(AFP) – The United States denied Wednesday an Israeli claim that US-supplied armored vehicles seen being operated by Hezbollah in Syria had been given to the Islamist militia by Lebanon’s official army.
Last month, footage emerged of Hezbollah fighters operating M113 armored personnel carriers in Syria, where the militia — blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization — is fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
On Wednesday, a senior Israeli military official speaking on condition of anonymity said Israel believes these vehicles were drawn from stocks supplied by Washington to the Lebanese Armed Forces.
But, in Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said US officials have investigated and do not believe that Lebanon has violated its agreement not to transfer on US-supplied equipment.
“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,” Kirby told AFP.
“As we noted when this first came up, the Lebanese Armed Forces stated publicly that the vehicles depicted online were never part of their equipment roster,” he added.
“The LAF fully complies with end use monitoring requirements, continues to have an exemplary track record with US equipment and remains a valued partner in the fight against ISIL and other extremists,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
The United States supplies Lebanon’s official army with arms on condition they are for official use and would be obliged to review military ties if it were proved the APCs ended up in Hezbollah’s hands.
Pentagon spokesman Gordon Trowbridge told AFP that Hezbollah does indeed have a “small number” of M113 armored personnel carriers in its inventory.
“They’ve had them for a number of years,” Trowbridge said. “They could have come from a variety of sources because it’s a relatively common vehicle in the region.”
Neither US spokesman said where Hezbollah’s M113s might have come from if not from the Lebanese army.
But last month some officials noted that Hezbollah is thought to have captured armored vehicles from the defunct South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-backed Christian militia that collapsed in 2000.
Earlier, the anonymous Israeli military official had told reporters that Israeli intelligence had “recognized these specific APCs… as those given by the US to Lebanon.”
He said new information had been shared with the United States “a few weeks ago” but did not specify how many armored personnel carriers were involved.
Israel fought a war with the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah in 2006, and closely monitors the group’s activities.
More recently, the Iranian-funded movement, which has pledged to destroy Israel, has been fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria’s civil war.
The APCs were probably handed to Hezbollah as part of a deal with the Lebanese army, the Israeli official said, asserting that the group had “tightened its grip” over Lebanese institutions.
Images shared on social media in recent weeks showed Hezbollah staging a military parade in the Syrian town of Qusayr, which it retook from rebels in 2013 in its first major victory since it intervened.
Photographs of armored vehicles and anti-aircraft batteries displaying the movement’s yellow flag could be seen.
Washington said last month that the United States would be “gravely concerned” if military equipment it supplied to the Lebanese army ended up in Hezbollah’s hands.
According to the Israeli official, Hezbollah has “about 8,000 people in Syria,” estimating that 1,700 of its fighters have been killed there since the war began in 2011.
Watchtowers built by the Lebanese army on the Israeli border were constructed according to Hezbollah instructions and the country’s military and Iran-backed Shiite militiamen conduct joint patrols, the Israeli official said.
Israel has sought to limit its involvement in the Syrian conflict, but has carried out sporadic sorties against Hezbollah weapons shipments inside Syria.
Israel says it reserves the right to stop the group acquiring sophisticated weapons, including chemical weapons, from Syria and Iran and threatening the country from both its Lebanese base and positions in Syria.