The Trump administration is offering a bounty on two Hezbollah leaders and making unfounded warnings of a potential attack by the group “on the homeland.” Author and Trinity College professor Vijay Prashad says the US targeting of Hezbollah may ultimately benefit groups like ISIS
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. As the Trump administration takes aim at Iran, it’s now setting its sights on one of Tehran’s key allies, Hezbollah. On Tuesday, the U.S. offered multi-million dollar rewards for information leading to the arrest of two Hezbollah officials. Speaking to reporters, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas Rasmussen, said, “The U.S. believes Hezbollah seeks the capability to launch attacks inside the U.S.” N. RASMUSSEN: While I’m not here today to speak publicly about any specific, or credible, or imminent threat to the homeland, we in the intelligence community do in fact see continued activity on behalf of Hezbollah here inside the homeland. It’s our assessment that Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook. That is something that those of us in the counterterrorism community take very, very seriously. AARON MATÉ: Even though Rasmussen acknowledged there’s no actual evidence, his warning led to the predictable headlines talking of a potential Hezbollah threat. The timing of the statement was interesting. It comes just days after the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, warned the U.S. has been trying to hinder the fight against ISIS in Syria. The Syrian Army and its allies, including Hezbollah, have made advances on the Islamic State in recent months. Nasrallah says, “The U.S. military has thwarted their progress.” Vijay Prashad is professor of International Studies at Trinity College and the author of more than 20 books. Welcome, Vijay. Your reaction to this announcement from the Trump administration offering a reward for the capture, or for the arrest of these two Hezbollah officials and suggesting that the group is preparing, or developing the capacity to prepare for an attack inside the U.S. VIJAY PRASHAD: Well Aaron, if you look at this in the long perspective, this is the 20th anniversary of the United States placing Hezbollah on the terrorism list. In these 20 years, rather than weaken Hezbollah, actually the policies of the United States and in a sense Hezbollah’s own policies have strengthened it. This 20 year attempt to destroy Hezbollah, whether it’s by U.S. sanctions, or by Israel’s very major war against Hezbollah in 2006. Neither of these have actually worked. Instead, what one has seen in this 20-year period, particularly over the past six years of when Hezbollah entered the civil war in Syria, is that Hezbollah has developed a much more sophisticated battlefield experience. The fighters appear to be more battle-ready, more battle hardened, rather than merely have rural battle experience. Now they have urban battle experience having fought, for instance, in the town of Qusayr in Syria. Hezbollah’s military capability has certainly increased. Add to that, Aaron, that after I think a very difficult period of fighting, the Syrian Army and its allies, including Iranian and Iraqi militias, have been able to open the southern road that leads from Iran through Iraq into Damascus and therefore to Beirut. What this road does is it allows Iran to resupply Hezbollah by road, which is far more cheaper than flying in goods by air into Damascus airport. For very many reasons, Hezbollah now is in a much stronger position than it was 20 years ago when the United States first put it on their terrorism list. It’s quite strange, therefore, that the United States is now attempting what appear to be quite anachronistic strategies to weaken Hezbollah. Putting bounties on people, etc. None of this has worked for 20 years. I doubt very much now with a much stronger Hezbollah that this will have any impact. AARON MATÉ: For people who aren’t familiar with Hezbollah’s history, they were founded in the early eighties in response to a very deadly Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Since then, when they’re spoken about in the West, they’re portrayed very commonly by many people, not just right-wingers, as supporters of terrorism. Inside Lebanon, they’re widely seen as a legitimate political force, a very popular one, who engages in resistance, who resist especially Israeli aggression and bombardments of their territory. Can you compare their actual record with the way they’re portrayed? I mean, and just now as we played that clip from the U.S. Counterterrorism Coordinator, saying that there’s a threat of Hezbollah developing capability to attack inside the United States. VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, so it is true that the United States has, at least since 1983, seen the previous incarnations of Hezbollah and then Hezbollah itself as a terrorist organization. It’s important to indicate why I said: “previous incarnations.” Before the actual creation of Hezbollah various groups existed in Lebanon that fought not only against the Israeli occupation, which was most brutal after 1982, although it began in the late 1970s. Not only against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and indeed Beirut, but also the presence of the United States. Now, here the Reagan administration sent Marines into Beirut. It was not clear what their mission was going to be, but it was a very large attack against these Marines. Indeed, one of the two men on whose head the United States has now placed a bounty, is accused by the United States as being operationally involved in that attack on the U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983. This was the precursor to Hezbollah. There were many groups that operated in the early 1980s. Several of them folded into Hezbollah later. This later enfolding is important, because it’s true that in the early period they acted rather anarchically against who they saw as the opposition, whether the United States, or Israeli targets. Once Hezbollah was formed, it was formed on two important axes. One, politically and ideologically it was formed with the belief that it had to defend Lebanon against the Israelis in particular, largely because the Lebanese Army was ineffectual, had been destroyed by the civil war. There was a political and ideological policy for the creation of Hezbollah. Related to this of course, was that it saw itself as the defenders of the Shia, the poorest section in Lebanese society. Then there was this military side where they organized with a lot of Iranian help. A very disciplined military force that operated in southern Lebanon against the Israelis and indeed then was able to get the Israelis to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. This is a very important aspect of Hezbollah’s history, which is why it’s called the resistance. Because indeed it’s one of the few examples in the Middle East of a guerrilla army that actually defeated the Israelis. This is how Hezbollah is seen by its own supporters inside Lebanon, but from the west of course it is seen entirely as a terrorist organization. Some of this is related to its very early beginnings, but also refracted through Israeli views, which see it as terrorist because it resists against Israeli actions inside Lebanon. There has been no real evidence over this last 20 year period that Hezbollah has attempted at any point to attack inside the United States. There are some outlandish arrests that take place, including two men arrested earlier this year were accused of being sleeper cells for the Islamist Jihad organization. Apparently, an offshoot of Hezbollah. There have been these arrests periodically. There’s been pressure inside the United States against supporters of Hezbollah, but there’s really no evidence and there’s no real strategic reason for Hezbollah to attempt anything inside the United States. AARON MATÉ: Right. Now, on the Syria front, when Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader just accused the U.S. of thwarting the fight against the Islamic State. What is he talking about there? VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, this is interesting. I mean, it is true that when Hezbollah entered the war inside Syria, very early into the conflict in 2011, and said that they were going to create a sort of cordon sanitaire, a wall between the Lebanese border and Syria, to prevent the entrance of what they considered extremist rebels from entering Lebanon and plunging it into a devastation that has taken place in Syria. When they did that, they put themselves squarely in the camp of those who were defending Syria from extremism. That has been the basic understanding of why they entered the Syrian conflict. That they were going to protect Lebanon and they were going to defeat the extremist. Well, ISIS appeared a few years ago inside Syria. First, sweeping through the northern part of Syria and then very much threatening the Lebanese border and Lebanon itself. Hezbollah saw ISIS as an existential enemy of everything they stand for and fought I think quite bravely in sections of southern Syria near the Israeli border against ISIS. What they have been saying, what Hezbollah leadership has been saying, is as they have fought ISIS along the border of Lebanon and also in northern Syria, in parts of northern Syria, they find that both Israeli aircraft and American aircraft have been attacking their positions and in a sense defending ISIS, whether for reasons, a mission, or commission allowing ISIS to have air cover. This has been a longstanding complaint by Hezbollah. Now what they’re saying is, turning attention away from ISIS and towards Iran and saying that Iranian allies in the region are the problem, is going to give ISIS a second wind. Just when it is quite close to being at least militarily defeated. I think here they perhaps have a point. That this renewed conflict by the Trump administration against Iran is definitely going to give the forces of ISIS some sense of relief. They will feel that they’re enemies, because they see the world in sectarian, through sectarian spectacles. They’ll see their enemies, namely Iran, now having the American gun sides pointed at them and this is going to give them, I think, a sense of boldness. AARON MATÉ: Vijay, in terms of your point about Hezbollah’s reasons for entering Syria. I mean, this gets us into the fraught debate around Syria, but I want to touch on it just very briefly. Wasn’t it not just that they wanted to take on groups that they saw as a threat given how sectarian they are, but also that they wanted to maintain their access to weapons from Iran, which they received through Syria. On that front, was there not a debate inside the Lebanese left on what Hezbollah should do? Because there were people who did not want Hezbollah to side with the Assad regime given its brutal crackdown on the initial protests against the regime. VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you’re quite right. This is far more complicated than I made out, when I made that comment. Let’s take the two points that you made sequentially. The first point, it is of course the case that Hezbollah is very reliant on Iranian arms and Iranian logistical support of various kinds, including military training. Damascus airport has been a crucial lifeline for the resupplying of Hezbollah. There is no way that Iran can send weaponry by sea and until the opening now of this land route, which also goes through Syria, there is no other way. Hezbollah understands that for its own military purposes, the necessity of having some sort of ally in Syria is imperative. If what they saw as the extremist people, whether it’s Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda group, or even Turkish backed groups, Ahrar al-Sham, other groups of that kind. If they had won in Damascus, they perhaps would not have allowed Hezbollah to be resupplied on sectarian grounds. This was their worry and they were quite open about this in 2011 and ’12. They had a practical reason to support the Syrian government. Let’s again not be too shy about this. The Iranians also encouraged Hezbollah to enter the conflict. At the time, the forces of Mr. Assad were deeply weakened. There were some defections. Not as many defections as perhaps the regional powers expected. There were some defections. There was also quite fierce fighting in the southwest of the country near Daraa. At that point, the Iranians encouraged Hezbollah to enter. There were a series of reasons why Hezbollah entered. I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of that cordon sanitaire they wanted to build. We should not underestimate the need to resupply weapons. Nor should we discount that the Iranians were very keen that Hezbollah and Iraqi militias enter. Perhaps on the one side to defend who the Iranians considered a somewhat ally. I mean, after all their alliances only deepened during this war. In 2011, Damascus and Tehran were not as close as they are now. Also, there were religious reasons. There was a fear that the Shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab in Damascus would be blown up by these extremist groups who have great hate for Shia institutions. When you see Beirut pictures of Hezbollah fighters who’ve been killed in Syria, they’re frequently positioned standing in front of the Sayyidah Zaynab Shrine in Damascus, as if to indicate to the public that this is why my son died in this conflict. He died because he was protecting that shrine. There were a series of reasons why Hezbollah went into the conflict. I think we shouldn’t put one more than the others. Finally, to your point about the debate. Certainly, there was a debate in 2011. There continued to be a debate for several years in the Lebanese left and indeed in Lebanese political society in general about whether Hezbollah should enter. Here, something interesting should be born in mind, which is that Sayyed Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah is a person of some great fortune, in that he’s seen as somebody who is able to make good strategic decisions. It was not a thought that Hezbollah would be able to defeat the Israelis and remove Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, but indeed it happened. In this case, it was not thought that Hezbollah was entering the side of the winners of this conflict. Indeed, it now appears that they have entered the side of the winners. This has continued to earn Hezbollah some legitimacy inside Lebanon, despite the fact that there was and continues to be, I think, great disagreement inside the left about whether Hezbollah should’ve entered the conflict in the first place. AARON MATÉ: Okay. Finally, Vijay the last major armed conflict between Israeli and Hezbollah, as you discussed earlier, was in 2006. There’s been talk ever since then of Israeli launching another invasion. Certainly, seeing the Trump administration come out and talk about Hezbollah as being a potential threat to the U.S. homeland, some people will look at that and be concerned that that maybe it’s part of an effort to lay the groundwork for another Israeli attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon. As we wrap, your thoughts on that? VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, there’s an anthropologist, Sami Hermez, who has written a book about anticipations of violence in Lebanon. Lebanon has lived for a very long period anticipating the next war prosecuted by Israel. Every summer there’s an indication that there may be another attack, another bombing, another this, another that. Every day there are Israeli planes that violate Lebanese air space. The sense that there may be an attack is … An impending attack, that’s constant. Will there be an attack now? Certainly, if the United States wants to ramp up pressure on Iran, the tension in the region is going to increase greatly and war might take place. This would not be like the war in 2006 for two reasons. One, the Hezbollah arsenal has much increased, including its missile capabilities. Secondly, the troops are much more battle hardened and I am not sure that the Israelis would risk a conflict where they don’t have asymmetrical advantage. Unless the United States joins the Israelis in the air, I think the Israelis won’t have the kind of asymmetrical advantage that propels them into war. Israel has not been to war in the last three decades, unless they have an easy advantage over their adversaries. It’s one thing to go and bomb Gaza, where there’s very little ability of the Palestinians to defend themselves. It’ll be another to attempt an attack on Lebanon. AARON MATÉ: Vijay Prashad, professor of International Studies at Trinity College, author of more than 20 books. Vijay, thank you. VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot. AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.