Killing of Badreddine spells trouble for Hezbollah

Sunday 22/05/2016
Members of Lebanon’s Shia militant group Hezbollah carry a portrait of Mustafa Badreddine during his funeral in southern Beirut, on May 13th.

Beirut - Mustafa Amine Badred­dine, known by his nom de guerre Sayyed Zul Fikar — “Sayyed” denoting his claim to being a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad and “Zul Fikar”, the fabled sword of Imam Ali, the most revered of the Shia heroes — died as he had lived most of his adult life: cloaked in mystery and intrigue.
It is not even clear who killed him because he had more enemies than he could count. The circumstances of his death in Damascus on May 12th remain murky and outside of Hezbollah’s notoriously secretive ruling clique it is anyone’s guess whether he was killed by the Israe­lis, Syrian rebels, jihadists or even, as some mutter darkly, by Iran or his own people because of rifts over the war in Syria.
There have been reports that Badreddine clashed with Hezbol­lah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and the party’s military council over his refusal to Iran’s demand he throw more of his men into the savage bat­tle for Aleppo because they had al­ready suffered withering casualties.
Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of the Now Lebanon website and a critic of Hezbollah, observed that “whoever was behind the assassina­tion, this mood of doubt and suspi­cion has brought to the surface con­cerns that Hezbollah and Lebanon’s Shia community possess about Iran, their main ally and patron in Syria”.
But his death in a “large explo­sion” in a warehouse in Hezbollah’s heavily guarded Al Sharaf com­pound, part of the military section of Damascus International Airport, around midnight May 12th after a meeting with his officers, appears to have been a serious security lapse that could not have come at a worse time for Hezbollah.
The Party of God, which drove the Israelis out of southern Lebanon in 2000, then fought the Jewish state’s vaunted military to a “divine vic­tory” standstill in a 34-day war in 2006, is in the throes of a transition from a tight-knit guerrilla group of a few thousand men mounting small-unit, hit-and-run attacks against Israel to something akin to a con­ventional army with a vast arsenal of 15,000 missiles by Israel’s count.
Hezbollah’s massive growth, largely the result of its 2006 war with Israel and its intervention in the Syrian war from 2012, has left it vulnerable to infiltration by its en­emies, particularly Israel and more recently Saudi Arabia.
Israel’s intelligence services have long penetrated Hezbollah’s once seemingly watertight internal secu­rity. Scores of Lebanese working for Israel, including several army offic­ers, have been uncovered in recent years.
“Regardless of who was behind the killing, the bottom line is that Badreddine’s death is a significant blow to Hezbollah, operationally and mentally,” observed Nadav Pol­lak and Matthew Levitt of the Israel-friendly Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The incident is also a big blow to the group’s image as undefeatable and untouchable. If Badreddine can be killed in Syria, no Hezbollah com­mander is safe there… Nasrallah will eventually need to blame someone, in part to show his supporters in Lebanon that the group does not back down.”
Israeli infiltration led to the assas­sination of several Hezbollah lead­ers, most notably Hezbollah’s mili­tary commander Imad Mughniyeh, Badreddine’s cousin, brother-in-law who was killed in an explosion in Damascus in February 2008.
Four other senior Hezbollah chief­tains have also been assassinated, all supposedly by Israel in the last 16 months, an abysmal security record.
Mughniyeh’s son Jihad was killed along with other senior Hezbollah figures and an Iranian general Janu­ary 15th, 2015, in an Israeli air strike in the war-divided Golan Heights, a clear warning to Iran and its proxy to keep out. Afterwards, Nasrallah declared: “We in Lebanon’s Islamic Resistance are no longer interested in anything called ‘rules of battle’.”
But amid Hezbollah’s almost in­coherent account of the Badreddine assassination, Nasrallah’s warning sounds increasingly hollow, a falli­bility that Hezbollah, with its care­fully cultured image of impregnabil­ity, cannot afford.
The Jewish state was initially seen as being behind the Badreddine kill­ing but Hezbollah went out of its way to point the finger elsewhere. These highly visible efforts to avoid blaming Israel, its sworn enemy, il­lustrate its quandaries — and its weakness.
Under the arcane rules of Middle Eastern warfare, the assassination of someone of Badreddine’s status requires retaliation against a target of equal value. However, if Hezbol­lah did that, it risks touching off a war with Israel, something the Par­ty of God cannot afford while it is pinned down in Syria.
Not to do so would mean an enor­mous loss of face, so better then to blame Syrian rebels, even if the cov­er story is full of holes.
Even before Badreddine’s myste­rious death, Hezbollah’s credibility as the region’s most powerful non-state military force was suffering because of its inability to carry out Nasrallah’s vow to avenge Mughni­yeh. Eight years on, almost all of at least 27 attempts to hit Israeli tar­gets across the globe have failed.
The fallout from the Badreddine affair also highlights a general di­minishing of Hezbollah’s image as an enlightened protector of and pro­vider for Lebanon’s long-marginal­ised Shias. As its power has grown, it has been transformed into a major corporate power with financial fin­gers in everything from construc­tion to retailing.
This has left it prey to the kind of systemic corruption that ruined the Palestine Liberation Organisation, from which the embryonic Hezbol­lah drew its first recruits in the early 1980s, and emasculated its ideologi­cal aspiration of restoring Palestine to its rightful owners.
At home, many Shias in Lebanon, particularly those whose relatives are dying in ever-increasing num­bers in the Syrian inferno, are ques­tioning why Hezbollah, self-styled champion of the oppressed, is sup­porting a tyrannical regime that is slaughtering its own people.
Hezbollah declared in a statement that Badreddine’s death, which the party said was at the hands of “tak­firi“ Sunni extremists, “will increase our commitment and will and per­severance in continuing to battle these criminal gangs and defeat them”.
Perhaps so. But Hezbollah has paid a steep price for its Syrian in­volvement: an estimated 1,200 dead — some tallies go as high as 2,000 — with triple that number of wound­ed. That compares with 1,276 dead during its entire 1982-2000 guerrilla war against Israel in southern Leba­non.
It is hard to know Hezbollah’s losses for sure because it does not provide statistics, in part, at least, because if the extent of the losses were known, it could trigger a popu­lar wave of anger that would leave the party’s leaders precariously iso­lated.
That is a situation that could have strategic implications for Tehran and the army of Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian, Afghan and Pakistani Shias it has assembled to do much of its fighting against the seemingly in­coherent jumble of Sunni rebels, Is­lamists, Kurds and Turkmen backed by the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and others.