On a late July day in 2023, amid the pine tree hills overlooking the Bay of Beirut, 14 bright yellow tower cranes and thousands of workers toiled over the construction site of the third US embassy in Lebanon.

The new US embassy under construction in Awkar with a view of Beirut in the distance. Photo courtesy of the US Embassy in Beirut’s X feed, May 5, 2023.

At over 40 acres, the new Beirut embassy, a 19-structure ziggurat that dwarfs any government facility in Lebanon, is the second largest in the world after Baghdad’s. Its billion-dollar estimated budget rivals the cost of the US embassy in London, and it is about four times its size, despite Britain having ten times Lebanon’s population and 130 times its GDP.

No specific reason has been offered for building such a massive compound in Lebanon. According to the State Department’s website, the “primary purpose” of any US Embassy is to “assist American citizens,” visiting or living in the host country.[1] But such explanations are belied by Lebanon’s relative size and economic status. Rather, the new embassy, like that of Baghdad, speaks to longstanding US military interests and activity in Lebanon and the wider region.

For decades, the United States has been heavily involved with the Lebanese military, serving as principal trainer and weapons supplier. The United States has disbursed $3 billion to Lebanese security forces since 2006, as part of $10 billion overall aid to the country, according to a 2020 congressional hearing. The figures rival Iran’s reported multi-billion dollar investment push into Lebanon over the same period, largely in support of Hezbollah. In addition to a steady flow of ammunition and hardware, in  January of 2023, Washington announced a plan to pay the majority of all Lebanese army salaries in US dollars, some $72 million, as the country’s currency continues to plummet. Although it has not been covered much in the press, US troops are currently stationed at two Lebanese military air strips just an hour’s drive from the embassy hill, where local residents have reported hearing large C130 style military planes periodically landing. Even lesser known is the secretive Pentagon program that works with the Lebanese military to wage covert proxy battles, according to reporting by The Intercept.[2]

Since October 2023, US involvement in and around Lebanon has escalated dramatically as a result of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza and its regional reverberations. The Pentagon has reported over 250 attacks on bases in Syria and Iraq since October, illuminating a wide array of US military outposts across remote areas of the two countries, despite the announcement of a US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2021. With increasing calls from Baghdad for a more complete withdrawal of US forces from the country, the massive new embassy complex in Beirut could become the closest US political and intelligence hub for far-flung bases. The Pentagon claims these desert bases were established in the war against ISIS. But military sources told the Intercept in early February that the mission has shifted to targeting Iran and Iranian backed groups.[3] In February of 2024, US President Biden ordered airstrikes on both Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria as well as Iran-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen, who have launched attacks on US and British ships in solidarity, the Houthis say, with the people of Gaza.

In line with other Iran-allied groups, Hezbollah has launched near daily attacks against Israeli military bases and troops along the Lebanon-Israel border since October 2023, inflicting significant damage at Israeli surveillance posts that monitor southern Lebanon and downing sophisticated Israeli drones over Lebanese territory. Israel has in turn launched dozens of strikes on what it describes as Hezbollah targets, reportedly killing 200 of its fighters and at least 50 Lebanese civilians, including three journalists covering the conflict.

Less than 60 miles south of the new embassy, the Lebanon-Israel border region is also home to major European military interests, namely, the sprawling multinational military base at Naquora hosting the over 10,000-strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), led by France, Italy and Germany. Asian nations, too, have become increasingly large stakeholders in Lebanon. China is building its own sprawling cultural center, comprising an opera house and music conservatory on the new marina harbor front north of Beirut. Turkey and several Arab Gulf states have also been vying for Lebanese hearts and minds with soft power cultural projects, including plans to fund museums and cultural spaces.

The global competition over Lebanon extends to its natural resources, as exploration of gas fields buried under the eastern Mediterranean Sea is rapidly progressing. The United States arbitrated a long-standing dispute over demarcation and ownership of the fields in 2022, resulting in a historic maritime border deal between Israel and Lebanon after years of uncertainty and even threats of war. A consortium involving French, Italian and Qatari oil firms began drilling exploratory wells in 2023, and although no significant reserves have been tapped, the process is set to continue in 2024. Israel on the other hand, has already begun extraction.

The newest embassy arrives amid these major regional and global developments. But the questions it raises are far from new. Since the mid 20th century, successive US embassies in Lebanon tell the story of US commercial and strategic interest in the country and how the space of the embassy has increasingly blurred the lines between militarization and diplomacy.


Before the Fortress Embassy


In many ways, Beirut is at the heart of what has come to be known as the “fortress embassy”: the hardened bunker-like mega projects now being built across the globe, from Guatemala to Thailand, at the cost of billions.

In 1983 and 1984, truck bomb attacks demolished both the first and second US embassies of Beirut as well as the US Marines compound. The 1983 attack—at the time the world’s greatest nonnuclear explosion—was carried out by a pro-Iran militia (though a US court later found Hezbollah responsible). Killing more than 300 embassy staff and US soldiers, including high level diplomats and veteran CIA operatives, it sparked a radical change in embassy architecture. In 1984, then Secretary of State George Shultz formed the Advisory Panel on Overseas Security–known as the Inman report. Among its recommendations were that embassies be built far from city centers and on lots of at least 15 acres.

At the time of its construction in the early 1950s, downtown Beirut was a hub for regional US intelligence and economic activities.
By contrast, before the attacks, the embassy had operated from the heart of the Lebanese capital. Situated next to the verdant campus of the American University of Beirut, it occupied three conjoined towers on the seafront. Staff could walk to work along the corniche. At the time of its construction in the early 1950s, downtown Beirut was a hub for regional US intelligence and economic activities. US companies like Pan Am, then the world’s biggest airline, Chase Manhattan Bank and American Life Insurance all had iconic administrative buildings in the city. US Navy ships regularly docked at Beirut’s port for fleet week, and US sailors strolled the streets. “This embassy is the finest listening post in the whole region,” a CIA agent, played by disco-era hero “Shaft” (Richard Roundtree) leans back in his chair and tells the US ambassador to Lebanon in the 1972 film, The Embassy. (The film—one of several cinematic depictions of the US Embassy in Beirut—is notable for having actually been shot in the city.)

US embassy officials meeting with Lebanese President Camille Chamoun (in a dark suit with cigarette) at his residence in Jiyyeh, 1959. Photo courtesy of Hanna Farha.

Lebanon’s pre civil war economic boom was made possible in no small part by a fossil fuel economy. The US firm Tapline and Britain’s IPC operated pipelines that brought oil from the Arabian Gulf to ship terminals off Lebanon’s coast. After World War II, at the height of the Marshall Plan, the two firms supplied more than a third of western Europe’s petroleum supply. At the peak of their operations in Lebanon, they employed some 40,000 locals. The oil business, however, came at a price for local sovereignty, as it did elsewhere. Not only did the United States prop up successive Lebanese regimes with weapons and US troop deployments, the US embassy published thousands of columns of anti-union propaganda in Lebanese newspapers and even vetted cabinet appointments.

In his review of Notes from the Minefield—Irene Grendzier’s exhaustive study of US diplomatic relations with Lebanon (originally published in 1997)—Nathaniel George recounts how the US government rejected Kamal Jumblatt as a cabinet minister. Jumblatt’s leftist socialism made the United States fear he would become “a potential Lebanese Mossadeq bent on nationalizing the oil infrastructure,” writes George, referring to the Iranian prime minister who was ousted in 1953 by a joint US-British backed coup after he nationalized Iran’s oil.[4]

The Beirut embassy was also a staging ground for US-led intel and military operations across the region, including involvement in efforts to support a coup against the government of Syria in 1957, which the US believed to be Soviet leaning. Much of this lesser-known history is documented in diplomatic cables, accessed by George for his dissertation, “A Third World War: Revolution, Counterrevolution, and Empire in Lebanon, 1967–1977.”

During the 1960s and 1970s, west Beirut was a hub for the Arab left, and the embassy and diplomatic staff attempted to work with various factions. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, agreed to provide security assistance to the US embassy, as detailed in the 2014 biography of Robert Ames, The Good Spy, by Kai Bird.[5] A former Lebanese embassy staff member recalled being “annoyed” that Palestinians were standing guard with US Marines. Although the Reagan administration publicly labeled the PLO a terrorist organization, according to Ames’ biography, Beirut’s CIA station, which was based out of the embassy, had covertly been training Yasser Arafat’s elite security force, Force 17.[6]

One of the force’s members, Imad Mughniyeh would later be blamed for both the 1983 attack on the embassy and the attack on the US Marine Barracks later that year. After an alleged botched attempt in the 1980s that led to a high number of civilian deaths in Beirut, the CIA, in association with the Mossad, assassinated Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008.




On October 17, 2023, the bombing of Al Ahli hospital in Gaza killed hundreds of Palestinians, spurring protests at US embassies and diplomatic missions across the world, including in Beirut.

Major western media outlets, Arab news channels and even pro-Hezbollah Twitter accounts falsely reported that protestors had tried to penetrate the embassy compound, scaling its walls or setting the building aflame.

In reality, protestors could not even get within eyesight of embassy walls.

While the original embassy served as a prominent US outpost, the embassy of the last 40 years boasts prison-style watchtowers, multiple rings of electric steel fences, giant loops of concertina wire and commando-outfitted security guards.
While the original embassy served as a prominent US outpost, the embassy of the last 40 years boasts prison-style watchtowers, multiple rings of electric steel fences, giant loops of concertina wire and commando-outfitted security guards. During the October protest, Lebanese security forces used tear gas, water cannons and eventually, a shield-wielding platoon of military police, to keep protestors at bay. Video of a blazing building displayed by media outlets was actually a furniture store less than a mile down the hill from the embassy. The fence that was briefly scaled to erect a Palestinian flag was actually a temporary Lebanese police barricade.

The old Beirut embassy is now redeveloped as a luxury residential apartment tower. From its location on the corniche, the current embassy’s location is an almost invisible speck. Following the recommendations of the Inman report, the embassy sits at a comfortable distance from the capital in the hamlet of Awkar: a predominantly Christian part of the country, whose factions have traditionally worked with the United States. It is buffered by a large body of water, the Bay of Beirut, and several northern suburbs of the city.

Inside, it consists largely of stacks of old shipping containers, converted into windowless offices and waiting rooms decorated with faded posters of New York City and mug shots of alleged local terrorists on the FBI’s most wanted list. Miniature US flags sit atop cramped desks behind glass walls so thick they require an intercom just to speak to consular staff—many of whom are Lebanese, including a small private army that handles security. A Lebanese army base is just down the road from the front gate and several of its cannon-mounted APCs line the streets.

During the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war, marked by Israel’s devastating cluster bombing campaign, the Awkar embassy played a pivotal role in coordination with a major contingent of the US Navy and special forces. A week into the fighting, the embassy along with the US Department of Defense executed one of the largest evacuations in US history: A human bridge of 15,000 US citizens ferried over dozens of military ships and helicopters around the clock for over a week.  Following the pause in fighting, to allow for the evacuation, Israel resumed bombardments on civilian infrastructure with heightened intensity, crippling all of Lebanon’s major roadways and bridges, bombing the airport runways and enforcing a naval and air space blockade of the country. Entire blocks of apartment buildings in Beirut were leveled and villages across south Lebanon reduced to rubble.

Yet Awkar continued to function throughout the dropping of earth-shattering US-supplied munitions. The embassy became a meeting place for high level US diplomats such as then Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, who was flown in to meet Lebanese warlords and politicians opposed to Hezbollah—one of whom even offered advice to embassy staff on where to bomb, according to a leaked cable. Following the war, Hezbollah and several of its allied political parties led months of street protests calling for the downfall of the government, accusing it of taking orders from the US embassy—what it sometimes refers to as the “spies of Awkar.”[7]

The new US embassy complex under construction in Awkar. Photo courtesy of the US Embassy in Beirut’s X feed, May 5, 2023.

The US Embassy in Lebanon continues to hold significant geopolitical and local influence. The nightly news closely follows the meetings of the US ambassador with various political groups, whether old clients or those closer to Hezbollah. News outlets also document the Ambassador’s efforts to bolster US soft power, from visits to the port to unload fresh shipments of US weapons and observing military training exercises, to the embassy’s funding of US-chartered schools and universities in Beirut. Some even run embassy-sponsored TV segments. US support extends beyond the headlines: to municipal works, tree planting, agricultural projects and even USAID-branded garbage cans in some villages.

The prominent position of the embassy—and the lack of transparency with which it operates—raises questions about US respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty. In 2011, Hezbollah alleged the US embassy was recruiting assets at Pizza Hut and Starbucks branches in Lebanon (allegations that US intelligence officials appeared to tacitly confirm).

More recently, in March 2020, a US special forces Osprey landed at the embassy to extract Amer Fakhoury: a dual Lebanese US-citizen and former member of the South Lebanese Army, a Christian-dominated militia. The mission was flouting local courts, where he is wanted and charged with overseeing torture of prisoners while collaborating with the Israelis during the civil war. Ironically, early renderings of the embassy under construction, which is located just a few meters behind the current one, featured an Osprey parked on one of two helipads. (It has since been airbrushed out of images on the US embassy website.)

In June 2020, a Lebanese judge put a gag order on then Ambassador Dorothy Shea, banning local media from speaking to her following unsubstantiated allegations she made on a major TV channel that Hezbollah was stealing billions of dollars of Lebanese state revenue. The judge claimed she violated diplomatic protocol and incited sectarian strife—an order the ambassador simply ignored, as she continued to give television interviews to US friendly Lebanese news outlets.

Just a few blocks from the embassy compound in Awkar is a newly minted sign announcing the headquarters of the security branch of the former Christian-militia, the Lebanese Forces. Today a political party backed by Saudi Arabia, in the 1980s, during the height of the civil war, they controlled much of the predominantly Christian territories of the country (including the current US embassy site) in cooperation with Israel and its proxy militias.

According to former staff interviewed for this piece on condition of anonymity, former Christian militiamen have reportedly been recruited to serve in the US embassy guard as have former members of other sectarian militias.
According to former staff interviewed for this piece on condition of anonymity, former Christian militiamen have reportedly been recruited to serve in the US embassy guard as have former members of other sectarian militias. In October 2021, the deadliest street clashes since the civil war broke out between Hezbollah and some members of the Lebanese Forces. In 2022, the Iranian state-affiliated, Press TV, alleged that among those who participated in the October clashes was a US embassy bodyguard. While still unsubstantiated, these allegations underscore the embassy’s outsized influence within Lebanon’s fragmented political system, where many see the US role as strengthening divisions rather than working toward postwar reconciliation.

US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, who happened to be visiting Beirut during the four-hour street battle in 2021, gave a live press conference at the airport just minutes after the shooting ceased. Addressing the Lebanese public on television before any of the country’s leaders, she condemned the violence and voiced support for widespread public protests at the time calling for the ouster of the country’s political class. Yet later that evening, she tweeted photos touting successful meetings with Lebanon’s top leaders, including parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, who heads Amal, a political party (and close ally of Hezbollah). Nuland would not be the first or last US official to provide mixed messages to “the Lebanese people.”[8]

Indeed, several past US ambassadors have made media spectacles out of their visits to natural and historic sites, encouraging tourism, while remaining conspicuously silent on Washington’s embargo on US passenger flights to the country. A former ambassador went so far as to don a bomb-proof suit to promote US aid efforts to help remove landmines that have killed dozens of Lebanese citizens, without mentioning that much of those munitions were made in the United States and supplied to Israel.

The new embassy compound—currently entering its seventh year of construction—only adds to the confusion about the US role in Lebanon.


 The New Embassy Compound


On a sunny April day in 2017, then US ambassador Elizabeth Richard approached a podium during a groundbreaking ceremony. She was flanked by two bulldozers overlooking the hazy jumbled skyline of Beirut. While the old embassy looked out to the sea from the capital, the new one looks upon it from a strategic height with a panoptical view.

“Our New Embassy Compound is a strong message to the Lebanese people that we are with you for the long term,” Richard said on the occasion.[9] Seven years later, with its labyrinth of megalithic blast walls emerging from deep excavation pits, this bunker of diplomacy may well outlive even Lebanon’s 5,000-year-old Phoenician and Bronze age world heritage sites.

The centerpiece of the project, the Chancery, is a dome-like megastructure visible from towns and villages across the Lebanese mountains. Its small, deep-set windows are reminiscent of arrow slits in Lebanon’s crusader castles.

Many of the architectural features, like pedestrian access and recreational facilities, will face inward, contained within the surrounding buildings, presumably intended as a bulwark to insulate embassy staff from projectiles.
The embassy compound  was envisioned as  “a small village,” an architect from the Pritzker-prize winning firm Morphosis, said in an embassy-produced video shared to Facebook, featuring sketches of lively piazzas and garden cafes.[10] The other 18 buildings flow seamlessly down from the Chancery’s commanding position like tentacles of an octopus straddling an entire hillside. A multi-silo batch plant located on site produces the immense volume of concrete needed for the project. Many of the architectural features, like pedestrian access and recreational facilities, will face inward, contained within the surrounding buildings, presumably intended as a bulwark to insulate embassy staff from projectiles.

A buffed marble will run the length of the compound’s interior courtyard. It will be lined with slabs of stone carved from various mountains across the country to, in the words of the architect, “help preserve Lebanese heritage.”[11] Rock quarrying is among the most unregulated and environmentally destructive industries in the heavily polluted country. Yet the new embassy claims to have been certified by the US Green Buildings Council, owing to its use of solar panels and rainwater collectors, which will supposedly cover a portion of its energy costs.

During the early years of construction, hundreds of workers from South Asia lived on site, performing much of the underground work. Indeed, neighborhood residents speculate that locals were only brought in after the sensitive underground floors were completed by foreigners. Now, however, hundreds of local workers are bussed out of the worksite. A crossing guard holding a standard English language “SLOW” sign helps navigate the busy Lebanese roads, an incongruous sight in the country.

The main contractor for the site is the Alabama-based firm, BL Halbert. The firm, which has been tasked with building dozens of massively fortified multi-million dollar embassies across the world, is implicated in labor scandals at embassy construction projects in Ghana, Namibia, Turkey and Honduras. In 2012, the company agreed to pay a $47 million settlement to the US government, following corruption allegations of rigging bids for USAID projects in Egypt.

In Lebanon, the potential liabilities of the built environment may reach far beyond the construction phase. But beyond disbelief at its size, many neighborhood residents and shopkeepers I spoke to—at least as of summer 2023—seemed upbeat about the embassy compound, viewing it as a sign of investment, amid the deep economic depression the country faces.

I did hear a few lavish conspiracy theories about what is being built inside: tunnels to the sea or a deep underground military base. Residents’ suspicions reflect the incongruous scale of the embassy. They also speak to the longer history and lack of transparency surrounding US involvement in the country. Others are taking the news in true Lebanese entrepreneurial stride. A fast-food joint called Wachicken DC has just opened its doors outside the new embassy’s front gates, still under construction.

The owner assures me that DC has no political connection and only stands for Delightful Chicken.


[Habib Battah is an independent journalist and founder of BeirutReport.com. He teaches Global Studies at St. Lawrence University in New York. Find him on X @habib_b]





[1]What is a US Embassy?” US State Department: National Museum of American Diplomacy.

[2] Nick Turse, Alice Speri, “How the Pentagon Uses a Secretive Program to Wage Proxy Wars,” The Intercept, June 1, 2022.

[3] Ken Klippenstein, “‘Logistics’ Outpost in Jordan Where 3 U.S. Troops Died is Secretly a Drone Base,” The Intercept, February 9, 2024.

[4] Nate George, “Empire in a Minefield: American Military Intervention in Lebanon in 1958,” Bidayat 28–29 (2020). [Arabic].

[5] Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (New York: Broadway Books, 2014).

[6] Ibid.

[7]Nasrallah Slams U.S. Embassy as ‘Den of Spies’: 2 Hizbullah Members Confessed to Spying for CIA,” Naharnet, June 24, 2011.

[8]Lebanon National Day. Press Statement: Antony J. Blink,” US Department of State, November 22, 2023.

[9]New Embassy Beirut Compound,” US Embassy in Lebanon Website.

[10] U.S. Embassy Beirut, “Welcome to our Construction Site!,” Facebook (June 18, 2019).

[11] Ibid.

How to cite this article:

Habib Battah "Beirut and the Birth of the Fortress Embassy," Middle East Report Online, April 10, 2024.

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