When Obama administration officials accuse Hezbollah of advising the Assad regime and the accusation is met with skepticism by Washington’s mainstream reporters, it’s pretty obvious that the U.S. has a credibility problem.
The latest U.S. attack on Hezbollah has the ring of pure political opportunism — a way of currying favor with the Israelis and of offering the Obama campaign some extra snippets of rhetoric that it can use to buttress the president’s tough-on-Iran, tough-on-terrorism posture.
The New York Times reports: The United States accused the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on Friday of deep involvement in the Syrian government’s violent campaign to crush the uprising there, asserting that Hezbollah has trained and advised government forces inside Syria and has helped to expel opposition fighters from areas within the country.
The American accusations, which were contained in coordinated announcements by the Treasury and State Departments announcing new sanctions against Syria, also accused Hezbollah of assisting operatives of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force in training Syrian forces inside Syria. A Treasury statement said the Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, had overseen those activities, which it called part of the Syria government’s “increasingly ruthless efforts to fight against the opposition.”
The accusations, which went beyond previous American charges about Hezbollah support for Syria’s government, seemed intended to counter critics of the Obama administration who say that the White House is not doing enough to support the Syrian opposition now that diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict are paralyzed.
Some Hezbollah experts expressed considerable skepticism, however, saying that the accusations should be approached with caution unless more evidence was presented.
The accusations were also part of an effort to further draw attention to the Hezbollah-Iran alliance, which American and Israeli intelligence officials have sought to portray as a subversive collaboration that has not only destabilized the Middle East but has been implicated in terrorist violence elsewhere, including a deadly bus bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last month.
American officials would not provide evidence for the new accusations against Hezbollah and avoided specifying whether its operatives were engaged in combat inside Syria, as some anti-Assad fighters have asserted. But the accusations appeared to open a new avenue of American pressure on Syria’s government and to be a way to embarrass Mr. Nasrallah, a powerful figure whose unwavering public support for Mr. Assad has created political strains in his home base of Lebanon.
Many Lebanese support the uprising against Mr. Assad and his ruling Alawite minority, and thousands of Syrian refugees from Mr. Assad’s crackdown have fled to Lebanon.
“Hezbollah is actively providing support to the Assad regime as it carries out its bloody campaign against the Syrian people,” David. S. Cohen, the Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, told reporters in a telephone conference call. He said the designation of Hezbollah in a Treasury Department sanction makes “clear to parties around the world — both domestically and internationally — the true nature of Hezbollah’s activities.”
The State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, who also participated in the call, said, “Hezbollah’s actions in Syria underscore its fears of a Syria without the Assad regime and the impact that this would have on the group’s capabilities and its strength over the long term.”
Despite repeated questioning, neither official would provide details to support the accusations, or specific evidence of how they had reached their conclusions. “This is not a matter of idle speculation or press reports,” Mr. Benjamin said. “This is based on a great deal of information-gathering that we have done and we’ve synthesized and we’ve put it together in an authoritative document, and we believe that it will be taken seriously by many around the world.”
An American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hezbollah was using “its specialized skill set and understanding of insurgencies” to aid Syria. “The group’s deep familiarity with the Syrian landscape makes it a nimble and effective military partner,” the official said.
Hassan Nasrallah has made it clear that Hezbollah fears the collapse of the Assad regime and the loss of Syria’s indispensable support, but it doesn’t follow from that that the Lebanese organization can actually do much to save its ally.
When the Syrian Army outnumbers the Free Syrian Army by an estimate of close to five to one, it seems reasonable to ask why the regime appears to have been unwilling to use this numerical advantage so that it can clear rebels out of their strongholds, street by street? Their preference is to opt for the far more destructive tactic of first pulverizing these neighborhoods with heavy weapons, causing the kind of wanton destruction usually inflicted on enemy states (i.e. destroying cities with the callous realism that it will be someone else’s miserable task to rebuild them).
The most plausible explanation I’ve heard is not that the regular forces lack skill in urban warfare (skill that Hezbollah could supposedly enhance) but that Syrian commanders are reluctant to send their troops into positions that make it much easier for them to switch sides.