For a few weeks now there have been reports on social media that Hizbullah, a terrorist organization under U.S. law, has been using U.S. M113 military armored personnel carriers (APCs) in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. The issue appears to have come to a head this week when senior U.S. and Israeli officials exchanged conflicting statements about the matter with reporters.
The M113 APC been used a lot in the Middle East and, despite their age, they remain remain an effective transport for the type of warfare seen in those parts. An an older system that dates to the Vietnam era, it was retired a few years ago, I think, to make way for a newer APC. However, as far as export controls, the age of the system is mostly irrelevant. It is the end-use and end-user that matter.
Under many U.S laws and regulations including the Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act, weapon transfers without U.S. government authorization are illegal. When a defense article is legally export to, say Lebanon, there are a series of end-use monitoring and other compliance requirements put in place to make sure, among other things, that the articles remain with the people who buy them.
Granted, Hizbullah could’ve procured U.S. APCs in a variety of ways such as stealing them, as they have done in the past from nearby battle zones. However, it is not too far-fetched for Hezbollah operatives to have done, as an Israeli defense ministry official suggests, borrowed or taken APCs from the Lebanese Armed Forces (“LAF”). According to a Defense News article citing an unnamed Israeli government official:
“…Israel has no doubt the APCs were transferred to Hezbollah from the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] … [w]e 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.”
A few hours after the first Defense News story was published, a follow up story ran with the following U.S. Department of Defense statement:
“The Department of Defense assesses that a small number of M113s have likely been in Hizbollah’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.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby was more unequivocal saying that the LAF has “an exemplary record” of complying with U.S end-use requirement. Despite the DoD and State Department statements to the press, this issue does not seem to be a random story put out there by Israel for no reason.
There is a history of unlawful arms transfers or re-exports in that part of the world. Congressional overseers have raised concerns several times during the course of the last few years. For example, a February 2014 U.S. government investigation requested by the House Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that
“gaps in implementation of procedures may limit efforts to safeguard some equipment” transferred to Lebanon by the United States.
Since 2007, U.S. taxpayers have invested close to $700 million in equipment, training, and other defense services to the LAF, yet that same Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) report, “DOD and State Need to Address Gaps in Monitoring of Security Equipment Transferred to Lebanon,” found that State Department officials
“may not be ensuring that the [Lebanese Internal Security Forces] ISF is implementing recommended physical security safeguards for defense articles because the [State Department] lacks procedures to identify defense articles and the recommended safeguards for storing them.”
The GAO report is appended at the end of this post.
Congressional sources consulted on background for this post advised me that, in the past, Congress has blocked numerous exports of defense articles and defense services to the LAF. The reason? Lebanon’s cozy relationship with Iran proxy Hizbullah.
For a variety of reasons beyond the alleged violations of U.S. export control laws, Congressional oversight committees should take a closer look at this issue when the 115th Congress convenes in January. There is no question that Iran’s proxy Hizbullah is using U.S. equipment. It cannot hurt to secure assurances from Lebanon that U.S. taxpayer-funded exports are being stored and used account to the terms of the contract.