The Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah officially announced Saturday that its top military commander Mustafa Badreddine died on Friday near Syria’s Damascus airport as a result of artillery shelling from a terrorist organization fighting the Assad regime.
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“Investigations have showed that the explosion, which targeted one of our bases near Damascus International Airport and led to the martyrdom of commander Mustafa Badreddine, was the result of artillery bombardment carried out by Takfiri groups in the area,” Hezbollah’s statement said. “Takfiri” is a word used by the group to refer to hard-line, armed, Sunni Islamist groups.
Hezbollah did not specify which group it suspects in the commander’s death. “The outcome of the investigation [into Badreddine’s death] will increase our determination ... to continue the fight against these criminal gangs and defeat them,” the organization said.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Director Rami Abdulrahman said that there has been no artillery fire near Damascus International Airport in recent days. Abdulrahman also said that opposition groups are not connected to the killing of Badreddine, but did not blame any specific party for his assassination.
Imran al-Zoabi, a senior opposition figure in Syria, blamed Syrian intelligence and Hezbollah itself for the assassination. “This was a man who was like a black box containing abundant information about the situation in the field, and apparently they wanted to get rid of him, just like they did at the beginning of the war with Assad’s brother-in-law General Assef Shawkat,” al-Zoabi said in an interview with the Qatari news agency Al Jazeera. Arab media that are not associated with Hezbollah highlighted a White House report that stated that at the time of the explosion there were no United States jets near the Damascus airport.
Badreddine, who was 55, was long considered to be the successor of his brother-in-law Imad Mughniyeh, the military leader of Hezbollah who was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus, according to foreign sources by Israel. His name was high on the list of those suspected in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Lebanon was requested to hand him over to a special international tribune that was convened after Hariri’s assassination, but he disappeared, showing up only rarely in Beirut, for the funerals of Mughniyeh and later his son Jihad, killed by Israel last year in the Golan.
Badreddine was tried in absentia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. His connection to Hariri’s killing might have prompted the group to move him away from Lebanon and into Syria. Lebanese media close to Hezbollah recently reported that Badreddine was in Syria fighting alongside the Assad regime. He was the most senior Hezbollah commander in Syria, coordinating operations with the Assad regime. He also coordinated operations with the Iranians and Russians, and was involved in action across Syria.
Before Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Badreddine headed Hezbollah’s operations in southern Lebanon. He was responsible for numerous operations carried out by the organization against the Israel Defense Forces and the South Lebanon Army. Badreddine was a quintessential operations officer, attending meticulously to details and maintaining a presence in the field. Lebanese media said after his death that he was a shadowy figure but very well-informed, knowing full well that he would not die in bed. He said that he would die as a martyr or return after victory over the infidel groups in Syria. With his death, Badreddine joins a list of senior Hezbollah leaders who have been killed in battle.
Hezbollah announced Badreddine’s death on Friday and a military funeral was held for him on the same day in the group’s stronghold in southern Beirut. During the funeral, Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said that Badreddine was killed in one of the organization’s bases near Damascus airport. According to reports from Lebanon, his body remained intact after he was hit by shrapnel. His death was apparently caused by the force of the explosion. The Hezbollah base contains large amounts of ammunition and other war materiel, even though it is located in an open area so that rebel forces can target it with artillery from several kilometers away. Hezbollah did not state whether Badreddine was the target of an assassination and whether rebel groups knew of his presence at the site, or whether shelling the base happened to hit him.
Instead of Badreddine, the name of Talal Hamiyah, another senior military leader, has come up as a potential replacement, although Hezbollah has never publicly named a successor for Mughniyeh. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is expected to deliver a speech about the incident and its implications next Friday.