Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Israel‎ settling scores in Syria?

In the constantly transforming theater of conflict in Syria, priorities of allies and foes evolve all the time

Mohamed Chebarro
Mohamed Chebarro
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Few will mourn the killing of Hezbollah military wing head in Syria. Many are breathing easy after his assassination through either a planted bomb or a missile fired on land by Syrian opposition forces. It could even have been carried out by an unknown drone or an Israeli jet fighter close to Damascus airport.

Whatever the circumstances that led to the targeted killing of Mustafa Badreddine, the military leader of Hezbollah Lebanese militia, and the author of many a domestic and foreign terrorist plots across the region and the world, point to a collision of Russian-Israeli interests in Syria that have neutralized leaders from Hezbollah over the past few months.

Whether the Assad regime condoned the operation or element of its military top brass looked away goes on to show an interlaced military and intelligence imbroglio that could damage the already fragile and operationally fractured alliance between Russian, Iranian, Syrian regime, and Hezbollah’s interests in the internecine Syrian battlefield.

The Hezbollah communiqué issued after Badreddine funeral blamed extremist groups in Syria for his death. His “martyrdom”, the communiqué said, “will make” the so-called “resistance movement stronger in its fight against the American imperialists and their allies the Jihadis and Takfiris who are spearheading the US fight in the region”.

The fact remains that Hezbollah is bleeding his finest soldiers in Syria and this will leave more bad taste in the mouth of its leader Hassan Nasrallah. He will find it more difficult to justify his onslaught of Syrians to an ever more doubtful Lebanese Shiite community that elevated Hezbollah militia to holy ranks and gave all for its fight against Israel.

The militia has lost in excess of 1,200 of its men in the three years of involvement in propping up the Assad regime. This is a heavy price to pay and indicates that many Lebanese Shiites villages across the country have either suffered human losses or are tending to the thousands wounded while defending the Assad regime.

In the constantly transforming theater of conflict in Syria, priorities of allies and foes evolve all the time

Mohamed Chebarro

The killing of Badreddine also shows that the security breach in Hezbollah has been huge. It is no secret that lapses and infiltrations abound in the regime heartland for the once unvanquished party. Israel’s denial of involvement in the killing is a classic position Tel Aviv generally takes after such operations.

Sources close to the Israeli establishment are trying to point fingers at an inside job i.e. Syrian regime versus Hezbollah. The suggestion is that the regime is tying lose ends and closing files for elements like Badreddine who have played critical covert roles for decades.

Under Syrian and Iranian patronage he and his predecessor, Imad Moghniah, the former chief of Hezbollah military wing were accused of bombing embassies, kidnapping and killing foreigners in Lebanon and hijacking aircraft. As per the Special Tribunal on Lebanon indictment in The Hague, listed in early 2013, he was also behind killing of ex prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri.

Covert operations

The scale of the security breach indicates that Russian-Iranian covert operations in Syria are also underway. As they are allied against ISIS and Syrian opposition forces fighting to remove Assad, the killing of Badreddine also points to potential Russian-Israeli high level cooperation that both countries have never tried to hide.

In an unconvincing communiqué Hezbollah explained the circumstances of his death. There have been reports also, that the notorious head of Quds Brigade in the Iranian revolutionary guard, Qassem Sulaimani, was at the Damascus airport site half an hour before the bombing of the building where Badreddine was killed.

Clearly whosoever pulled the trigger waited for Sulaimani to exit prior to launching the attack. In doing so whoever pulled the trigger wanted to avoid potential retribution from the Iranians.

Nailing a fish as big as Moghniah – also in Syria’s heavily protected Damascus district of Kfar Souse in 2008, in what was said to be a joint CIA and Mossad operation – led many to also claim that elements within Assad regime might have encouraged the assassination and turned a blind eye in a bid to remove someone who worked for three decades for the benefit of Damascus and Tehran.

But terror commanders such as Moghniah, and now his brother-in-law Badreddine, are key figures and are very well protected by top Iranian and Syrian mandate. A weakened Assad regime might have exposed Badreddine further though. He was for decades known as the “ghost” but it seems the increased and wide reaching Hezbollah operation in Syria exposed gaps in his movements. Moreover, the protracted nature of the conflict in Syria has exposed many leaders before him and is likely to expose those who will replace him.

In the constantly changing theatres of conflict in Syria, allies and foes’ priorities could evolve all the time. All indications so far point to a correlation of interests at work between the so-called friends of the Assad front, made not exclusively of Russia, Iran and Israel. This front aims to keep Assad in power for a variety of reasons that intersect or diverge in details and perception of what future Syria should have.

Therefore, mercenary forces such as Hezbollah from Lebanon, or Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani Shiite militia, are expendable and so is their leadership.

In the case of Badreddine, the “sword” or the “ghost” as his alias and nom de guerre, direct deployment and involvement of the Russians in Syria since September 2015 meant that the lid is further removed and secretive operatives like top Hezbollah leaders are exposed. Such open spaces, and the high level Israel-Russian cooperation, mean that agents from all sides and not exclusively from Israel are operating more freely in Syria for the first time in decades.

The killing of Badreddine after the less significant killing of Samir Kuntar, and Jihad Moghniah Junior – both field officers in Hezbollah – goes to show that Israel with comrade Vladimir of Russia’s help is gaining more visibility and access to Hezbollah leadership’s whereabouts and could deploy its asset to take them out as it pleases.

Mohamed Chebarro is currently an Al Arabiya TV News program Editor. He is also an award winning journalist, roving war reporter and commentator. He covered most regional conflicts in the 90s for MBC news and later headed Al Arabiya’s bureau in Beirut and London.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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