Iran, Hezbollah snared in Aleppo death trap
BEIRUT - The mysterious death of Mustafa Badreddine, Hezbollah’s military commander in Syria, in Damascus, followed a battle just south of the northern city of Aleppo six days earlier in which the Party of God and its Iranian allies had 80 fighters killed.
It is not clear whether there is a connection between Badreddine’s death May 12th and the heavy losses suffered by pro-regime forces fighting around the strategic village of Khan Tuman, 15km south-west of Aleppo at the hands of al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria, and Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), a powerful jihadist-led alliance.
But there have been reports of friction between Badreddine and the Iranians, who essentially control regime ground forces, including Hezbollah’s expeditionary group, over his leadership.
Indeed, the Iranian commander, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who heads the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and is the overall commander of regime forces, was reportedly with Badreddine in the latter’s Syrian headquarters in Hezbollah’s high-security Al Sharaf base in the military section of Damascus International Airport half an hour before Badreddine died in an explosion.
By all accounts, Badreddine was the only casualty, raising further questions about the circumstances of his death.
Hezbollah said the base was hit by a rebel artillery shell but no rebel artillery or missile fire had been reported in that area that day. Hezbollah’s explanation remains confused and unconvincing, further complicated by the reported friction between Tehran and Badreddine over the conduct of the war against rebel forces.
The BBC quoted an official of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that monitors the Syrian conflict, as saying: “It’s well known that Badreddine was on bad terms with the [IRGC].”
It is not known what Soleimani and Badreddine discussed at their fateful meeting May 12th but the carnage at Khan Tuman and its consequences were undoubtedly the elephants in the room.
What is clear is that the long, drawn-out battle for Aleppo, which has left much of that historic city in ruins, has become the central front in Syria’s savage war and that in the days ahead the bitter fighting in and around the northern city will escalate and that Hezbollah and the IRGC-led Iranian forces will suffer more heavy losses to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
Regime forces hold the west of the city, which was once Syria’s economic heart, and rebel factions control the eastern sector. Despite heavy assaults, pro-regime forces have been unable to break the Aleppo stalemate. This and heavy losses at Khan Tuman and elsewhere have reflected badly on both Soleimani and Badreddine.
Indeed, the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor has cited “unverified reports” that Soleimani, hailed as Tehran’s hero in Iraq and Syria over the last decade, “may be replaced by his deputy as head of Iranian oversight in Syria and Iraq and moved to focus on Lebanon instead”.
“The encirclement of Aleppo city constitutes a strategic priority for each member of the pro-regime coalition arrayed on the ground,” Christopher Kozak, Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, observed in an April 28th analysis as the current phase of combat escalated.
For Assad “the return of the largest urban centre in the country to government control would bolster his claim to legitimate rule over ‘all corners’ of Syria and buttress his position at the table during any future negotiations with the international community”, he noted.
“A successful campaign to encircle Aleppo city would also constitute a serious blow to the morale of opposition groups that have contested the city since mid-2012, opening the door to further advances against the opposition in core regime areas such as Latakia and Homs provinces.”
Kozak went on: “In some ways, the urban stalemate in Aleppo city reflects the wider balance of the Syrian civil war — and its fall would provide a bellwether of the regime’s resiliency in the face of its foreign and domestic opponents.
“Russia and Iran have thus dedicated their main efforts towards a multi-pronged offensive in Aleppo province since the start of their intensified military intervention in late 2015…
“The competing geostrategic agendas centred upon Aleppo city also risk driving further regional conflict that empowers US adversaries.”
The Levantine Group, an independent security risk consultancy that monitors Iranian casualties in Syria, said in a May 2nd report that Iran had suffered as many casualties in the last six months as in the first two years of its involvement in Syria.
Tehran has sought to play down the losses and Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said Syrian government forces, including Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters, are preparing to mount a “large-scale” operation to retake Khan Tuman, which they had captured in December 2015.
That is likely to be a hard fight with more Iranian and Lebanese casualties. Prior to the Khan Tuman setback, losses among Iranian forces alone were believed to total at least 700 since 2013. The Levantine Group says 280 of these were killed between Russia’s intervention in the war on September 30th, 2015, and May 2nd.