanon’s political leaders.

The country was already seen on the brink of collapse before Tuesday’s seismic blasts at the port of Beirut ripped through the capital city, killing scores of people and shattered the lives of hundreds of thousands of residents.

Maintaining Lebanon’s relative stability is viewed as a key national security interest for the U.S. and others. They are determined to prevent it from becoming the next Syria or Yemen, exploited by terrorist or extremist groups.

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Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoWatchdog confirms State Dept. canceled award for journalist who criticized Trump Trump's push for win with Sudan amps up pressure on Congress  Putin nominated for Nobel Peace Prize MORE has pledged support for the Lebanese people and President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE has said the U.S. stands with Lebanon.

“We have a very good relationship with that country,” Trump said in a briefing at the White House a day after the explosions. “But it's a country under a lot of turmoil, a lot of problems, but we stand with them.”

The Lebanese government has said an investigation will hold those responsible to account, but the catastrophe has further outraged an already angry population fed up with political corruption, a collapsed economy, the strain of hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees and the COVID-19 health crisis.

French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronLebanon's prime minister-designate resigns Navalny released from hospital after suspected poisoning US-China tensions shadow United Nations meeting MORE, who was the first foreign leader to visit Beirut following the blasts, said reconstruction must happen under a new political order and called for an “international framework of cooperation.”

His comments reflect broader frustration in the international community with systemic corruption among Lebanon’s leaders.

The United Nations has called for an independent investigation into the explosions.

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“Victims' calls for accountability must be heard, including through undertaking an impartial, independent, thorough and transparent investigation into the explosion,” said Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said an independent probe should include international experts.

The blasts are believed to have occurred when about 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate — stored in a warehouse for years after being abandoned at the port of Beirut – exploded during a nearby fire.

Lebanon's Health Ministry on Friday said more than 150 people were killed because of the blasts and over 5,000 wounded.

The Lebanese government has placed under house arrest several officials responsible for overseeing the port, accusing them of gross negligence.

After initially downplaying speculation that the explosions were intentional, Lebanese President Michael Aoun said in a television interview on Friday that “negligence or foreign interference through a missile or bomb” could be responsible.

Trump has also backtracked on his initial response, but in the other direction. He first called the explosions an attack, but told reporters the following day that “nobody knows yet” what happened.

Talk of a possible attack quickly shifted the focus on Israel, which has fought multiple wars with Lebanon and is in a constant state of conflict with Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, political-military group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

Within hours of the explosions, Israeli officials denied any responsibility.

“It’s dangerous when there’s trafficking in disinformation and rumors, given the very volatile situation in the region more broadly,” said Mona Yacoubian, an expert on democracy and governance in the Middle East with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

“But it seems increasingly clear the cause was this unfortunate, almost industrial accident, but that the roots of it have to do with government malfeasance, neglect, mismanagement, which in and of itself is a huge issue.”

Before the blasts, Lebanon was hurtling toward a failed state, Yacoubian said, laying out in a recent op-ed that half the country is living below the poverty line and the currency has lost 80 percent of its value.

A new government formed in January in reaction to mass popular protests sparked by a lack of basic services — garbage collection, inconsistent electricity — has done little to reassure the public, and the international community, that Lebanon is making a change for the better.

“The system itself is very much the same and the power holders, those who ultimately hold power in the country, have not changed,” Yacoubian said.

The country’s financial debt was estimated at around $88 billion in January, according to the Congressional Research Service. That was before the pandemic caused a global recession.

Initial estimates put the cost of rebuilding Lebanon’s capital anywhere from $10 billion to $15 billion, Beirut’s Governor Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al Hadath, the Associated Press reported. Approximately 300,000 people are now homeless.

The U.S. Agency for International Development on Friday said it was delivering $15 million in humanitarian assistance in response to the explosions, saying the aid will provide meals for up to 50,000 people for three months.

But how far U.S. assistance will go without meaningful political change is the next question facing the Trump administration.

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“As countries try to help Lebanon there is a question of what we can contribute to this kleptocracy without becoming part of the problem,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research with the Washington-based think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Congress appropriated over $240 million in fiscal year 2020 for assistance to Lebanon, divided among foreign military financing to bolster the Lebanese Armed Forces and funds for humanitarian, economic and good governance assistance. 

But that aid has been countered with U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah officials and entities seen as supporting their operations. Hezbollah is in charge of two government ministries, Health and Industry, and largely controls the air and sea ports.

“What we try to do is to strike a balance of supporting the good guys while trying to surgically target the bad actors,” Schanzer said of U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah. “I think the more that we’ve done that, the more we’ve actually enabled the system.”

But Yacoubian, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, said there is reason to continue to put hope in the Lebanese people who have mobilized in the aftermath of Tuesday’s tragedy, stepping in where the government is absent, repairing some of the damage to their neighborhoods and providing assistance to neighbors.

“That to me is the inspiring piece of this,” she said, “is that the Lebanese themselves, they are an incredible people, who have been through so much and they continue to show themselves able to rally even in the most difficult circumstances.”