“Only believe something when it’s been officially denied” was Sir Humphrey Appleby’s rule in the BBC’s cult political sitcom “Yes Prime Minister.” The Israeli government has long adhered to this rule and refrained from either acknowledging or denying it had a hand in any of a long series of assassinations and airstrikes in the Middle East in recent years. They stuck to it as well on Friday morning as soon as the death of Hezbollah’s military commander in Syria, Mustafa Badreddine was announced, but there were two crucial differences this time.
- Hezbollah knows exactly who's responsible for their commander's death
- Death of military chief deals biggest blow to Hezbollah in Syria war yet
- A look back at the assassinations of Hezbollah leaders
Once again there was no official statement from government spokespersons, but a number of very well-connected Israeli journalists were quick to dismiss speculation that Israel had been behind Badreddine’s death. This hasn’t happened in the past. And while Israel would still seem to be a main suspect, with both a clear motive in eliminating one of the most central figures in directing attacks on its territory and the means to carry out such an attack, what is also nearly unique in this case is that Hezbollah isn't blaming Israel either.
The Lebanese state-within-a-state is usually very adept at maintaining “message discipline” among its various propaganda arms. Since Friday morning however, it seems to have had difficulty sticking to one narrative. One of its television stations early on did accuse Israel but then Hezbollah moved within the space of hours between saying it was a “major explosion” caused by unknown perpetrators, to accusing a well-equipped army of launching an accurate missile to the current, though probably not final version of an artillery attack by "Sunni extremists." Unlike so many other strikes in Syria, there is no footage of the scene of the attack online – we don’t even know for certain when and where it happened. Contradicting reports put the time of death at either Tuesday or Thursday night and there are versions of Badreddine being killed in a house in a Damascus suburb, on the outskirts of besieged Aleppo and in a convoy near the Lebanese border.
Just like in the classic British murder mystery board-game Cluedo, we embark on this whoddunit not knowing the identity of the murderer, the room in which the deed took place or the weapon used. Was it Professor Plum wielding a dagger in the ballroom or Mrs Peacock who pulled the trigger of the revolver in the conservatory?
In four decades of fighting and planning some of the dirtiest wars in the Middle East, the list of Badreddine’s enemies and potential murderers includes just about every conceivable player in the region, not just the usual suspects. The following list of possible perpetrators, ranked by descending order of plausibility, is based almost entirely on guesswork and could quite likely not include the actual killers. We may never know who they were.
1. An inside job – Rivals from within Hezbollah
Badreddine travelled with bodyguards and was no fool. No one knew better than him just how many enemies he had made over the years. One indication of his elusiveness was the total absence of up-to-date photographs before his death. He kept an even lower profile than his secretive mentor Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. But there was one major difference between the two. Unlike the austere and revered Mughniyeh, Badreddine was known as a serial philanderer who enjoyed living the good life under various aliases in Lebanon’s best resorts. Admired for his operational capabilities, he was far from being universally liked in the movement and a fellow-member with a serious grudge would have been best positioned to take advantage somewhere on the battlefield in Syria. Also, the muddled Hezbollah narrative does indicate there is an attempt to cover up something embarrassing about his death. Internal rivalries best fit that bill.
2. An accident – Dodgy explosives or friendly fire
Often the solution to the most intriguing of mysteries is the most mundane. Considering the quantities of explosives and level of firepower in Badreddine’s daily environment, the possibility that a man so many people would have liked to kill found his end in an accidental explosion or was actually gunned down by his own men by mistake is highly likely. But to admit to such circumstances would be a massive PR blow to Hezbollah’s image as a highly effective fighting force (not that such incidents are rare even in the most professional of armies), hence the muddled narratives coming out of Beirut.
3. Sunni rebels – Another casualty in an unending war
Hezbollah is currently blaming the rebel groups fighting the Assad regime. This is of course plausible. Badreddine was one of the main commanders of the Iranian-directed coalition propping up the Assad regime. He would be a natural target for the rebels. But there are still some flaws in this narrative. Hezbollah is claiming he was killed in an artillery barrage near Damascus but there are no records of such an attack taking place around the relevant times and no rebel group has so far claimed credit, as they no doubt would have done. It could be of course that he was killed in a random rebel attack or skirmish, but there are still no indications of that.
4. Revenge – The Hariris strike back
If there was one family who had the greatest motive in ending Badreddine’s life violently, it would have been that of Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese former prime minister killed in a massive car-bomb in Beirut in 2005. Badreddine had been indicted as one of the main suspects by the international tribunal investigating the assassination but there was no prospect of him ever standing trial. The fabulously wealthy Hariri Family certainly had the means to hire the best professional assassin or buy off a member of Badreddine’s inner circle. Considering their continued involvement in Lebanon’s deadly politics however, they would have no incentive for bragging about it openly.
5. Despite the denials – Israel
Israel’s security and intelligence services are still probably the best-equipped in the region to carry out such an assassination. Beyond the obvious motive of revenge for Badreddine’s involvement in the deaths of hundreds of Israeli citizens and soldiers over the years, he also played a key role in the attempts to smuggle advanced weaponry from Syria to the movement’s arsenals deep in Lebanon. The way both sides have played down the possibility that Israel was the perpetrator do somewhat diminish the plausibility. But the flip-side is that both sides also have incentives for denying it was an Israeli hit; both Israel and Hezbollah have no interest at this point in another war between them and for Hezbollah, and it would also be a blow to their image. Despite it being less likely in this case, Israel’s involvement cannot be completely ruled out.
6. Payback after decades – A western power
Badreddine had blood on his hands of a long list of nations, including western ones. He was believed to have been a key figure in the suicide bombings of American and French embassies and bases in Lebanon and other countries in the early 1980s. Both these countries have significant military forces in the region and given accurate intelligence, could have taken him out with a drone-strike or a standoff missile launched from afar. While this is a possible scenario, it is relatively unlikely as both France and the U.S. are currently focused primarily on fighting ISIS and have been much less eager to take on the pro-Assad coalition. The Obama administration especially does not seem to be interested in doing anything that even indirectly could jeopardize the Iran deal. And Badreddine, whose nom de guerre was “cleaver of vertebrae” was one of the sharpest knives in Tehran’s cutlery drawer. But then, maybe he had outlived his usefulness?
7. From asset to liability – Iran
For three and a half decades, Badreddine had been one of the most active tools of Iran’s secret foreign policy throughout the region. While it seems unlikely that Tehran would have eliminated such a key ally, it is also possible that he had reached the stage where he both knew too much and was too well-known, especially since his indictment by the international tribunal investigating Hariri’s death. Badreddine could have been seen as an obstacle in dealings with the West, especially with France, which saw itself as Hariri’s patron. If for that, or for any other reason, Iran desired his expedient demise, it would have little problem achieving it as Badreddine was in constant contact with Revolutionary Guard officers.
8. Who controls Damascus? – Russia
The deployment of Russian warplanes to Syria seven months ago and the subsequent airstrikes against the rebels saved the Assad regime from disaster. It also drastically changed the balance of power in the region. While the Kremlin has been cooperating with Iran and Hezbollah in propping up Assad, it also has taken their place as the main influence-broker in Damascus. Vladimir Putin has also made it clear that he is taking Israel’s security concerns in to account and surprised the Iranians when he removed a significant part of his forces two months ago. Putin is looking out for what he sees as Russia’s interests in the region, not Tehran or Hezbollah’s. If Badreddine had at any moment seemed to be in the Kremlin’s way, removing him would have caused them no regrets.