Hezbollah faces tricky task after Syria commander killed
The recent killing of top Hezbollah military commander Mustafa Badreddine has placed before the party a tough choice of selecting a successor who can fill his very large shoes.
Badreddine was a legendary commander who had succeeded an even more famous commander, Imad Mughniyah, who was assassinated in Damascus eight years ago.
Both were shadowy figures who moved around like ghosts plotting and striking targets, not just in and around Lebanon, but throughout the Middle East and beyond. Badreddine is part of a dying breed that will be very hard for Hezbollah to replace, especially in a middle of a vicious war of attrition in Syria, an aggressive US campaign to clamp down on the party’s financial resources and the ever-present Israeli threat.
When it comes to experience in espionage, guerrilla warfare and fighting, Badreddine has been there and done it all. He operated in Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and other places that many of us might not ever know. He did things with his own hands from planting bombs to pulling triggers, plotting schemes and carrying them out. He operated when the world was still caught up in a Cold War between the East and the West and witnessed the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the birth of Hezbollah.
The version released by Hezbollah on the cause of Badreddine’s death does not seem to hold that much weight. He was reported to have been killed by shrapnel from an artillery shell fired by an unknown Syrian rebel group while he was near his quarters near Damascus International Airport. However, well-informed intelligence sources in Beirut said he was killed by an Israeli air-dropped weapon that hit his flat near the airport. Hezbollah is believed to be intent on avoiding implicating Israel to spare itself the obligation of retaliating against it, which would spark an unwanted war.
Media reports have spoken about several possible successors, including Badreddine’s nephew, Mughniyah’s son Mustafa, who is a bit too young and inexperienced for the job. Other reports mentioned Ibrahim Aqeel and Imad Shakar, two veterans who worked for Badreddine and Mughniyah before him. Both are on US wanted lists of terrorists for their involvement in attacks against Western targets. They have also been around and done it all, and keep very low profile.
Hezbollah’s priority now is to restore morale among party members, especially the combatants on the front lines in Syria. The party has suffered heavy losses over the past months on the Aleppo front and the death of its military commander will further undermine the low morale of the fighters.
The party wants to pick somebody qualified for the job and his name will have a strong psychological impact on Israel. The party needs a military commander that Hezbollah’s adversaries will take seriously. That is why selecting the right successor is crucial to generate a positive shock among Hezbollah ranks.
According to a Hezbollah official, the party’s leadership prepares multiple succession scenarios related to its top commanders. “We are all under constant threat of elimination by Israeli and Western agents and hence the leadership always has a number of names ready to fill any position that would become unexpectedly vacant,” he added.
“It is not the first time we lose a military commander and will not be the last. We are on this path to the death,” he said.
Of course, it is not clear how Hezbollah members would feel about seeing a commander with such a career fall in a civil war in Syria instead of fighting Israel or the West. “We are in Syria fighting for a lost cause,” a Hezbollah official told me two years ago. I wonder how he feels now.