Syria’s Hidden Hand in Lebanon’s Port Explosion

Signs are adding up that the explosives in Beirut may have been intended for Damascus—but Lebanese elites are trying to slow the investigation.

By Anchal Vohra, a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East.
A statue of a woman by Lebanese artist Hayat Nazer, made out of leftover glass, rubble, and a broken clock marking the time (6:08 PM) of the mega explosion at the port of Beirut is placed opposite to the site of the blast in the Lebanese capital's harbour, to mark the one year anniversary of the beginning of the anti-government protest movement across the country, on October 20, 2020.
A statue of a woman by Lebanese artist Hayat Nazer, made out of leftover glass, rubble, and a broken clock marking the time (6:08 PM) of the mega explosion at the port of Beirut is placed opposite to the site of the blast in the Lebanese capital's harbour, to mark the one year anniversary of the beginning of the anti-government protest movement across the country, on October 20, 2020. JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images

New information suggests that the thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate that exploded at the Port of Beirut on Aug. 4, killing more than 200 people and doing some $15 billion in property damage, may have been intended for the Syrian government. The Lebanese government’s official story until now has been that the cargo’s destination was Mozambique. But an investigation by a Lebanese filmmaker that was aired on the local network Al Jadeed has established a link between three Syrian businessmen who backed Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war and what appears to be a shell company that bought the explosives.

Attention now turns to whether Fadi Sawan, a former military judge charged with investigating the tragedy, can leverage these new facts to hold the perpetrators—both foreign and domestic—accountable. But Lebanon’s government elites are also ramping up their own attacks on his reputation and his work.

Foreign Policy reported in August that the Rustavi Azot chemicals factory in Georgia that supplied the explosives had been paid for 2,750 tons of explosives, yet Fábrica de Explosivos Moçambique (FEM), the company that ostensibly had it shipped, never claimed it. Now, a copy of a document obtained by Foreign Policy shows that while Rustavi Azot was the seller, the buyer was not FEM directly but a firm registered in London called Savaro. The sale contract shows the date of the purchase as July 10, 2013, when the Syrian war was at its peak. MV Rhosus, the ship that carried the cargo, docked in Lebanon that November and was then impounded as unseaworthy.

The United Kingdom’s Companies House registrar reveals that Savaro’s addresses are shared by properties previously owned or operated by the Syrian businessman George Haswani and brothers Mudalal and Imad Khuri, all three of whom are dual Syrian-Russian nationals. The man believed to own the ship, Igor Grechushkin, is Russian, too.

Haswani received a doctorate in 1979 in the then-Soviet Union and is among the more seasoned intermediaries between Russia and the Syrian regime. Widely known as Moscow’s man in Damascus, he has a history of brokering deals with jihadi outfits as well as regime-backed shabiha, or militias. A Syrian businessman from Yabroud, Haswani’s birthplace, spoke to FP on the condition of anonymity and said: “Haswani is known to resolve disputes between locals and shabiha. But he also knew ISIS and [the Nusra Front].” Haswani is known to have negotiated the release in 2014 of a group of Greek Orthodox nuns who had been seized by the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate that has since been folded into the active Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. In 2015, Haswani was sanctioned by the United States for allegedly buying oil for the regime from the Islamic State, which controlled oil-rich parts of Syria at the time.

Haswani also co-owned the now liquidated Hesco Engineering and Construction Co., which was listed under the same address as Savaro. That address matches the one written on the sale contract seen by Foreign Policy.

Imad Khuri directed IK Petroleum Industrial Co. until his resignation in 2016. Although the Khuri brothers are less known in Syria than Haswani, they have previously been sanctioned for a crime that hints at a possible involvement in the events leading to the Beirut explosion. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Mudalal Khuri attempted to supply ammonium nitrate to the Assad regime in 2013; Imad Khuri was later sanctioned for aiding his brother’s business activities. IK Petroleum Industrial, too, shares its address with one of Savaro’s addresses.

Feras Hatoum is a Lebanese filmmaker who has been painstakingly investigating the origin and the final destination of the explosives that blew up in Beirut and left 200-plus people dead, thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands homeless. He first exposed the link to the Syrian businesses and said his suspicions rose when he found out that Savaro could be a shell company. “I thought it was shady because it does not have addresses where one can knock and meet anyone,” he told me in Beirut, “and the person it claims [is] in charge was merely a front, as her name appears on the pages of many other firms, too.”

Marina Psyllou, Savaro’s current director, is listed as a consultant or an economist for more than 150 other firms on the OpenCorporates website, a corporate database. She is a citizen of Cyprus, where the ship’s Russian owner, Grechushkin, is said to have residence.

The Syrian-Russian links to the cargo are not yet definitive proof that the explosives were intended for the Syrian regime or that Lebanon had colluded with Damascus. But the links are also too many to be ignored by any good-faith investigation. The problem is that Lebanese officials have been working to frustrate the one that is underway.

Lebanon’s political elites have united against Sawan, the investigating judge appointed by the government. He has summoned four ministers for testimony as suspects, including Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, but none has responded. Two of the ministers have gone so far as seeking a court order for the judge’s replacement, and factions across the political spectrum have resisted any cooperation with his work while coordinating accusations of bias against him.

Sawan had previously come under close scrutiny by Lebanese citizens skeptical of his objectivity. As a military investigative judge, he earned a reputation of being overly sympathetic to security forces. He has passed sentences against Free Syrian Army rebels, supposedly putting him on the side of the Assad regime in Syria, while others alleged that he came under pressure from Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) when he transferred a case of a shootout between two Druze factions to a pro-FPM judge.

But independent legal experts who had initially criticized the judge for being deferential to the government have discovered a new liking for him since he called the four ministers for questioning. Nizar Saghieh, the co-founder of the Lebanese NGO Legal Agenda and a prominent legal expert, said Sawan is neither corrupt nor ideological. “He is not pro-Syrian regime or Hezbollah or FPM. He is just another Lebanese judge,” Saghieh said. “But we must now see him in a new social context. Lebanon has had a revolution and a deadly blast that killed many.”

Saghieh and other independent voices argue that the political elite has rallied against Sawan to protect themselves from the current investigation into the blast and from future inquiries. The ruling class fears this case might set a precedent to investigate them on corruption charges, too.

They have accused the judge of exceeding his jurisdiction and cited immunity. They say ministers can only be tried by a special body called the Supreme Council, which gives defendants extra safeguards. Any referral to this council requires an accusation by two-thirds of the Lebanese parliament. Independent experts, however, say this judicial convention does not apply to public officials charged with serious criminal misconduct.

The political class may be united against an investigation that they cannot control, but they remain loyal to their regional allegiances. In an interview last October, former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri carefully insinuated Syrian involvement in the explosion. He said French and other intelligence agencies repeatedly warned of widespread smuggling of weapons and ammonium nitrate to Syria through Lebanon and pointed to attempts in 2012-13 to import advanced equipment and technology into Syria from North Korea, a shipment he said was eventually stopped by Lebanese intelligence.

The Syrian regime’s Lebanese supporters, on the other hand, say the link between the Syrian regime and the cargo is tenuous. In an attempt to deflect blame, some are highlighting how the Syrian rebels used local support in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, a Hariri bastion, to import weapons. In 2012, Lebanese security forces impounded the Luftallah II, a ship packed with weapons destined for the Syrian rebels that were due to be unloaded at the Port of Tripoli.

Wadie Akil, a Lebanese lawyer, said that in the early years of the Syrian war, many ships that crossed Lebanese waters transported weapons and ammonium nitrate to different sides in the conflict. However, he added that it was far too risky for the regime to use the Port of Beirut for such a shipment. “Normally, the Syrian army has its own port in Baniyas, in Syria, for such purposes,” he said. “It is very risky to bring something like that to Beirut.” He added that the port remained under the watchful eye of UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon. “It is possible that something happened and the ship had to dock in Beirut, but I don’t think it was planned,” he said.

In a country as deeply divided as Lebanon, where the judiciary is under the control of the executive, truth is often the casualty of the competing interpretations of events. Anyone who dares to challenge the ruling elite, as Sawan has, always risks having his reputation attacked. But demands for justice after a national tragedy are not easily repressed. Whether Sawan continues to lead the probe or whether he is replaced, the Lebanese public is demanding not just some public accounting of the negligence of domestic players but also an investigation of Syria’s role.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra