The National:

I CAN’T recall where I first heard it quoted, but there is an old expression that goes something like this: “Conspiracy is to the Middle East what prayer is to the Vatican.”

Never was the thinking that lies behind such an observation more apparent than in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s devastating explosion in the Lebanese capital Beirut. 

For so long now the very words “bomb” and “Beirut” have sadly been inextricably connected in the mindset of many. In part it stems from the legacy of those terrible years between 1975 and 1990 when Lebanon was wracked by civil war of which Beirut was the epicentre. 

For a time following that period the country’s fortunes vastly improved, even if its citizens were still subjected to episodic bouts of political violence and turbulence, such as the brief but bloody July War of 2006. 

Over the past few years too this small country has struggled to cope with a massive influx of refugees from neighbouring Syria and most recently there have been anti-government protests or as some locals have dubbed it the “October Revolution”. 

In such a persistently uncertain political climate, conspiracies have become par for the course in Lebanon. Often connections are made between events where there may or not be links. 

The National:

Tuesday’s explosion is a point in case, where almost instantly in its wake some drew attention to the fact that a verdict was imminent (this Friday) in the long and costly trial over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was blown up along with 21 others by a bomb in 2005. 

The fact that the defendants who are being tried in absentia are linked to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist group that holds considerable sway in Lebanese politics and is backed by Iran and a close ally of Syria, fuelled initial speculation that yesterday’s explosion might have been an attack connected to the trial. 

Then there was that other line of thinking that perhaps the explosion was a result of deliberate sabotage aimed at destroying a weapons or munitions cache being stored at a warehouse in Beirut’s port district where the blast occurred. 

READ MORE: Beirut explosion video: Blast destroys office during live BBC interview

Few doubt that over the years such weapons or ammunition have transited through that facility. Some of these weapons have certainly made their way into the hands of armed players like Hezbollah or others involved in waging war in neighbouring Syria or against Israel. And so it followed yesterday that speculation grew that Israel might have had a hand in the explosion. 

Certainly Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, has the capability to carry out such a covert operation. Mysterious explosions at missile factories and other key facilities in Iran used for making centrifuges needed for building a nuclear bomb have escalated in recent months and many point to the Mossad as playing a key role. 

Tensions too with Hezbollah have grown along Israel’s northern border, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that Israel would do what it has to do in order to defend itself.  

The bottom line here is that if any country would like to see the destruction of a massive store of ammonium nitrate on its doorstep that can be used in bomb making, then Israel would be that country.  

The National:

For its part Israel has vigorously denied any role in the explosion, but then that is to be expected given that if its involvement were proven, it would almost certainly result in a war with Hezbollah and possibly even Hezbollah’s patron, Iran. It’s anybody guess then where that conflagration could end up. Right now though the signs are Israel probably doesn’t want an all-out war any more than its bitter enemies Hezbollah and Iran.

It doesn’t help of course that US President Donald Trump has only stoked the conspiratorial mood by saying that a “terrible attack” caused the Beirut explosion and quoting US “generals” as suggesting that “it was some kind of bomb”. 

Trump of course has form when it comes to making an already bad situation worse and US officials are desperately backtracking in an effort to contain the diplomatic damage resulting from his remarks. 

But it’s the long-term damage to the already fragile and failing state of Lebanon that will prove the real test now in the weeks and months ahead.

As food prices double and the Lebanese pound loses 80% of its value, it’s hard to see how a country that depends so heavily on imports will cope with its main port incapacitated. The international community must take heed of this.

Whether the explosion was, as evidence suggests, a tragic accident or indeed some malign force had a role to play, one thing is certain: the timing and its impact could not be worse. It has all the potential to tip Lebanon over the edge and into the political abyss.

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