Fatal dissent: When a Hezbollah commander argued with Iran
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Fatal dissent: When a Hezbollah commander argued with Iran

Nothing more chillingly underlines Tehran's determination to establish a permanent presence in Syria than the assassination of Mustafa Badreddine, the Hezbollah No.2 who dared question its policies

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Adnan Badreddine, left, brother of Hezbollah terror chief Mustafa Badreddine, grieves at his brother's picture in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, May 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Adnan Badreddine, left, brother of Hezbollah terror chief Mustafa Badreddine, grieves at his brother's picture in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, May 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Much has been said and written about Iran’s intended entrenchment in Syria and the way Tehran is investing extraordinary human and financial resources to help President Bashar Assad survive. Still, the story of the assassination of Mustafa Badreddine, the head of Hezbollah’s military wing, illustrates with rare clarity the determination on the part of Iran and Hezbollah not to let anyone interfere with Iran’s plans in Syria.

Badreddine, the successor and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh (who was married to Badreddine’s sister, Sa’ada), was killed last May, in a mysterious explosion near Damascus International Airport. Surprisingly, Hezbollah and its allies cleared Israel of any blame. Hezbollah officials said at the time that the circumstances of the assassination were being investigated.

This assassination could have caused an enormous commotion throughout the Middle East. Badreddine, after all, was second only to Hassan Nasrallah in the Hezbollah hierarchy, and was the successor of Mughniyeh, who had been wanted all over the world for the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Yet the entire topic disappeared from the Syrian and Lebanese agenda within days. The assassination remained a mystery.

Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani, looking on as people pay their condolences following the death of his mother in Tehran, September 14, 2013. (AFP/ISNA/Mehdi Ghasemi)
Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani, looking on as people pay their condolences following the death of his mother in Tehran, September 14, 2013. (AFP/ISNA/Mehdi Ghasemi)

Then, last month, came an exposé by Al Arabiya, the Saudi Arabian news channel, claiming that Hezbollah leader Nasrallah and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, were behind the assassination. Several days later, Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot confirmed the information that had been reported on Al Arabiya. The main reason for Badreddine’s assassination, according to Al Arabiya, was his differences of opinion with Soleimani over Hezbollah’s involvement in the battles in Syria.

A check with Arab and Western intelligence sources confirms this. Badreddine was known to have strongly opposed the fact that Hezbollah had become Iran’s cannon fodder in Syria. He would not allow his men to fight on the battlefield without Iran’s active cooperation in the battles. Badreddine demanded that the Iranians be full partners in the fighting in Syria and not sacrifice the “Arab Shi’ites.” Soleimani did not like Badreddine’s attitude, and neither, it seems, did Nasrallah.

According to Al Arabiya’s version of Badreddine’s death, four men met in a building near Damascus International Airport hours before he died. The first was Badreddine. Eyewitnesses say that the second was Soleimani himself, who left a few minutes after the meeting. The third was Badreddine’s personal escort, who also left the building, leaving only the “fourth man” — the killer, a member of Hezbollah and a former bodyguard of Nasrallah: Ibrahim Hussein Jezzini, whom Badreddine had trusted completely.

Members and supporters of Lebanon's Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah carry the coffin of Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah commander who was killed in an attack in Syria, during his funeral in the Ghobeiry neighborhood of southern Beirut on May 13, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO)
Members and supporters of Lebanon’s Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah carry the coffin of Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah commander who was killed in an attack in Syria, during his funeral in the Ghobeiry neighborhood of southern Beirut on May 13, 2016. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Hezbollah’s conclusions from its “investigation of the incident” sounded unconvincing from the moment they were reported. Hezbollah officials claimed that Badreddine was killed by the explosion of a rocket or mortar shell fired by the opposition at his location near the airport. But according to investigations by Al Arabiya and Syrian human-rights groups, no rocket or mortar shell was fired from the opposition positions, which were approximately 20 kilometers away from the airport, and no incidents of artillery fire of any kind at the area were noted in the 24 hours preceding the assassination.

There would also presumably have been more fatalities if such fire had taken place. We can guess that Badreddine did not arrive at the building near the airport alone, but it was reported that he was the only one who died. Al Arabiya also published satellite images, from both before and after the supposed “bombardment,” of the building where Badreddine was supposedly killed. The images show that the building was undamaged.

Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah speaking to Iranian state television, in a clip broadcast on February 20, 2017. (screen capture: Twitter)
Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah speaking to Iranian state television, in a clip broadcast on February 20, 2017. (screen capture: Twitter)

Even if we assume for a moment that the Syrian opposition was responsible, these are Sunni militias that are all too eager to talk about every Shi’ite whom they succeed in killing on Syrian soil, and all the more so in the case of Hezbollah members. If the Syrian opposition or someone connected with it had been behind the assassination, the “victory” celebrations would still be going on.

After IDF chief Eisenkot said that the reports matched the information that Israel had about the circumstances of the assassination, some tried to claim that this was utter nonsense, and said the same regarding Al Arabiya’s exposé. These elements may have more reliable information; if so, they might wish to share the secret evidence in their possession with the general public.

But after reviewing Al Arabiya’s exposé, it must be said that its conclusions sound more than logical. Any other possibility — that the opposition, Israel, or others were to blame — is unlikely. But a commanding officer of Hezbollah who followed a policy line that at odds with Iran, one might reasonably assume, would not find himself merely dismissed from his position. The only way to replace him, it might seem, would be to terminate him with extreme prejudice.

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