The Takeaway: Will catastrophe reshape Lebanon’s social contract?

The scoop on the Syrian Kurdish oil deal; Sisi to challenge Erdogan in Iraq and Syria; Lapid leads list of contenders to challenge Bibi; don’t shortchange Iraq’s resilience.

AFP via Getty Images.

By Andrew Parasiliti

Aug 5, 2020

Lebanon:  ‘The explosion’ may be Lebanon’s Chernobyl

Update:  The Lebanese government has said that the devastating port explosion that, according to the latest figures, killed at least 135 and injured nearly 5,000, with damages preliminarily estimated at between $3 and $5 billion, was caused by the ignition of 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the Beirut port that arrived in 2014.

There were numerous and even public warnings about the danger caused by the storage of these chemicals, but no action was taken. That is likely to exacerbate long-simmering popular dissatisfaction with the elites who rule the country.

The catastrophe occurred as Lebanon already faces an economy in almost complete collapse, protesters demanding political change, a spike in COVID-19 cases, and increased tensions between Israel and Hezbollah.

Chernobyl moment:  While many have quickly reached for comparisons to the United States' dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Beirut blasts are more aptly compared to the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, as Ali Hashem explains: a disregard for safety and egregious mismanagement by authorities in a broken political system resulting in an apocalyptic and probably avoidable disaster. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was general secretary of the Communist Party at the time, said that the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, “even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”

New social contract:  “The explosion’s impact might have the weight of a civil war that wasn’t fought,” concludes Hashem. “It could be either Lebanon’s Chernobyl — with all that means to the system that has been ruling the country for the past 30 years — or Lebanon’s new chance to attempt a new socio-political contract.”

Syria:  Syrian Kurdish leader’s ‘political brinkmanship’ in US oil deal

Mazlum Kobane, the Kurdish commander in chief of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is the mastermind behind the Syrian Kurdish administration’s deal with a US oil company, writes Amberin Zaman in a major scoop this week.

Kobane triangulates:  By signing a 25-year contract with Delta Crescent Energy, a US company formed in the past year specifically to develop Syrian Kurdish oil, Kobane is seeking to achieve three interconnected and complex objectives, which seem aligned with the interests of the Trump administration in Syria, according to Zaman:

-Keep the US military in northeast Syria. US President Donald Trump has said before that US forces will remain in Syria for the oil. 

-Restrict oil supplies and revenues to the Syrian government, increasing the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to cut his ties with Iran.

-Make the Syrian Kurds financially solvent, reducing the need for US assistance.

The KRG model:  Kobane may be guided in this process by Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani, who brokered the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) political rapprochement and oil deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Amberin suggests.

Our take:  Kobane’s oil deal gives him a huge boost in leverage and scrambles the intricate politicking among the key players in Syria. It is difficult, however, to envision Erdogan walking back his concerns about Kobane’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which he considers a terrorist group on par with, or worse than, Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has had its own fractious relations with the PKK, so the KRG model is not a perfect fit for Kobane. Another potential disrupter is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is close to both Erdogan and Assad.

Read more:  Amberin Zaman has the scoop and analysis here.

Egypt:  Sisi takes Libya rivalry to Turkey’s borders

Meanwhile, Erdogan is engaged in another volatile standoff in the region, challenging Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s moves in Libya, where a civil war has pitted the two regional strongmen against each other. The danger for Turkey is that Sisi will open up new fronts much closer to home, in Syria and Iraq.

Syria:  Although Egypt is so far denying media reports that it has sent troops to Syria to support Assad’s government, Cairo is testing the idea of Syria’s return to the Arab League; expanding contacts with Syrian Kurds, including allowing the SDF to open an office in Cairo; and seeking to facilitate talks between the Kurds and Damascus.

Iraq:  Egypt has condemned Turkey’s ongoing military operations in northern Iraq against the PKK, while broadening political and economic ties with Iraq.

Our take:  The contest between Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other has become a key regional faultline, as we described here last week. On all fronts — Libya, Syria and Iraq — the two are on opposite sides, with no sign so far of letting up.

Read more:  Read Fehim Tastekin’s piece here on the expansion of Egyptian-Turkish tensions from Libya to Syria and Iraq, and read Hagar Hosny’s piece here on how this conflict is also playing out over gas exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Israel:  Lapid tops shortlist to take on Bibi; ‘Gantz is last’

It looks like Israel could be facing its fourth election in 18 months later this year. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sinking in the polls, his Likud party has lost 10 seats in the Knesset and there are riots in the streets over the alarming spike in COVID-19 cases.

And while the possible contenders to take on the prime minister include many familiar faces, Netanyahu’s rival and coalition partner Benny Gantz is out of the running, at least for now.

Lapid leads:  Former Minister of Finance and Yesh Atid opposition party leader Yair Lapid has emerged as the most likely contender to take on Netanyahu. He and his party have joined the street protests that have rocked Israel. Lapid is a centrist and former journalist, and while Yesh Atid had seemed to lose ground to Blue and White over the past year, he now believes he can ride the protests to pick up the support that Netanyahu and Likud are losing.

Other contenders:  Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman are also in the mix. "Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (Labor Party) is a new and surprising addition to the list,” writes Ben Caspit.

‘Gantz is last’:  Don’t expect Blue and White party Leader and alternate Prime Minister Gantz to step up. "Gantz is last," writes Caspit. The "shoes filled by Gantz, the somewhat limping Netanyahu challenger who led his party through three inconclusive elections, are now empty. With the party splitting over the unity deal with Netanyahu and with the disappointment of followers, his party has few Knesset seats left — both in reality and in the polls."

Dark horse:  Some eyes are on former military chief Gadi Eizenkot, writes Caspit. He is being courted on all sides as a highly respected, low key, dark horse contender.

Budget is key:  “If Netanyahu agrees to a two-year budget as per the coalition agreement with his rival-partner, Gantz, the election option will be set aside. If he refuses, November elections could well be in the cards,” Caspit concludes.

More:  Listen here to Ben Caspit’s interview with Lapid on the latest "On Israel" podcast, and read Mazal Mualem on Gantz’s bad choices and the controversy around tweeting by Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son.

In case you missed it: Don’t shortchange Iraq’s resilience

Mina Al-Oraibi, editor-in-chief of "The National" in the UAE, says she is optimistic about Iraq’s future because of the civic activism of the younger generation demanding change. She says resilience is part of Iraq’s character, adding that Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih are the “best two we have had in power” to try to reform the political system, while acknowledging the challenges they face in confronting the "Mafia state" that has evolved.

In a brand-new "On the Middle East" podcast, Al-Oraibi, who is of Iraqi origin, also discussed the UAE’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mars Mission, advice for young journalists and more.

‘Real Respect’ for women:  On her experience as a female journalist covering events around the world, she said “the UAE is the place I’ve been most comfortable as a woman. There is a real respect here for women. … It’s been incredible to feel very confident as a woman and actually supported.”

More:  Listen to my podcast interview with Mina here.

The catastrophe occurred as Lebanon already faces an economy in almost complete collapse, protesters demanding political change, a spike in COVID-19 cases, and increased tensions between Israel and Hezbollah.

Chernobyl moment:  While many have quickly reached for comparisons to the United States' dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Beirut blasts are more aptly compared to the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, as Ali Hashem explains: a disregard for safety and egregious mismanagement by authorities in a broken political system resulting in an apocalyptic and probably avoidable disaster. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was general secretary of the Communist Party at the time, said that the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, “even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”

New social contract:  “The explosion’s impact might have the weight of a civil war that wasn’t fought,” concludes Hashem. “It could be either Lebanon’s Chernobyl — with all that means to the system that has been ruling the country for the past 30 years — or Lebanon’s new chance to attempt a new socio-political contract.”

Syria:  Syrian Kurdish leader’s ‘political brinkmanship’ in US oil deal

Mazlum Kobane, the Kurdish commander in chief of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is the mastermind behind the Syrian Kurdish administration’s deal with a US oil company, writes Amberin Zaman in a major scoop this week.

Kobane triangulates:  By signing a 25-year contract with Delta Crescent Energy, a US company formed in the past year specifically to develop Syrian Kurdish oil, Kobane is seeking to achieve three interconnected and complex objectives, which seem aligned with the interests of the Trump administration in Syria, according to Zaman:

-Keep the US military in northeast Syria. US President Donald Trump has said before that US forces will remain in Syria for the oil. 

-Restrict oil supplies and revenues to the Syrian government, increasing the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to cut his ties with Iran.

-Make the Syrian Kurds financially solvent, reducing the need for US assistance.

The KRG model:  Kobane may be guided in this process by Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani, who brokered the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) political rapprochement and oil deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Amberin suggests.

Our take:  Kobane’s oil deal gives him a huge boost in leverage and scrambles the intricate politicking among the key players in Syria. It is difficult, however, to envision Erdogan walking back his concerns about Kobane’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which he considers a terrorist group on par with, or worse than, Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has had its own fractious relations with the PKK, so the KRG model is not a perfect fit for Kobane. Another potential disrupter is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is close to both Erdogan and Assad.

Read more:  Amberin Zaman has the scoop and analysis here.

Egypt:  Sisi takes Libya rivalry to Turkey’s borders

Meanwhile, Erdogan is engaged in another volatile standoff in the region, challenging Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s moves in Libya, where a civil war has pitted the two regional strongmen against each other. The danger for Turkey is that Sisi will open up new fronts much closer to home, in Syria and Iraq.

Syria:  Although Egypt is so far denying media reports that it has sent troops to Syria to support Assad’s government, Cairo is testing the idea of Syria’s return to the Arab League; expanding contacts with Syrian Kurds, including allowing the SDF to open an office in Cairo; and seeking to facilitate talks between the Kurds and Damascus.

Iraq:  Egypt has condemned Turkey’s ongoing military operations in northern Iraq against the PKK, while broadening political and economic ties with Iraq.

Our take:  The contest between Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other has become a key regional faultline, as we described here last week. On all fronts — Libya, Syria and Iraq — the two are on opposite sides, with no sign so far of letting up.

Read more:  Read Fehim Tastekin’s piece here on the expansion of Egyptian-Turkish tensions from Libya to Syria and Iraq, and read Hagar Hosny’s piece here on how this conflict is also playing out over gas exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Israel:  Lapid tops shortlist to take on Bibi; ‘Gantz is last’

It looks like Israel could be facing its fourth election in 18 months later this year. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sinking in the polls, his Likud party has lost 10 seats in the Knesset and there are riots in the streets over the alarming spike in COVID-19 cases.

And while the possible contenders to take on the prime minister include many familiar faces, Netanyahu’s rival and coalition partner Benny Gantz is out of the running, at least for now.

Lapid leads:  Former Minister of Finance and Yesh Atid opposition party leader Yair Lapid has emerged as the most likely contender to take on Netanyahu. He and his party have joined the street protests that have rocked Israel. Lapid is a centrist and former journalist, and while Yesh Atid had seemed to lose ground to Blue and White over the past year, he now believes he can ride the protests to pick up the support that Netanyahu and Likud are losing.

Other contenders:  Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman are also in the mix. "Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (Labor Party) is a new and surprising addition to the list,” writes Ben Caspit.

‘Gantz is last’:  Don’t expect Blue and White party Leader and alternate Prime Minister Gantz to step up. "Gantz is last," writes Caspit. The "shoes filled by Gantz, the somewhat limping Netanyahu challenger who led his party through three inconclusive elections, are now empty. With the party splitting over the unity deal with Netanyahu and with the disappointment of followers, his party has few Knesset seats left — both in reality and in the polls."

Dark horse:  Some eyes are on former military chief Gadi Eizenkot, writes Caspit. He is being courted on all sides as a highly respected, low key, dark horse contender.

Budget is key:  “If Netanyahu agrees to a two-year budget as per the coalition agreement with his rival-partner, Gantz, the election option will be set aside. If he refuses, November elections could well be in the cards,” Caspit concludes.

More:  Listen here to Ben Caspit’s interview with Lapid on the latest "On Israel" podcast, and read Mazal Mualem on Gantz’s bad choices and the controversy around tweeting by Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son.

In case you missed it: Don’t shortchange Iraq’s resilience

Mina Al-Oraibi, editor-in-chief of "The National" in the UAE, says she is optimistic about Iraq’s future because of the civic activism of the younger generation demanding change. She says resilience is part of Iraq’s character, adding that Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and President Barham Salih are the “best two we have had in power” to try to reform the political system, while acknowledging the challenges they face in confronting the "Mafia state" that has evolved.

In a brand-new "On the Middle East" podcast, Al-Oraibi, who is of Iraqi origin, also discussed the UAE’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mars Mission, advice for young journalists and more.

‘Real Respect’ for women:  On her experience as a female journalist covering events around the world, she said “the UAE is the place I’ve been most comfortable as a woman. There is a real respect here for women. … It’s been incredible to feel very confident as a woman and actually supported.”

More:  Listen to my podcast interview with Mina here.