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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Badreddine's death promotes many theories

The death of a former Hizbollah commander in Syria last week raises more questions than answers, says Michael Young
An undated handout photo of Mustafa Badreddine smiling at an undisclosed location, released by Hezbollah's media office. AFP
An undated handout photo of Mustafa Badreddine smiling at an undisclosed location, released by Hezbollah's media office. AFP

In life, Mustafa Badreddine was a man surrounded by ambiguity. In death, little seemed to change for the former Hizbollah commander, who was killed in Syria last week in an episode now raising more questions than answers.

Badreddine was brother-in-law to the late Imad Mughnieh, who was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus. In the pantheon of Hizbollah militants who came to define the party during the 1980s, he was among the most prominent. After years under the radar, in June 2011 Badreddine was indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for his alleged participation in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister.

Hizbollah’s anaemic reaction to the indictment was to say that the whole thing was politically motivated. This allowed the party to justify not handing Badreddine over to the Lebanese authorities, though he was sought by the tribunal.

However, it was Hizbollah’s reaction to his killing in Syria that had many wondering what really happened. Initially, the assumption was that Badreddine was targeted by Israel, which was responsible for assassinating another Hizbollah militant, Samir Kuntar, in a Damascus suburb last December.

Yet at the end of last week the party announced that Badreddine had died in an artillery bombardment carried out by “takfiris”. This is a common designation the party uses for Syrian armed groups fighting Bashar Al Assad’s regime – and a way of blaming Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia.

No other details were provided but many doubted that a man who had survived for decades, despite being hunted by foreign intelligence agencies, was the victim of a lucky shot.

Such disbelief led to speculation in Beirut about who was behind his death. There was even some suspicion that Iran itself might have eliminated a man who had become a burden, and who had purportedly disagreed over the direction of the campaign in Syria. Others pointed a finger at Arab intelligence agencies. None of these theories were supported by any evidence whatsoever.

Even the link to the Hariri assassination is thin. Though many of those suspected of involvement in the crime have been killed, Hizbollah was probably beyond the stage where it was worried about a tribunal that no longer has great momentum.

A nod to public opinion?

For now one hypothesis is as convincing as the next, largely because none is particularly plausible. Yet that Hizbollah would have gone ahead with an unlikely explanation for how Badreddine was killed was itself revealing. Pro-Hizbollah newspapers in Lebanon have tried to lend credence to the party’s version of events, suggesting public opinion matters.

While Hizbollah retains support among Lebanon’s Shia, it has to be careful. The rising death toll of party fighters in Syria, combined with Hizbollah’s reported cutback of its social aid programmes, has made many in that community unhappy.

In municipal elections two Sundays ago in Hizbollah’s redoubt of Baalbek-Hermel, rival lists won a much greater share of votes than was expected in some municipalities.

There have been systematic reports of discontent even from within the party, particularly from members who have been fighting in Syria. According to those in contact with these combatants, the war to bolster the regime has angered many Hizbollah members, who view themselves as cannon fodder for the Syrian regime and Iran.

That is not to say that Badreddine was killed because of this. However, it was inevitable that many would speculate about his death in the context of the Syrian conflict. And with no end in sight, the lack of clarity over what happened to Badreddine could have repercussions on the mood of party fighters.

At a moment when Hizbollah is being held responsible for the presidential vacuum in Lebanon, and its funding is being targeted by the United States, the Syrian entanglement makes matters worse. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s secretary general, will very likely maintain control, but we may be at a point where the pressures on the Shia community have become critical.

The presidential vacuum has exacerbated the blockages in the Lebanese state, which has meant that the government has been unable to deal adequately with the dire economic situation. The Shia are directly affected by this, given that many are from low-income groups and are vulnerable to anti-Hizbollah measures adopted by Arab Gulf states, a key outlet for Lebanese workers.

Mr Al Assad can take pride in the fact that all his allies are dying just so that he can remain in place. And the Syrian president’s ambitions don’t end there.

Ultimately he dreams of retaking all of Syria. That may be absurd, but Hizbollah looks at this with dread. Syria is where key party figures have been killed, and where it has already lost a good part of itself. Badreddine is the latest embodiment of the party’s foul predicament.

Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling

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