Hanin Ghaddar

Badreddine hit sparks fear among Lebanon’s Shiites

Is Iran an ally? Some within the Lebanese Shiite community are reevaluating after the murky killing of a top Hezbollah commander in Syria

Supporters of Hezbollah attend the funeral of Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah commander who was killed in an attack in Syria, in the Ghobeiry neighborhood of southern Beirut on May 13, 2016. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Someone assassinated top Hezbollah military commander Mustafa Badreddine last week. It is still unclear who did it, but the death led to obvious confusion and ambiguity among the Party of God and the Shiite community. From the manner in which his death was announced, to the too quick investigation into the incident and the shift in blame from Israel to “takfiris”—all are signs of doubt, indecision and insecurity.


When Hezbollah announced the results of the investigation into Badreddine’s death on Saturday, no one believed them. Their own supporters did not believe it and they are still asking questions. No one is convinced that Badreddine died in battle like any other soldier because they all know how careful the commander used to travel around.  They know that Hezbollah is lying. But whoever was behind the assassination, this mood of doubt and suspicion has brought to the surface concerns that Hezbollah and the Lebanon’s Shiite community possess about Iran, their main ally and patron in Syria.


There are fears among the Shiite community that Badreddine could have been assassinated by an ally. At the beginning, Shiite fingers were pointing at three suspects: the Syrian regime, who could have given his details to either Israel or the “takfiris”; the Russians, who may have had beef with Badreddine himself; or the Iranians, who are desperate to open a new page with the West. But word on the street today is that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is to blame.  


One theory is that Iran is desperately trying to please the West, even if it is at Hezbollah’s expense. Iran is enjoying new investment as a result of the nuclear deal it concluded with the US and other world powers while Hezbollah is currently facing new brutal sanctions. Iran is leading the battle in Syria while Hezbollah is suffering the most losses. Iran is making deals with the West while Arab Shiites are isolated more than ever. In addition, Badreddine—having been indicted by the international tribunal investigating Hariri’s death –may have become a liability to the powerbrokers in Tehran.


Another theory is that serious tension had arisen recently between Badreddine and the IRGC, mainly over the battle for Aleppo. According to sources, Iran asked Badreddine to deploy more Hezbollah fighters in Aleppo and its surrounding towns, but he refused because of large number of casualties Hezbollah recently suffered in the Aleppo area. This allegedly did not go well with the revolutionary guards. 


But the issue seems to be deeper than this.


Komeil, a Hezbollah fighter in Syria, told me that Hezbollah fighters are becoming more and more restless with the Iranian forces in Syria. “We were surprised with the Iranian’s weak military skills. We thought we’d be protected by them, but we were actually more skilled and they depended on us for protection.” He added that he was disappointed with the explanation of Badreddine’s death by Hezbollah’s leadership because it was not convincing at all. “We know from battles that the rebels do not have the military capability or advanced weapons to do this.”


As for working with the Iranians in Syria, Komeil says they’re cheap and arrogant. “Many of our fighters refuse to cooperate with the Iranians. They’re asking us to die for them and I don’t want to sacrifice myself for anyone. Sometimes I feel I’m fighting alongside enemies who do not care if I am dead.”


“We – as Hezbollah – should ask ourselves why we couldn’t accomplish anything in Syria, although we have advanced weapons, while the old Hezbollah generation achieved so much with more traditional weapons. We are fighting on the wrong land,” Komeil concludes.


This feeling of frustration and discontent is spreading among Hezbollah fighters who feel that they are going to Syria to die for both the regime and Iran, without benefiting Lebanon, or more precisely, the Shiite community in Lebanon.


Another source pointed out that the Iranians responded to the killing of Badreddine in a detached way, if you compare it to their response and rhetoric when Imad Mughniyeh was killed. An Iranian presidential eulogy was released for Mughniyeh and the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon spoke during his funeral. The Iranian foreign minister also came to Beirut especially for the occasion, accompanied by a large delegation of political and military figures. None of this happened during Badreddine’s funeral. The official Iranian presence was trivial in comparison.


Whether Iran was actually behind the assassination or not, this incident has prompted a wave of criticism against the revolutionary guards and the Iranian regime. This is not a new phenomenon, as the questioning of Iranian motives began last year after the conclusion of the nuclear agreement. Shiites in Lebanon started to realize that they’ve been played, and that Iran is starting to reap the benefits after decades of war with the West during which the Shiite community had to offer their blood and their lives.


Badreddine’s true killers will not be revealed any time soon, but the tension between Hezbollah and Iran will be exposed and inflamed with every loss, every assassination and every betrayal. The Lebanese Shiites are realizing that this is not an alliance, not a partnership, but rather a relation between a superior and his subordinates. The problem is that Hezbollah is no longer the savior. No one is.


Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @haningdr 

Supporters of Hezbollah attend the funeral of Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah commander who was killed in an attack in Syria, in the Ghobeiry neighborhood of southern Beirut on May 13, 2016. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

We know from battles that the rebels do not have the military capability or advanced weapons to do this.

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    May 21, 2016