Killing of Badreddine spells trouble for Hezbollah
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.