Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Two explosions in Beirut leave over 100 dead and thousands injured, China pushes back against the United States over TikTok, and Sri Lankans go to the polls in what could be decisive parliamentary elections.
Thousands Injured in Beirut Blasts
A pair of explosions rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Tuesday, leaving at least 100 people dead and more than 4,000 injured, according to figures supplied by the country’s health minister. The damage to buildings was so widespread that an estimated 200,000 and 250,000 people have lost their homes, according to Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud.
The cause of the blasts is still undetermined, but Lebanese officials say it was accidental. Scenes of the damage were broadcast across the world, leading to an outpouring of grief, with several countries offering to assist Lebanon in its recovery efforts, including France, Iran, and the United States.
Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon’s internal security chief, said the ferocity of the blasts was caused by the nearby presence of ammonium nitrate—a substance that is a common fertilizer but is also often used in bomb-making—which he said the government had confiscated from a ship in the city’s port several years ago.
According to Al Jazeera’s analysis of public records, “senior Lebanese officials knew for more than six years that the ammonium nitrate was stored in Hangar 12 of Beirut’s port,” and did not act to secure or remove it.
Witnesses said they saw a cloud of orange-colored smoke coming from the site of the explosion, an occurrence consistent with explosions involving nitrate.
Something more sinister? Despite the assessments given by Lebanese officials, some right-wing media outlets indirectly put the blame on the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, repeatingreports that it housed some of its explosive material in the city. Twitter was also initially abuzz with talk of the group’s indirect involvement. In a statement, Hezbollah did not confirm or deny accusations that it was involved. “We extend our condolences to the Lebanese people over this national tragedy,” the statement said.
Israel, which has sparred with Hezbollah in recent weeks and has carried out attacks in Beirut before, deflected blame. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Israeli official said Israel “had nothing to do” with the explosion.
Not so sure. U.S. President Donald Trump departed from the line being followed by Lebanese officials, giving credence to rumors that the explosion was an intentional attack. He told reporters that U.S. military leaders “[seemed] to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.”
Health care strain. The accident strains a health care system already under severe pressure from the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, the Lebanese government reimposed a nationwide lockdown after an alarming spike in new COVID-19 cases. The rise of new cases and the resulting strain it has put on the capital’s hospitals left Beirut doctors unequipped to deal with Tuesday’s emergency. A Red Cross official said some of those injured had to be moved to hospitals in other parts of Lebanon because those in Beirut were at full capacity. To make matters worse, several of the city’s hospitals, including some of the country’s largest ones, were destroyed or damaged in the blast.
Mounting crises. Tuesday’s events add to a barrage of crises Lebanon has faced in the last several months. A wave of anti-government protests rocked the country late last year, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and threatening to bring down the country’s entire government. Despite restrictions imposed by the national lockdown, demonstrations have continued, creating an almost untenable situation for the government.
Lebanon is also in the throes of an economic disaster. The Lebanese lira has plunged, losing between 85 to 90 percent of its value since September, which helped to fuel the widespread feelings of discontent that led to the anti-government protests. The resulting financial collapse has crippled the country’s economy, leading to soaring inflation, unemployment, and poverty. On Monday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned amid the deepening financial crisis, warning that the government’s inability to stave off the crisis risked turning Lebanon into a “failed state.”