A man with many names, many titles, and many acts of terrorism to his name, Mustafa Amine Badreddine was one of Hezbollah’s top military commanders for decades. That is, until the early hours of May 13th, when an explosion at one of the group’s facilities at Damascus Airport killed him. An attack that has been met with a remarkable quiet, with no claims of responsibility put forth.
Americans, French, Kuwaitis, Iraqis, Lebanese, Saudis, Syrian rebels, ISIS, Jabhat an-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria): the list of those who would have been glad to see Badreddine dead is lengthy. Thanks to having his fingerprints on some of the most heinous acts of terrorism in the Middle East, including the bombing of French and American barracks that killed over 300 in Beirut in 1983 and the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Badreddine never lacked for enemies.
When his life ended, he was Hezbollah’s top military man, leader of their intervention in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad, and a key link between the group and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. From his start with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah in the 70s to Islamic Jihad in Lebanon to Hezbollah, Badreddine showed himself to be a skilled and feared career terrorist.
If, as most believe, Israel is behind Badreddine’s death, it would be the latest Israeli success in cutting down Hezbollah’s old guard. Badreddine’s cousin and brother-in-law was none other than Imad Mughniyah, the long-time leader of Hezbollah’s military wing. Before Bin Laden and 9/11, Mughniyah was the world’s most infamous terrorist mastermind. When he was assassinated by a massive car bomb in 2008 by the Mossad (with help from the CIA), it was Badreddine who took over for him. Mughniyah’s son Jihad, another Hezbollah star, was killed last year in an Israeli air strike.
Israel and Hezbollah have never stopped going after each other since their war in 2006. Israel has repeatedly hit Hezbollah convoys and weapons caches in Syria, determined to keep advanced weaponry from the group’s arsenals in Lebanon. Hezbollah has, in turn, launched terror attacks against Israelis (such as at Burgas in Bulgaria in 2012), and engaged in border skirmishes with Israeli troops.
Israel certainly has a wealth of motives, but regardless of who is responsible, it is the biggest loss for Hezbollah since Mughniyah’s assassination. Badreddine was a legend, a well-respected commander who had the confidence of the group’s military wing. He was the only one who could rival Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in terms of prestige and authority.
Now he’s gone, and that is a huge hole to fill for Hezbollah. They have to replace someone who has been a leading figure for decades, one of the original members. The military wing needs a new commander and their operations in Syria are likewise in need of someone who can, in some way, replicate the operational experience Badreddine had. The importance of the close connection he had with both the Assad regime and Iran should also not be underestimated.
Perhaps as important, though, Hezbollah now has to deal with an image in tatters to those on the inside and outside. Yet another top commander has been killed, and it happened right after a major speech by Nasrallah denouncing Israel. It happened at Damascus Airport, which supposedly was enjoying the protective cover of the Russian Air Force. It also happened to be just when Independence Day celebrations in Israel were ending. Hezbollah is vulnerable, and everyone knows it. Commanders are being killed regularly, and the group has lost over 1,200 of its troops as a result of the fighting in Syria. In Lebanon, attacks by ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups have hit its home turf in South Beirut and other areas.
On Saturday, Hezbollah officially announced the guilty party: “takfiri groups” using artillery. In plain language, they’re blaming the Syrian opposition. There are a few problems, though: surely any opposition group would wildly celebrate such a success, especially if it was a group like Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham. If it is also true that Qassem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, had just left when Badreddine was killed, why would rebels miss the opportunity to get him, too? Most telling, though, is the fact that there were no reported artillery strikes on the Damascus Airport area the night Badreddine was killed. Rumors of Badreddine being the victim of Hezbollah infighting are similarly unconvincing.
Most likely, this is Hezbollah trying to avoid having to retaliate against a regional power (meaning Israel). With tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, not to mention well-armed and trained ground troops, Hezbollah could make life for Israel very uncomfortable if it wanted. Yet with it tied down in Syria and with its home areas in Lebanon exposed, it’s clear that the group will not want to get caught up in a serious confrontation with Israel. Badreddine was likely a casualty of Israel understanding Hezbollah’s shaky position, and taking a calculated risk that so far appears to have paid off.