Lifeless Lebanon lurches into new turmoil amid worsening economic crises

Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights gestures during an interview with Reuters, in Beirut on Thursday. (Reuters)
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Updated 12 November 2021

Lifeless Lebanon lurches into new turmoil amid worsening economic crises

  • ‘Destruction of Lebanese pound has devastated lives and impoverished millions,’ says UN poverty rapporteur
  • Lebanon could ‘suffocate’ amid mix of Gulf political disaster and economic catastrophe, economist tells Arab News

BEIRUT: Lebanon continued its freefall into economic turmoil on Friday, with the medical, fuel, and food crises worsening and no political initiative being taken to overcome the deteriorating situation.

The value of the Lebanese pound dropped to record lows, trading at 23,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on the black market.

This crash was at least partly due to a speech given by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on Thursday evening, in which he reaffirmed his hostile positions toward Saudi Arabia and called on the Lebanese to have “patience,” offering no solutions to their mounting problems.

Fuel prices suddenly shot up on Friday. The price of a 20-liter gasoline canister ranged between 310,800 and 319,600 Lebanese pounds, the price of a diesel canister reached 311,000 pounds, and gas cylinders were selling for 266,000 pounds.

The average price of fuel is now equivalent to half of the minimum wage.

Gas station owners reported an approximately 50 percent “decline in the sale of fuel.”

Meanwhile, Economy Minister Amin Salam on Thursday decided to reduce the weight of a bundle of bread while maintaining its current price, which is the highest it has ever reached.

A 1,050-gram bundle is now sold for 9,500 Lebanese pounds.

The Ministry of Economy attributed this to “the high prices of flour, diesel and other materials.”

Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, issued a statement following a 12-day mission to study poverty in Lebanon, a copy of which Arab News obtained from the UN office in Beirut.

“The Lebanese authorities’ destruction of the national currency, political deadlock, and reinforcement of long-standing inequalities have plunged the country into abject poverty,” he said in the report.

“Lebanon is not a failed state yet, but it is a failing state, with a government failing its population,” he added.

“The destruction of the Lebanese pound has devastated lives and impoverished millions.”

De Schutter described the crisis in Lebanon as “manufactured.”

He added: “While the population is trying to survive day-to-day, the government wastes precious time evading accountability and scapegoating refugees from the comfort of their offices.

“This outrageous level of inequality is furthered by a tax system that rewards the banking sector, encourages tax evasion and concentrates wealth in the hands of the few. In the meantime, the population is subject to regressive taxes that hit the poorest most.

“This is a human-made disaster that was long in the making.”

De Schutter expressed his concern that the “political leadership seems unwilling to see the relationship between tax reform and poverty alleviation and underestimates the benefits of social protection systems for rebuilding the economy, especially in times of crisis.

“Unfortunately, I heard no credible poverty alleviation plan from the government that does not rely on international donors and non-governmental organizations. Dependence on international aid is not sustainable and in fact it weakens state institutions.”

The UN expert added: “The question is what political leaders spent the resources on.

“For decades, Lebanon ignored the need for social policies, including strong welfare programmes and public service infrastructure, and instead focused on unproductive sectors like banking, continuously expanding public debt and devoting those resources to debt servicing.”

He added: “Lebanon has an opportunity to rethink its economic model. Continuing to incentivize a failed model based on rentierism, inequality, and sectarianism will only sink the population further into destitution.”

He warned that the international community would not take Lebanese reforms seriously “until a credible plan is proposed for how to transform the economy, address inequality, ensure tax justice, and prevent further political stalemates,” warning that the donor community was running out of patience with the Lebanese government.

“After losing $240 million to the scam of arbitrary and unfavorable exchange rates, they need to see that the government is serious about transparency and accountability, and a rights-based approach can guide the government’s efforts in this process.”

De Schutter told Reuters: “Lebanon’s officials are living in fantasy land. This does not bode well for the country’s future.”

Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, formed in September, is yet to convene amid an ongoing political dispute.

Meanwhile, the reserve in hard currencies at the Central Bank is shrinking to such an extent that it is no longer possible to support medicines for chronic diseases. This decline in economic capacity comes after the Central Bank lifted support for regular medicines.

The crisis has now affected patients suffering from severe and chronic diseases, especially cancer patients, who lack access to life-saving medicines.

Economist Dr. Louis Hobeika told Arab News: “The state’s revenues have vanished. The customs dollar, which is still priced according to the official exchange rate, is no longer logical, and it must be gradually raised, not immediately raised to the exchange rate on the Central Bank’s official platform.”

He added: “Politicians knew that we were on the verge of such a crisis three years ago, but they did not do anything and waited for solutions from abroad, and this did not happen.”

The economist added: “The reserves dried up, and the Central Bank says that it has only $13 billion, but it could be less.”

Hobeika said that the Ministry of Economy’s issuance of a new price for fuel coming just two days after another price was issued — which included an increase of 2,000 Lebanese pounds — indicates the extent of the crisis.

After meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Information Minister George Kordahi reiterated on Friday that he does not intend to resign from the government “without guarantees” — a position that Hobeika believes will “worsen Lebanon’s economic crisis after its political crisis with the Gulf.”

Hobeika added: “We have not yet seen the results of the economic boycott of Lebanon. We now fear for the fate of the Lebanese working in the Gulf, but what if the crisis affects transfers to universities, charities and civil society organizations? What if Gulf Air traffic stops? Won’t Lebanon suffocate? Patience will not do any good then.”

Despite growing pressures, it appears unlikely that the Lebanese will take to the streets to renew their protests. This popular reluctance to express anger “is way more than mere frustration, it is a loss of purpose,” Hobeika said. 

“Citizens are stuck in a hellish, vicious cycle.”


Ankara, Damascus discuss potential normalization after years of broken in ties

Updated 15 August 2022

Ankara, Damascus discuss potential normalization after years of broken in ties

  • Turkey will continue to temporarily provide security in some northwestern territories in Syria if they normalize bilateral relations, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s revelation that he met his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad last October on the margins of the Non-Aligned Movement summit hinted at the possibility of Ankara and Damascus seeking political rapprochement after 11 years of a rupture in ties. 

Cavusoglu reportedly talked with his counterpart in Serbia’s capital Belgrade about the need to come to terms with the opposition and the Assad regime in Syria for a lasting peace. 

The Turkish foreign minister emphasized that his country supported Syria’s territorial integrity as “the border integrity, territorial integrity and peace of a country next to us directly affect us.”

The pro-government Turkiye newspaper recently claimed that Assad and Erdogan may hold a telephone conservation after Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed this during his recent meeting with Erdogan in Sochi. However, Cavusoglu denied rumors about any talks between the Syrian and Turkish presidents.

Having conducted four cross-border military operations in Syria since the start of civil war in 2011 to clear its border from terror groups, Turkey also has a significant military presence through observation posts in northern parts of the country. 

Since 2017, Turkey, Iran and Russia have come together through Astana meetings to try to bring the warring sides in Syria toward finding a permanent solution to the war. 

It is not a secret that the Turkish and Syrian intelligence services have been communicating. 

However, as Turkey has backed rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, the latest signs of a potential normalization of bilateral ties has angered opposition groups who held mass protests in several areas of northern Aleppo to demonstrate their objections, fearing renewed diplomatic contact with the Assad regime. 

Turkey’s bid for peace with the Assad regime might also have repercussions for the fate of more than 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey who have become a domestic politic issue due to the economic hardship the country is facing. 

Before the outbreak of the civil war, Turkey and Syria had close relationships at the top level, often exemplified by the famous summer holiday of Syrian President Bashar Assad with his family at Turkey’s Aegean resort town of Bodrum where he also met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2008. 

“Given the durability of the Assad regime, Ankara has to have a modus vivendi of sorts; in fact, it exists already at the level of intelligence agency chiefs,“ Rich Outzen, senior fellow at Atlantic Council and Jamestown Foundation, told Arab News.  

“The political risk for President Erdogan of a rapid or warm reconciliation is incredibly high, though, so the understanding is likely to be incremental and limited,” Outzen said.  

According to Outzen, botching re-engagement would mean compromising the viability of the Turkish-protected safe zone, leading to a new waves of refugees, or inviting new massacres by Assad among populations Ankara wants to protect and to remain in place. 

“Yet the lack of a modus vivendi is also not sustainable over the long-term, because inevitably pressure will grow internationally and within Turkey for Turkish forces to have a pathway to withdrawal, even if the pathway is measured in multiple years,” he said. 

For that reason, Outzen thinks that fears of a rash or rapid reconciliation or re-engagement are overstated. 

“Putin, of course, pressures Erdogan to re-engage, but Erdogan will in my view resist any but the minimum measures to maintain his own freedom of maneuver in Syria,” he said. “As this week’s protests in the Safe Zone demonstrate, going too fast in this process can prompt a backlash among Syrians in northern Syria and perhaps ultimately in Turkey.” 

According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute, while Turkey’s endgame in Syria is an Erdogan-Assad handshake, Ankara and Damascus are moving northwestern Syria into a frozen conflict.  

“I don’t think that an arrangement between Turkey and Syria will result in a complete reset of two countries borders and border affairs because many of the Syrians who live in the zones controlled by Turkish-backed forces have been already effectively cleansed by Assad, in some cases twice,” he told Arab News.

“There is zero chance that they would stay in Assad regime-controlled Syria if both leaders shake hands or make exchanges of territories,” he said. 

Cagaptay thinks that Turkey will recognize Assad’s sovereignty over the area, but will continue to temporarily provide security as well as law and order in some in northwestern territories in Syria, while also keeping millions of Sunni Arabs Assad does not want and has no interest in making full citizens again. 

“Assad may even come back to border stations with the Syrian republic flag and might begin to provide some of the social services,” he told Arab News. 

For Cagaptay, the big favor that Turkey is doing for Assad is keeping Syrians refugees inside the country and in northwest Syria under Turkish control, and not forcing them to return to Syria. 

“That is a huge favor to Assad because he used the war in Syria for ethnic engineering. Before the war, Sunni Arabs constituted over two-thirds of the Syrian population, but now they are under half. In return for that favor, Assad can propose to re-ingest the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG under his control. It is a good deal for Erdogan and Turkey,” he said.  

Turkey considers the YPG a national security threat and the extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. 

For Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based analyst, the possibility of re-engagement with the Assad regime will be used for domestic consumption ahead of the approaching election term scheduled for June 2023 at a time of deepening economic turmoil in Turkey.

“There is significant external pressure to make this reconciliation happen, while the economic burden of hosting millions of Syrian refugees inside Turkey and the rising cost of deploying military officers to the observation posts in Syria also make this issue financially important for the internal dynamics,” he told Arab News. 

Turkey has about 5,000 troops within the areas it controls in Syria, along with some 8,000 soldiers around rebel-held Idlib province, whose maintenance is costing Ankara billions of dollars and risks confrontations with Assad and foreign powers over territory violation. 

“Although the rapprochement cannot happen overnight, it is significant that the ruling government as well as the opposition parties have begun discussing it,” Sezer said. 

Erdogan recently hinted at a fresh operation into Syria to create a 30 km-deep safe zone from the border to push back Kurdish militants, but any military activity does not look imminent following several warnings from regional powers.

Israeli armed forces kill Palestinian

Updated 15 August 2022

Israeli armed forces kill Palestinian

  • Mohammed Al-Shaham was left bleeding, and eyewitnesses said the Israelis prevented any attempt to provide him with first aid after he was shot
  • His father Ibrahim said special forces had raided the house, shot his son in the head from close range and left him bleeding on the ground for more than 40 minutes

RAMALLAH: Israeli armed forces killed a 21-year-old Palestinian in northern Jerusalem at dawn on Monday.

Mohammed Al-Shaham was left bleeding, and eyewitnesses said the Israelis prevented any attempt to provide him with first aid after he was shot.

His father Ibrahim said special forces had raided the house, shot his son in the head from close range, left him bleeding on the ground for more than 40 minutes, failed to provide an ambulance, arrested him, and later announced his death.

Another relative, Nasser Al-Shaham, said special forces had raided the Zughayer neighborhood of Kufr Aqab where the family lived, blowing up the main door upon reaching the apartment. Soldiers shot Mohammed at close range, leaving him to bleed for more than half an hour, he added.

The soldiers assaulted Mohammed's parents and siblings. They tied up the family and confined them to one room. Israeli army personnel searched the house, causing significant damage, and left with Mohammed, who was still bleeding.

They are still holding Mohammed’s body.

“We have been informed of the martyrdom of Mohammed, but we have not yet been informed of the date of receiving the body,” said Nasser.

Meanwhile, the UN called for an "immediate, comprehensive and independent investigation" into the young man's murder. The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, said in a tweet: "I am deeply disturbed by the killing of the Palestinian youth, Mohammed Al-Shaham, at the hands of the Israeli security forces in his home in Kufr Aqab, in disputed circumstances.

"This requires an immediate, thorough and independent investigation."

Senior PLO official Hussein Al-Sheikh said: “The crime of executing citizen Al-Shaham deserves an immediate and urgent international investigation.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayieh condemned the killing: “What happened is a major crime.”

Mosques mourned Mohammed's death, and clashes broke out in Kufr Aqab and Qalandia refugee camp.

Al-Shaham was a painter inside Israel and belonged to the Fatah movement. The army had previously shot him during clashes that coincided with its incursions into Qalandia and Kufr last year.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the heinous crime was an extension of the executions and field assassinations committed by the occupying forces.

“As the ministry views this crime and its nature very seriously, it will follow up on it at all levels, especially the International Criminal Court, the Human Rights Council, and other legal levels of the United Nations, in the context of its continuous efforts to put an end to Israel's impunity.”

Israeli police claimed that Al-Shaham came out of his house carrying a knife and tried to stab their officers, who responded by shooting and neutralizing him.

But Ibrahim rejected this account. He also said his son had never been arrested and was not wanted by the Israeli army.

The Israeli army and police have killed 139 Palestinians this year.

The army arrested 24 Palestinians during a raid on Jenin and other parts of the West Bank at dawn on Monday.

Iran says Rushdie and supporters to blame for attack

Updated 15 August 2022

Iran says Rushdie and supporters to blame for attack

  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently blamed Iran for inciting violence against Rushdie for generations
  • Iran’s former supreme leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini had called Muslims to kill the novelist in 1989

DUBAI: No one has the right to level accusations against Iran over Friday’s attack on Salman Rushdie, for which he is to blame after denigrating the world’s Muslims, the foreign ministry in Tehran said on Monday.

The novelist, who has lived under a death threat for decades since enraging clerical authorities in Iran through his writing, is recovering after being repeatedly stabbed at a public appearance in New York state.

In Iran’s first official reaction to Friday’s attack, ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said freedom of speech did not justify Rushdie’s insults against religion. His 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” is viewed by some Muslims as containing blasphemous passages.

“During the attack on Salman Rushdie, we do not consider anyone other than himself and his supporters worthy of ... reproach and condemnation,” Kanaani told a news briefing. “No one has the right to accuse Iran in this regard.”

Writers and politicians around the world have condemned the attack. His agent told Reuters that Rushdie had sustained severe injuries, including nerve damage in his arm and wounds to his liver, and was likely to lose an eye.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that Iranian state institutions had incited violence against Rushdie for generations, and state-affiliated media had gloated about the attempt on his life.

The Indian-born writer has had a bounty on his head since “The Satanic Verses” was published in 1988. The following year, Iran’s then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling on Muslims to kill the novelist and anyone involved in the book’s publication.

In 1991, the novel’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death. A former student of Igarashi’s on Monday renewed calls for his murder to be solved, the Ibaraki Shimbun newspaper reported.

A police spokesperson told Reuters that an investigation was still active and that the statute of limitations on the crime, which expired in 2006, could be lifted.

The novel’s Italian translator was wounded in 1991 and two years later its Norwegian publisher was shot and seriously wounded.

In 1998, Iran’s pro-reform government of President Mohammad Khatami distanced itself from the fatwa, saying the threat against Rushdie — who had lived in hiding for nine years — was over.

But in 2019, Twitter suspended Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s account over a tweet that said the fatwa against was “irrevocable.”


Rushdie, 75, has lived relatively openly in recent years.

He was about to deliver a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York on the importance of the United States as a haven for targeted artists when police say a 24-year-old man rushed the stage and stabbed him.

Ministry spokesperson Kanaani said Rushdie had “exposed himself to popular outrage by insulting Islamic sanctities and crossing the red lines of 1.5 billion Muslims.”

Kanaani said Iran had no other information about the novelist’s suspected assailant except what had appeared in media.

The suspect, Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and assault at a court appearance on Saturday, his court-appointed lawyer, Nathaniel Barone, told Reuters.

An initial law enforcement review of Matar’s social media accounts showed he was sympathetic to Shiite extremism and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), according to NBC New York. Washington accuses the IRGC of carrying out a global extremist campaign.

IRGC-affiliated Jam-e Jam and other hard-line Iranian state media outlets celebrated the attack and some Iranians voiced support for it online.

Matar is the son of a man from Yaroun in southern Lebanon, according to Ali Tehfe, the town’s mayor. Matar’s parents emigrated to the United States, where he was born and raised, the mayor said, adding he had no information on their political views.

The Iran-backed armed group Hezbollah holds significant sway in Yaroun, where posters of Khomeini and IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani, killed by a US drone strike in 2020, adorned walls at the weekend.

A Hezbollah official told Reuters on Saturday that the group had no additional information on Friday’s attack.

Drone attack targets US base in Syria, no casualties

Updated 15 August 2022

Drone attack targets US base in Syria, no casualties

  • Attack took place in the vicinity of Al-Tanf base near where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet
BEIRUT: An attack with drones hit a compound run by American troops and US-backed Syrian opposition fighters in eastern Syria on Monday, the US military said, adding that there were no casualties or damage.
The military said the attack took place in the vicinity of Al-Tanf base near where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack.
US and coalition troops are based at Al-Tanf to train Syrian forces on patrols to counter militants from the Daesh group. The base is also located on a road serving as a vital link for Iranian-backed forces, stretching from Tehran all the way to Lebanon.
The military statement said coalition troops in coordination with opposition fighters — known as Maghaweir Al-Thowra — “responded to an attack by multiple unmanned aerial systems in the vicinity of Al-Tanf Garrison” on Monday morning.
It said the troops successfully engaged one of the drones preventing its impact while a second one detonated within the opposition forces’ compound, “resulting in zero casualties or reported damage.” The other attempted drone strikes were not successful, it added.
Maj. Gen. John Brennan, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force, condemned the drone strike. “Such attacks put the lives of innocent Syrian civilians at risk and undermine the significant efforts by our Partner Forces to maintain the lasting defeat of IS,” he said, using an acronym for the Daesh group.
The attack occurred hours after Israeli airstrikes on western and central Syria killed three soldiers, wounded three others and caused material damage.
A Syrian opposition war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the Israeli strikes hit Syrian army positions where Iran-backed fighters are based.
Drone attacks on Al-Tanf have been rare.
In October last year, US officials said they believe Iran was behind a drone attack that month in Al-Tanf saying at the time that they believe that the attacks involved as many as five drones laden with explosive charges. It said the drones hit both the US side of Al-Tanf garrison and the side where Syrian opposition forces stay.
The October attacks came days after an Israeli airstrike on central Syria.

Iran denies being involved in attack on Salman Rushdie

Updated 15 August 2022

Iran denies being involved in attack on Salman Rushdie

TEHRAN, Iran: An Iranian government official denied on Monday that Tehran was involved in the assault on author Salman Rushdie, in remarks that were the country’s first public comments on the attack.
The comments by Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, come over two days after the attack on Rushdie in New York.
However, Iran has denied carrying out other operations abroad targeting dissidents in the years since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, despite prosecutors and Western governments attributing such attacks back to Tehran.
“We, in the incident of the attack on Salman Rushdie in the US, do not consider that anyone deserves blame and accusations except him and his supporters,” Kanaani said. “Nobody has right to accuse Iran in this regard.”
Rushdie, 75, was stabbed Friday while attending an event in western New York. He suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye, his agent said. He was likely to lose the injured eye.
His assailant, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the attack through his lawyer.
The award-winning author for more than 30 years has faced death threats for “The Satanic Verses.” Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, demanding his death. An Iranian foundation had put up a bounty of over $3 million for the author.
Kanaani added that Iran did not “have any other information more than what the American media has reported.”

Freedom of speech does not justify Rushdie's insults upon religion in his writing, Kanaani said.
The West “condemning the actions of the attacker and in return glorifying the actions of the insulter to Islamic beliefs is a contradictory attitude,” Kanaani said.