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Assassination of top Hezbollah officer in Syria shows group's new vulnerability

The conflict in Syria has drawn in thousands of fighters from the Shiite militant group, stretching its once ironclad security to the point where its top officers are vulnerable to attack from Israel.

Hezbollah Media Department via AP
This undated handout image released on Friday by Hezbollah Media Department, shows slain top military commander Mustafa Badreddine smiling during a meeting. Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group said its top military commander Mustafa Badreddine was killed in Syria.

The top military commander of Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization in Syria has been killed in what the Iran-backed party described Friday as a “large explosion” near the Damascus airport.

While initial analysis suggests Israel is the main suspect, Hezbollah officially has not apportioned blame for the death of Mustafa Badreddine. But if it does, it will surely escalate tensions along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon and the Golan Heights in Syria, where the powerful Lebanese party has a military presence.

Regardless, the assassination of a veteran commander who was closeted in tight security would suggest that Hezbollah has grown more vulnerable to specific targeting by Israel in recent years as it has swelled in terms of manpower, challenging its traditionally air-tight operational security.

Officially, Hezbollah says it is still conducting an investigation into the incident, the results of which would be announced soon.

“According to preliminary reports, a large explosion targeted one of our positions near Damascus international airport, killing brother commander Mustafa Badreddine and wounding other people,” Hezbollah said in a statement. “We are going to pursue an inquiry to determine the nature and cause of the explosion and ascertain whether it was the result of an air strike, a missile, or artillery fire.”

Speaking at Badreddine's funeral Friday evening, Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy leader, said that the party had a clear indication who was responsible for the blast but would withhold judgement until the investigation was completed. He said that the results of the investigation would be revealed in less than a day.

If Israel was responsible for Badreddine’s death, he would be only the latest in a series of top commanders killed by the Jewish state since the last major war between these two enemies in July 2006. An assassination by Israel of a figure as senior as Badreddine will compel Hezbollah to mount a retaliation, albeit a measured response to avoid an escalation with Israel that could spiral into a war that neither side presently seeks, diplomats and analysts say.

In the 1990s, when Hezbollah was fighting a resistance campaign against Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, the organization was much smaller and practiced almost obsessive levels of secrecy, making it near impossible for Israel to penetrate and kill senior commanders.

But since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has expanded enormously, from a force of a few thousand to a standing army of tens of thousands. While it is a more powerful entity than 20 years ago, its size has made it more susceptible to infiltration by Israel through the recruitment of spies within the party’s ranks or exploiting opportunities to assassinate top cadres.

A wanted man

Badreddine was a veteran member of Hezbollah and close colleague and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s military commander, who was assassinated in a car bomb explosion attributed to Israel in Damascus in February 2008.

Like Mughniyah, Badreddine’s name was linked to the 1983 US Marine barracks bombing at Beirut airport, which killed 241 American servicemen. In March 1984, he was jailed and sentenced to death by a Kuwait court for carrying out a string of bombings in the Gulf state. But he escaped from jail in 1990 during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, made his way back to Lebanon, rejoined the ranks of Hezbollah, and disappeared from sight.

Badreddine’s name next emerged in 2009 when he was linked to the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who died in a truck bomb explosion in central Beirut in February 2005. He was indicted for the assassination by an international tribunal in 2011 and is currently being tried in absentia in The Netherlands.

Hezbollah has many heads and some are visible to the public, such as its social affairs networks, its political leadership, parliamentarians, and cabinet ministers.

But Badreddine belonged to a murkier, secretive world in which Hezbollah’s military and security personnel operate far from the public gaze. He did not give media interviews and the only confirmed photograph of him before his death dated back to the 1980s, showing a tousle-headed mustachioed man with a wide roguish grin.

On announcing his death Friday, Hezbollah issued a recent picture showing him wearing a camouflage military uniform, looking older, chubbier, and sporting a light grizzled beard but still flashing the same smile as the shot from the '80s.

Like a spy novel

The tribunal’s indictment against Badreddine noted that there was no official data of him in Lebanon, no property nor bank accounts registered in his name, no records of traveling in and out of the country.

“Badreddine passes as an unrecognized and virtually untraceable ghost throughout Lebanon, leaving no footprint,” the indictment said.

Yet details of his lifestyle did leak out from the tribunal as the investigation into the Hariri killing unfolded, details that would not look out of place in a spy novel. Badreddine, a Shiite, reportedly had an alter ego named Sami Issa, a Christian Lebanese, who owned a string of jewelry shops, dated numerous women, had a private yacht, and gambled at the Casino du Liban.

Lately, Badreddine was associated with the war in Syria, where Hezbollah has deployed thousands of fighters to help safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US Treasury Department last year claimed that Badreddine had been Hezbollah’s commander in Syria since 2011 and attended regular meetings between Assad and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus.

No comment from Israel

Israel characteristically is making no comment on Badreddine’s death. But Yaacov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that regardless of who was responsible it was “good news for Israel.”

“From Israel’s view, the more people with experience, like Badreddine, who disappear from the wanted list, the better,” he said.

Israel has conducted a number of anti-Hezbollah operations on Syrian soil in recent years. Last month, Netanyahu confirmed for the first time that Israeli jets had bombed Hezbollah arms convoys or weapons storage facilities in Syria on multiple occasions since 2013, describing the organization’s acquisition of sophisticated armaments as a “red line.”

Israel is also believed to have played a key role in the assassination of Mughniyah in 2008. In December 2013, Hassan Laqqis, a top Hezbollah military technician, was gunned down outside his home in southern Beirut, allegedly by Israeli agents. In January 2015, Mughniyah’s son, Jihad, and an Iranian general were killed in an Israeli drone strike on the Golan Heights. Five months ago, Israeli jets bombed a building in Damascus, killing Samir Kuntar, who had been organizing anti-Israel militias in Syria.

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