[This post is adapted from an article for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books.]
The circumstances of Hezbollah “Defense Minister” Mustafa Badreddine’s death are shrouded in mystery, as was most of his life in the underground. Hezbollah released an official statement on Saturday, saying that he was assassinated a few days ago by Syrian rebels near the Damascus airport.
This was startlingly different from previous assassinations of senior Hezbollah commanders. The Lebanese Shi’ite group used to always — like a habitual reflex — blame Israel.
The official announcement seemed to clear Israel of responsibility for killing Badreddine — a mere eight years after his brother-in-law and powerful predecesssor, Imad Mughniyeh, was assassinated in Damascus. The Mughniyeh killing was the result of a joint Israeli-U.S. intelligence operation, according to several sources, although neither government has acknowledged liquidating one of their most virulent enemies.
True, Arab media did quote a Hezbollah politician in Lebanon — as well as several former Iranian generals — as saying “the rebels” are working under the orders of “the Zionists.” But all in all, it is clear that Hezbollah does not wish to escalate its war against Israel — not at this time.
It remains unclear how Badreddine was killed. There are reports that he died in an artillery blast, and others which claim he was hit by a missile, and even some reports that the missile was fired from an airplane. In any event, it is clear that those who planned and carried out the assassination had precise intelligence information.
Israel did not officially comment on who might have killed Badreddine, but politicians in the government in Jerusalem tried to add an air of mystery by acting as though the whole matter is too delicate to say anything about.
The United States government did state it was not involved in the Hezbollah leader’s death.
Yet it is strange that no one claimed responsibility for the killing — not even one of the Sunni Muslim rebel groups in Syria.
The list of those who wanted Badreddine eliminated was long. In addition to the U.S., Israel, and Syrian rebels, the governments of France, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others must be glad that one of the most cruel and wanted terrorists in the world is dead.
The possibility has also been raised that he was killed by one of his rivals within Hezbollah, but that is most likely disinformation being spread by some intelligence agency’s psychological warfare department.
However, it is reputed that Badreddine did have some sharp arguments with other senior Hezbollah commanders in recent years — as the Lebanese Shi’ites increasingly sustained losses in the Syrian civil war, obviously ordered by their Iranian paymasters to plunge into that war with gusto.
Badreddine is also said to have had disagreements with the Iranian Al-Quds Force, led by General Qassem Soleimani, who practically is in charge of Shi’ite militias and violent organizations around the world. These arguments developed because of Badreddine’s operational ideas — which seemed to border on crazy hallucinations; as well as a reckless lifestyle that seemed to emulate his hero, the assassinated Mughniyeh.
Yet it has not been the practice of Hezbollah and Iran to settle accounts within their own ranks, within “the family,” so to speak, by liquidating non-conformists.
In rare cases, Hezbollah and Iran have put people on trial for espionage or treason — and those cases naturally ended in executions. Yet in cases of disobedience, Hezbollah men are simply stripped of their positions.
It also would not make sense for Iran and Hezbollah to get rid of one of their most important commanders, right in the middle of a crucial stage in Syria’s civil war. Three years ago, Hezbollah sent 6,000 combatants to fight the rebels — in order to save the Bashar al-Assad regime, an objective later backed emphatically by Russia’s military.
Killing Badreddine would require Hezbolla to replace him with a less experienced commander.
So who did it? Similar to the outcome (spoiler alert!) of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, it is even conceivable that all of Badreddine’s foes — or an unusual group of them — teamed up to find him and eliminate him.
Israel may have had a hand in that. Or not. But further weakening of Hezbollah’s capabilities and morale is certainly a good thing for Israel’s strategy.