TEL AVIV — A senior Israeli defense official on Wednesday confirmed what US experts had been questioning for more than a month: that US troop carriers provided by Washington to Beirut are being operated by Hezbollah in Syria in support of the Bashar Assad regime, which experts note as a violation of export controls.
In a briefing to reporters here, the official said he did not know for sure if the M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) "were given voluntarily or if they were overtaken." However, he said he believed the transfer was the result of "a kind of a deal" between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the designated Shiite terror organization.
The official presented a photograph taken in November of parallel columns of US-origin APCs bearing the distinct yellow flags of the Lebanese-based Party of God. When similar photos, taken in the Syrian city of Qusayr, first appeared on social media last month, US experts were unsure whether the APCs came from the LAF or were vestiges from the Israel-allied South Lebanese Army, whose war stocks were seized by Hezbollah following Israel's 2000 Lebanon withdrawal.
But the senior official here said Israel has no doubt the APCs were transferred to Hezbollah from the LAF.
"We recognize these specific APCs according to some specific parameters. We know these were given to the LAF. It's not an assumption. These were given to them by the USA."
And while the official did not specifically mention US export control laws or violations thereof, US experts said his unequivocal confirmation of cross-border transfers of US-origin equipment from the LAF to Hezbollah is clearly illegal.
"If these APCs came from the LAF, it's a violation of US law. It doesn't really matter if they were willfully provided or if Hezbollah took these across the border," said Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
"What's important is the sovereign government in Beirut didn't stop them. It means either they can't protect their territory and defend their borders or – even worse – they are facilitating Hezbollah's war in Syria," Smith said.
He added, "This goes way beyond M113s. The issue here is to what extent the LAF has become an auxiliary force for Hezbollah. And the fact that US taxpayers are effectively supporting Hezbollah's war in Syria is appalling."
In his briefing to reporters here, the Israeli official stressed that Israel has no offensive intentions in Lebanon and understands that Beirut needs military forces to assert its sovereignty and counter the capabilities of Hezbollah. Nevertheless, he noted that with this week's formation of a new government in Lebanon after 30 months of limbo, it appears that Hezbollah is "tightening its grip" on the government and Lebanese institutions.
The Israeli official cited two senior Lebanese security officials – Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, head of the Lebanese General Security Directorate; and Brig. Gen. Camille Daher, head of Lebanese military intelligence – who "are very close to the Hezbollah leadership." Moreover, he presented photos depicting combined LAF/Hezbollah operations and observation towers "all along the border" which he said "came from Hezbollah."
"The question for the international community is how independent the new government in Lebanon will be," the official said. "Our interest is for the new government to make a better Lebanon… as long as it's not a country run by Hezbollah."
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the assessment by the Israeli official should trigger serious questions in Washington. "The US has invested in the myth that its considerable support for the LAF is to serve as a counterweight to Hezbollah and help establish it as the sole provider for security in the country.
"But in recent years – against the intent of UN Resolutions 1701 and 1559 – they seem to have redefined the purpose of aid to the LAF mission as protecting Lebanon from Sunni jihadists coming in from Syria, which opens the door to disregarding a partenrship between the LAF and Hezbollah," Badran said.
Badran cited June 2015 Pentagon notifications to Congress of some $600 million in proposed sales of A-29 Super Tucano light fighters and Hellfire II missiles to Lebanon as a case in point. "The administration stated that these sales would 'enforce United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701.' The problem is, of course, that these resolutions were in part aimed at cutting off Hezbollah's Syrian logistical pipeline and asserting Lebanon's independence from Syria.
"What the LAF, with full American support, is doing is exactly the opposite: It is helping Hezbollah secure its lines of communication with Iran's Syrian satrapy, and ensuring Lebanon remains joined at the hip with it," Badran said.
In a Dec. 21 interview, Badran noted that Daher – the officer cited by the Israeli official – is rumored to become the next commander of the LAF. Together with Ibrahim – the other officer cited by the Israeli official – and Lebanese Defense Minister Yacoub Sarraf, who also has close ties with Hezbollah, Badran said Washington will find itself "dealing and coordinating closely with close allies of a designated, Iranian-sponsored terror organization."
"The Obama administration has looked the other way, preferring to believe that the LAF and Hezbollah are distinct and separate entities when, in fact, the synergies are well-rooted," Badran said.
As for the US APCs now operating in Syria by Hezbollah, Badran said they could not have crossed the border without extensive support by the LAF. "How did they cross through the Bekaa valley into Syria? How is this equipment being maintained? Who's giving them spare parts? People in Lebanon will tell you that this happens with facilitation from, and under the protection of, the supervision and the protection of the LAF."
According to the US Congressional Research Service, Congress has appropriated more than $1 billion in assistance to Lebanon since the end of Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah.
A State Department spokesman could not be reached for comment on this report.