Death of Military Chief Deals Biggest Blow to Hezbollah in Syria War Yet

Escalation between Israel and Hezbollah is unlikely after the group in Lebanon blamed Sunni rebels for the killing of its senior commander, but how was Badreddine the only victim of an artillery barrage?

Hezbollah Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan (L) comforts the brother of Hezbollah's Mustafa Badreddine, as Hezbollah members carry his coffin during his funeral in Beirut, Lebanon, May 13, 2016.
Aziz Taher, Reuters

Hezbollah's announcement Saturday that top commander Mustafa Badreddine was killed by shelling by Sunni rebels removes the threat of an escalation between the Shi’ite organization and Israel.

Hezbollah’s announcement is consistent with early indications on the Israeli side. It seems both sides know that the blame this time lies with a third party, and that they have no interest in increasing the threat of a renewed conflict between them.

True, the incident leaves many unanswered questions. Which rebel group has the ability to launch an artillery barrage in which Badreddine is the only person killed? And which rebel group has resisted boasting about the achievement and issuing a statement on its success?

Hezbollah and Israel view the incident as closed. Hezbollah will focus on its efforts to keep the Assad regime alive, while Israel maintains a low profile in the Syrian civil war.

No one outside the Shi’ite camp will be particularly sorry over Badreddine’s demise. Over decades he accumulated many enemies – not only in Israel and the West, but also in the Arab world.

Overall, there is a deterrent in the fact that so many Hezbollah leaders do not die of old age. One thinks of Mughniyeh, his son Jihad, Hassan al-Laqqis and the group’s former head, Abbas al-Musawi. They spent most of their lives planning terrorist acts against civilians.

Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s current leader, is all but isolated at the organization’s top. Only a few survivors remain of the people who founded Hezbollah in the early 1980s and directed its first steps (a process accelerated by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982).

Badreddine, Mughniyeh’s brother-in-law, took on some of the latter’s responsibilities after Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008.

Badreddine’s death is the most painful loss Hezbollah has sustained so far in the Syrian civil war. The organization ramped up its involvement in the fighting in 2012 following an appeal by President Bashar Assad and his instructions from Iran.

Since then, several senior commanders have been killed, though no one as senior as Badreddine. Israeli defense officials estimate that 1,600 Hezbollah fighters have died so far in the war, with more than 5,000 wounded. Almost 5,000 fighters from Lebanon are now involved in the fighting, almost one quarter of the group’s rank and file.

Still, there are advantages to the organization’s taking part in the fighting in Syria. The IDF describes great improvements in the organization’s ability to field large formations, using technology and intelligence. There is of course also the combat experience gained by fighters and commanders alike.

Whereas Israel once depicted Hezbollah as a terrorist organization using guerilla tactics, it now considers it a small army. Some of its capabilities – mainly its arsenal of rockets and missiles – top what many Middle Eastern countries can do.

Badreddine’s assassination extends a bad stretch in Syria for Iran and Hezbollah. Although the Russian military presence, along with a loose cease-fire, served Assad well, stopping the loss of ground to rebels that peaked last summer, the war is taking a heavy toll on Iran and Hezbollah.

There were reports last month of the death of Iranian officers in clashes with rebels near Aleppo. In battles around the town of Khan Tuman, south of Aleppo, dozens of Iranian Revolutionary Guards reportedly were killed or captured by Sunni rebels, leading to calls in the Iranian parliament for a commission of inquiry to investigate the fiasco.

Russian airstrikes, which have been eased but not halted, have stabilized the regime and its defense lines. Meanwhile, Iran has shown sensitivity to its losses in Syria and even decreased its number of combatants a few months ago due to criticism at home amid the increasing casualty numbers.

It’s doubtful Nasrallah has other options but to continue investing in the Assad regime. Apparently that’s what the group’s Iranian patrons continue to demand of it. Badreddine’s death is a reminder of the price Hezbollah will keep paying for its participation in a war taking place outside Lebanon, a country Nasrallah portrays as being protected by his organization only.