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Nicholas Blanford

Takfiri culprits

Hezbollah’s declaration that shelling by extremist groups in Syria was responsible for the death of Mustafa Badreddine last week has raised more questions than answers

Adnan (C-L) and Hassan Badreddine (C-R), brothers of slain top Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine who was killed in an attack in Syria, mourn next to his casket during the funeral in the Ghobeiry neighborhood of southern Beirut on May 13, 2016. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Hezbollah’s declaration that shelling by extremist groups in Syria was responsible for the death of Mustafa Badreddine last week has raised more questions than answers.

 

The initial assumption was that Israel had assassinated Badreddine with an airstrike against a building in which he was staying near Damascus International Airport. Israel has the means and motive for such an act and it would fit the pattern of Israeli assassinations of senior Hezbollah cadres in recent years. But on Saturday morning it turned out that Hezbollah had an alternative culprit in mind. A statement declared that Badreddine had been caught in an artillery bombardment by “takfiri” groups present in the area. Hezbollah did not say whether it thought the militants had gained intelligence on Badreddine’s whereabouts and targeted him accordingly or simply hit him by chance.

 

Nevertheless, the explanation was unconvincing for many people. Hezbollah has not revealed the date of Badreddine’s death, although a politician close to the party told the Associated Press that the veteran resistance commander was killed on Thursday. But the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there had been no reports of shelling in the Damascus airport area since before Wednesday.

 

Crucially, there were no claims of responsibility from any of the rebel groups operating in the area, which includes Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate. Indeed, the silence from the rebel factions in the Damascus area even after Hezbollah announced on Friday that Badreddine was dead is puzzling in itself given that many of them usually waste little time claiming credit for actions for which they had no involvement.

 

The one claim of responsibility from the rebels came from the Jaysh al-Sunna group which said it had killed Badreddine in Khan Touman in southern Aleppo province. If that were true, why would Hezbollah hide it and make up a story about “takfiris” killing Badreddine much further south in the Damascus airport area?

 

Also it is unclear what weapon system would be in the hands of rebel groups in the vicinity of Damascus airport that could account for the “large explosion” that Hezbollah said on Friday killed Badreddine. Diplomatic sources in Beirut confirmed that there really was a powerful blast near Damascus airport on Thursday even if its origin remains unknown.

 

Ash Sharq al-Awsat newspaper reported on Sunday that the nearest rebel groups to Damascus airport are about 12 kilometers away. That puts them within range of heavy artillery and a variety of surface-to-surface rockets, such as the 122mm Grad. But these are unguided systems and it would have been an exceptionally lucky (for the rebels) hit to kill Badreddine with one, even if they were aware of his location and aiming for it.

 

Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Hezbollah, had an intriguing article on Saturday claiming that Badreddine had been killed by a sophisticated guided missile which exploded a few meters from him. There was no mention of the means of delivery, whether jet, drone or even troops on the ground perhaps armed with a long-range anti-tank missile.

 

One avenue of speculation is that Hezbollah chose not to blame Israel because it is unwilling to risk an escalation with its old foe while busy fighting in Syria. However, this would be a most uncharacteristic course of action by Hezbollah and it would severely erode the deterrence posture it has spent years crafting against Israel. It seems, therefore, that Hezbollah has good reason to absolve Israel for this particular death beyond apprehension of igniting the southern front.

 

Other theories suggest that Badreddine was killed as part of an internal feud or possibly because of his alleged connection to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The internal dynamics among Hezbollah’s leadership and top security personnel rarely see the light of day and the notion that Badreddine was dispatched by party rivals will remain conjecture. As for the linkage to the Hariri assassination, Hezbollah long ago moved on from fretting over the ramifications of the investigation and trial having conducted a skillful and well-presented propaganda campaign in 2010 to undermine the credibility of the tribunal. Today, events in the region have relegated news of the tribunal’s plodding proceedings to the back pages of newspapers.

 

Sources close to Hezbollah’s thinking are suggesting that certain Arab intelligence services could have had a hand in Badreddine’s death, with those of Saudi Arabia and Jordan topping the list. That may help explain how Badreddine might have been tracked down, but not necessarily shed light on how he was killed.

 

One diplomatic source suggested that the perpetrator of the assassination could have operated via a proxy organization, pointing to the still clandestine linkages between Israel and Jabhat al-Nusra. The source noted that the Israeli military has been cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra on the Golan Heights through a small intermediary group and has furnished the Al-Qaeda affiliate with weapons, intelligence and even helped write some of their press releases. Whether Israel utilized its relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra for a deniable strike against Badreddine remains, of course, speculative.

 

The truth behind Badreddine’s death may never be known, but what is evident is that it will make no difference to Hezbollah’s ongoing combat role in Syria. Badreddine’s replacement may well have been chosen already and will likely be as efficient as his predecessor. The mystery over Badreddine’s demise notwithstanding, it is business as usual for Hezbollah.

 

Nicholas Blanford is Beirut correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

Adnan (C-L) and Hassan Badreddine (C-R), brothers of slain top Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine who was killed in an attack in Syria, mourn next to his casket during the funeral in the Ghobeiry neighborhood of southern Beirut on May 13, 2016. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

It seems, therefore, that Hezbollah has good reason to absolve Israel for this particular death beyond apprehension of igniting the southern front.