Morning Brief

What Caused the Blast in Beirut?

The explosion has killed 100 people and left 250,000 homeless. Lebanon's government says it was an accident.

A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon.
A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4. Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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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, repeating reports 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.”

What We’re Following Today

China won’t go quietly over TikTok. Chinese media outlets have responded to the United States in the ongoing dispute over the popular Chinese social networking giant TikTok, leveling sharp criticism at the Trump administration over its recent attempt to pressure U.S. companies to buy TikTok’s operations in the United States.

In an editorial on Tuesday, the China Daily newspaper accused Washington of “bullying” Chinese tech companies and warned that there were “plenty of ways to respond if the administration carries out its planned smash and grab.” The editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper called the move “open robbery,” and accused Trump of “turning the once great America into a rogue country.”

Lukashenko challenges Russia. On Tuesday, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko pushed back strongly on Russian claims that 33 mercenaries arrested in Belarus last week were simply using the country as a transit post on the way to other conflict zones, claiming that they were part of a Russian-backed plot to stage a revolution and overthrow him ahead of this weekend’s presidential elections.

Lukashenko has served as Belarusian president since the end of the Cold War, but he is currently facing his stiffest challenge to date. Although long considered pro-Russian, relations between his government and Moscow have deteriorated in recent months due to his resistance to attempts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to further deepen ties between the two countries.

Crackdowns in Zimbabwe. Security forces continue to crack down on anti-government activists in Zimbabwe as President Emmerson Mnangagwa delivered a surprise address in which he labeled the main opposition party “terrorists.” Crackdowns began on Friday after the security forces moved to prevent planned anti-government demonstrations from taking place in the capital of Harare. Several activists, journalists, and opposition figures have been detained since then.

Mnangagwa has come under international pressure to put a stop to the human rights abuses taking place in his country, but Tuesday’s speech suggests he does not intend to give in. “The bad apples that have attempted to divide our people and to weaken our systems will be flushed out,” he said.

Keep an Eye On

Sri Lankan democracy on the ropes? Sri Lankans head to the polls today in an election that could determine the future of the country’s democracy. Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a new party which backed the successful candidacy of current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November, is expected to win the most seats in the legislature, in part due to a split in the opposition.

Gotabaya’s brother, Mahinda, who currently heads the SLPP and serves as caretaker prime minister, has made it known that he wants the party to win more than two-thirds of seats in order to change the constitution and return sweeping powers to the president. Although the SLPP is expected to top the poll, the performance of several smaller parties—including those representing the interests of Tamil and Muslim minority groups—could keep it from securing a supermajority.

Former Spanish king heading for the hills. Controversy continues to grip Spain after former King Juan Carlos, who abdicated the throne in 2014 amid a series of scandals, reportedly fled the country amid a new spate of legal troubles. Spanish media initially reported that he went to the Dominican Republic, but the Dominican government claimed there was no record of the former king entering the country, fuelling widespread speculation over his whereabouts. Leftist politicians have used the occasion to question the future of the monarchy in Spain.

Juan Carlos is credited with spearheading Spain’s transition to democracy after the end of former dictator Francisco Franco’s reign in 1975. But his reputation took a hit toward the end of his rule as he became embroiled in several controversies relating to his personal wealth. 

Netanyahu’s tough talk. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had strong words for those contemplating threatening Israel. In a speech on Tuesday, he warned that  “we will do what is necessary in order to defend ourselves.”

Netanyahu was speaking in response to mounting tensions between Israel and Syria. The Israel Defense Forces launched a series of air raids on targets in southern Syria on Monday in response to a planned attack in the occupied Golan Heights by militants operating out of Syria. Israeli outlets reported that the air raids were also in response to the growing threat presented by the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Odds and Ends

Wardrobe malfunction. A prominent evangelical figure in the United States has come under fire for posing on a yacht with his pants unzipped, revealing his underpants. Jerry Falwell Jr., a vocal supporter of Trump and a leader of the hugely influential evangelical movement, was apparently portraying a character from the TV show Trailer Park Boys. Posted to Instagram, the image has since been deleted, but not before it was shared on Twitter.

Critics said Falwell’s outfit was inconsistent with the strict dress code imposed by Liberty University, where he serves as president. The university does not allow skirts shorter than two inches above the knee, and men are not permitted to wear shorts to class.

That’s it for today. 

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Dan Haverty is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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