Despite Hezbollah’s Ties to Iran and Syria, It Also Acts Alone
The Bush administration was quick to pin responsibility on Iran and Syria when Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers this week. Yet those countries may not have specifically planned and ordered the raid that has brought the Middle East to the edge of war, U.S. officials and terrorism experts say.
Iran and Syria each have long-standing ties to Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militant group, and no Western government doubts that they provide financial, political and logistical support. But some officials and experts say Hezbollah can also move on its own initiative, for its own reasons, even as it seeks to avoid any move that would displease its chief patrons.
“It sometimes does act on its own,” said Wayne White, who was a senior official in the State Department’s intelligence arm until last year.
White said intelligence agencies have differed on how much Iran might be spending on Hezbollah but that they agree there are very strong ties between that country and the group. Even so, he said, it would be an overstatement to say that Hezbollah is a “pawn” of Iran.
Wednesday’s kidnapping “could have been someone seizing a moment of opportunity -- a bunch of Hezbollah guys could have done it without even thinking they need permission from on high,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official, who said he was basing his speculation on experience with the group and spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing intelligence matters. “Terrorist operations can happen at any moment and be quite fluid.”
The possible role of Iran and Syria has become an issue as the raid brought fierce Israeli retaliation and stirred fears that fighting could engulf more of the region. If Iran and Syria ordered the Hezbollah raid, it might signal their willingness to see the conflict continue and widen. But if they did not, U.S. and Israeli charges that their longtime adversaries were somehow involved could heighten the tension in the region.
U.S. officials declined to offer specific evidence of Iranian or Syrian involvement in Wednesday’s raid, in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed. But the Bush administration, in a statement afterward, said the two nations “bear responsibility” based on their longtime ties and support.
Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, said the countries “subcontract” terrorist attacks through Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah received material support from Iran.... The Syrian government provides political as well as other kinds of support,” he said. “So I think it’s really time for everybody to acknowledge that these two states do have some measure of control over Hezbollah.”
At the same time, even the State Department’s annual report on terrorism notes that Hezbollah is capable of independent action.
“Hezbollah is closely allied with Iran and often acts at its behest, but it also can and does act independently,” this year’s report says.
Israel declared that primary responsibility for the raid lay with the Lebanese government. But officials also have made it clear that they believe Iran and Syria were involved in the attack.
“I don’t have evidence that there were direct instructions,” said one Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “But they were under the influence of the Iranian government.”
The ties between Hezbollah, Tehran and Damascus are well documented and rarely in dispute. Hezbollah, a potent force in Lebanon, has been supported and guided by Iran and Syria since its beginnings in the early 1980s.
Tehran has maintained a flow of weapons -- including rockets with a range of more than 120 miles -- to Hezbollah military forces. U.S. and Israeli officials say the hardware has been flown to the Damascus airport and then trucked to southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah leaders deny that they are agents of Iran or Syria. But they publicly acknowledge Tehran’s financial support, which some Western intelligence agencies say may amount to more than $200 million a year. Iranian officials have toured Hezbollah camps in southern Lebanon, and Iran maintains emissaries in the country to act as liaisons with the group.
Robert Malley, who was special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli issues, said Hezbollah is likely to seek ways to advance the interests of its benefactors.
“There is a very short list of countries that are prepared to help Hezbollah, so [it is] not about to do anything that would alienate them, and they’re always more likely to do things they believe would serve Syrian and Iranian interests,” Malley said.
Yet those factors do not lead inevitably to concerted action in every instance, he said.
“I think there’s more local autonomy, a greater degree of local decision-making, than people give credit for,” said Malley, who directs the Near East and North Africa program for the International Crisis Group in Washington, which deals with conflict resolution.
Experts noted that Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has made it known he wanted to kidnap Israelis and use them as bargaining chips in a trade for at least three Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Among them is Samir Sami Kuntar, whose band of militants was responsible for a 1979 attack that killed three members of an Israeli family and a police officer.
Magnus Ranstorp, a veteran Hezbollah expert now at the Swedish National Defense College, said Hezbollah could have had several motives.
For one, it might have hoped to provoke Israel into a military reaction that would increase the group’s support in Lebanon at a critical moment, Ranstorp said. Hezbollah is under pressure from the United States and allies to disarm, in accordance with a U.N. resolution, he noted.
Or, Ranstorp said, the group might have been looking for a way to show its solidarity with Hamas, the Palestinian militant organization that has been under attack in the Gaza Strip for two weeks after an Israeli soldier was captured and taken there.
Ranstorp said that for now there can be only “a strong suspicion” that Iran participated in the latest seizure of Israeli soldiers. “But it would be inconceivable that Hezbollah did not inform Syria but also the Iranians in advance of this, particularly the Iranian intelligence,” Ranstorp said.
Claude Moniquet, director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels think tank, played down Hezbollah’s autonomy.
“Whatever the reality of its local presence in the south of the country, and the poor area of Beirut ... Hezbollah has never been more than, and remains today, a simple political instrument of Tehran and, to a lesser extent, a tool Damascus uses to pressure Lebanon,” Moniquet said.
Milton Bearden, a former CIA official who remains involved in Middle East affairs, said it was possible that some militants thought they had the green light to conduct such a raid, without thinking through the consequences.
“People will say they know why it happened, but they don’t know,” Bearden said. “Never discount the possibility of things in the Middle East to just spin out of control so easily that people say, ‘How did we get here?’
“It is possible it was a gross miscalculation,” he said, “which are responsible for many wars in the Middle East.”
Richter and Meyer reported from Washington and Rotella from Paris. Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem contributed to this report.