TEL AVIV – The US government is refuting Israeli assessments that US-supplied troop carriers to Lebanon have made their way to Hezbollah forces operating in Syria on behalf of the Bashar Assad regime.
The State Department and the Pentagon insist that Hezbollah-flagged vehicles in question – photographed last month in the Syrian city of Qusayr – did not come from Lebanese Armed Forces stocks.
"The Department of Defense assesses that a small number of M113s have likely been in Hezbollah's inventory for a number of years and could have come from a range of different sources, as the M113s are common in the region. But they did not come from the LAF," said Christopher Sherwood, a Pentagon spokesman.
The comments come after a senior Israeli defense official on Wednesday told reporters in a not-for-attribution intelligence briefing that Hezbollah-operated M113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) came from the LAF. And while he wasn't sure if the US-origin vehicles were willfully provided to Hezbollah or seized by the Lebanese-based terror organization, he was certain they had come 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," the senior official said, adding that Israel passed this information on to the US a few weeks ago and that he "believed" the transfer was the result of "a kind of deal" between the LAF and Hezbollah.
State Department Spokesman John Kirby was unequivocal in discounting the Israeli assessment, insisting the LAF has "an exemplary record" of complying with all US arms transfer guidelines and restrictions.
In a statement to Defense News, Kirby said: "When this allegation was raised in November, the Department of Defense did a structural analysis of the armored personnel carriers in question at that time and concluded that these vehicles were not from the Lebanese Armed Forces. Our assessment remains the same now.
"We take seriously any allegation of end-use violations, in Lebanon and anywhere else in the world. We will continue to review any information about such allegations through appropriate channels."
Kirby also noted that when the subject first arose, the LAF publicly stated that the Hezbollah-flagged vehicles captured on film and published online were never part of their equipment roster. "The LAF fully complies with End Use Monitoring requirements, continues to have an exemplary track record with U.S. equipment, and remains a valued partner in the fight against ISIL and other extremists," he said.
When asked if the senior Israeli official wanted to qualify or amend his earlier assessment, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said: "We’re not commenting beyond what was said yesterday."
US officials privately told Defense News that the APCs now deployed by Hezbollah in Syria were very old and could very well have come from Israeli war stocks via their former ally in Lebanon, the South Lebanese Army (SLA). When Israel abruptly withdrew its forces from its security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah seized a spectrum of vehicles and weaponry left behind by Israel and its SLA proxy force.
Yet another possible explanation for the Hezbollah-operated M113s seen in Syria is that the US vehicles could have been provided to Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "M113s are ubiquitous in the region. They could have come from Iran, the SLA or any number of other sources," a US government official said.
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has been tracking the increasingly synergistic ties between the LAF and Hezbollah. In a Dec. 21 interview, he said the Obama administration is turning a blind eye to the growing cooperation between the sovereign government of Lebanon and the Iranian-backed 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.