Earlier this month, the leader of the Lebanese political party Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, accused the Israeli government of intentionally pushing the Middle East towards war. He further argued that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was working in tandem with his counterpart in the United States, Donald Trump, to start a regional war by undermining the Iran nuclear accord and sowing division in the region.
Israel and the U.S. both consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization despite the fact that Hezbollah was formed to counter the illegal occupation of Lebanon by Israel and has a long record of fighting terrorists such as al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS).
A week later, after the U.S. announced it was considering sanctioning Iran for its support of Hezbollah as well as imposing new sanctions on Hezbollah itself, Nasrallah gave another speech condemning the U.S.’ role in the Syrian conflict. He specifically accused the U.S. military of intentionally impeding the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in order to slow its reclamation of territory held by Daesh in the Deir Ezzor region, a move that notably benefits the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). For months, the SDF and SAA have essentially been locked in a race to claim the region’s oil resources as Daesh’s hold continues to shrink.
Nasrallah’s indictment of the U.S. came just days after the Russian government similarly accused the U.S. of aiding Daesh in Deir Ezzor and released photos that allegedly show U.S. special-ops forces embedded in Daesh territory. Hezbollah, for its part, has been aiding the Syrian government in attacking Daesh-held territory since the early days of the conflict, which began in 2011, while Russia joined the fight against Daesh in Syria at the Syrian government’s request in 2015.
This is completely absurd, Hezbollah has no interest in attacking the US, it just spent the last 4 years fighting Isis and their clones https://t.co/Ki6OUFBkBv
— Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) October 10, 2017
Instead of responding to Nasrallah’s allegations regarding collusion with Daesh or larger goals of destabilizing the region, the U.S. on Tuesday decided to target Hezbollah directly by offering a $12 million reward for the capture of two senior Hezbollah officials — Talal Hamiyah, head of Hezbollah’s external operations, and Fuad Sukr, Hezbollah’s senior military official.
This is not the first time the Trump administration has placed bounties on Hezbollah members, as in February of this year the U.S. offered a $5 million bounty for Hezbollah member Mohammad Ali Hamadei, whom the U.S. accuses of having assisted in the hijacking of a plane in 1985 that resulted in the death of a U.S. sailor. In July, Trump called Hezbollah a “menace” to the Middle East. Two years ago, however, Trump did not even know what Hezbollah was.
Focus On Hezbollah linked to plan to scrap Iran accord?
More troubling than the sudden bounties was the statement by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, that Hezbollah is “focused on U.S. interests” and plans to attack the U.S., asserting that the political party is a direct threat to U.S. national security.
“It’s our assessment that Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook,” Rasmussen added while speaking to reporters at the State Department. His comments are in stark contrast to those offered just a year prior by former Secretary of State John Kerry who, in a private meeting with Syrians, stated that “Hezbollah is not plotting against us.”
US official claims Hezbollah has threatened US “homeland” for the last 20 years https://t.co/zLjTrLoa00
John Kerry said otherwise last year https://t.co/6gBWtLRDju
— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) October 10, 2017
Interestingly, the bounties will not affect the monetary assistance that the U.S. gives annually to the Lebanese government and army, despite the fact that Hezbollah is a major player in the Lebanese government. The Lebanese Army, which Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently called “an integral part of Hezbollah,” has received $1.5 billion in military assistance from the U.S. since 2006.
This suggests that the “threat” Hezbollah allegedly presents to U.S. national security is not formidable enough to cause real concern in Washington. Instead, it seems that the recent campaign of the Trump administration to “crack down” on Hezbollah is, as Nasrallah predicted, aimed at targeting Iran — and organizations like Hezbollah that are perceived as its proxies — and deeply linked to Trump’s looming decision on whether to repeal the Iran nuclear accord.
U.S. smarting from impending Syrian defeat
Indeed, the sudden “crackdown” on Hezbollah is hardly surprising given its timing. Hezbollah, along with Iran, have come under fire in recent months from Israel and the U.S., largely for having helped foil the long-standing plan for U.S.-led regime change in Syria. As the defeat of U.S. and Israeli-supported proxies in Syria has become more and more of a certainty, accusations have been leveled against Iran and its alleged proxies, such as Hezbollah, claiming that they are seeking to develop a permanent presence in Syria.
When the potential for a permanent Iranian presence in Syria failed to cause much concern outside of Israel — unsurprising given the long-standing alliance between Iran and Syria — the story quickly changed and Iran was accused of creating missile factories in Syria. These accusations, however, have been circulated almost exclusively by the Israeli media and are based on satellite images purporting to show structural similarities between a structure in Syria and a missile factory in Iran. The Syrian structure has never been identified on-the-ground and no concrete evidence has emerged tying it to Iran.
These accusations relating to Iran’s alleged activities — as well as Iran’s legal launch of a missile into space earlier this year and its support for Hezbollah — have been seized upon by the Trump administration to argue that Iran has violated “the spirit” of the Iran nuclear accord. The deal, long considered odious by Trump and the Israeli government, is also part of the fragile balance in the Middle East that has kept a major regional war from erupting. Were Trump to annul the accord and sanction Iran and Hezbollah, Nasrallah’s early October warning of a U.S.-Israeli push for a regional war may become reality.
Top photo | A Hezbollah fighter stands on a hill next to the group’s yellow flag in the fields of the Syrian town of Assal al-Ward in the mountainous region of Qalamoun, Syria. (AP/Bassem Mroue)