Lebanese-based terrorist organization Hezbollah said it was investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of its top commander in Syria, as media reports in Lebanon claimed he was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on Tuesday.
“According to preliminary information, a large explosion targeted one of our positions near Damascus international airport, killing our brother, commander Mustafa Badreddine, and wounding others,” said the group, which is battling rebels in Syria alongside the troops of President Bashar Assad.
“We will continue the investigation to determine the nature and causes of the explosion and whether it was due to an air raid, a missile or artillery fire,” the group said in a statement.
Badreddine’s funeral was to take place at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Beirut, a journalist for ABC News said. A minister from the group vowed that the fight in Syria would continue despite the killing, the reporter said.
While the statement did not blame Israel for killing the 55-year-old Badreddine, several Lebanese television outlets — including the al-Mayadeen channel thought to be close to Hezbollah — said early Friday that Israel carried out the attack. Beirut-based al-Mayadeen later removed the report on Israel’s involvement. Israel’s Haaretz daily said Friday that there were “signs” the Jewish state was not behind the assassination, but did not elaborate.
Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said Friday morning that Badreddine’s death was good news for Israel, whether or not the Jewish state was behind the killing.
“It is good for the State of Israel, [but ] the State of Israel is not always responsible,” Amidror said, according to Army Radio.
“We don’t know if the State of Israel was responsible. Those operating in Syria today have many haters in Syria without the State of Israel. But as a number of people who have accumulated so much experience disappear from the wanted list, then so much the better,” he said.
There had been no confirmation from Israel so far of its alleged role in Badreddine’s killing. The Jewish state rarely acknowledges its role in such operations, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly confirmed in recent months that Israel was actively working to disrupt Hezbollah’s arms smuggling operations in Syria and build-up of capabilities on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Badreddine is said to have inherited the leadership of Hezbollah’s military operations from former commander and cousin Imad Mughniyeh, who is believed to have been assassinated by Israel in 2008. Badreddine’s sister, Saada, was married to Mughniyeh.
In its confirmation of Badreddine’s killing, Hezbollah noted that he “took part in most of the operations of the Islamic resistance since 1982.”
According to the statement, “he said a few months ago, ‘I will not come back from Syria, unless a martyr or carrying the flag of victory.’ He is the top commander Mustafa Badreddine. And he came back today as a martyr.”
Badreddine had a long career leading terror attacks and military operations for Hezbollah. He was being tried in absentia in The Hague for his alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
His latest role in the organization was as its chief operational commander in Syria, where the Iran-backed group has sent thousands of fighters to prop up the Assad regime.
Hezbollah has paid a very steep price for its public and bloody foray into Syria’s civil war. Once lauded in Lebanon and the Arab world as a heroic resistance movement that stood up to Israel, it has seen its popularity plummet, even among its Lebanese base, because of its staunch support for Assad.
The Arab League designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization in March. A month earlier, Saudi Arabia cut $4 billion in aid to Lebanese security forces after Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil declined to join Arab and Islamic league resolutions critical of Iran and Hezbollah.
The predominantly Sunni Gulf Arab states, led by the kingdom, have taken other punitive measures. They have warned their citizens against traveling to Lebanon as well as cut Lebanese satellite broadcasts, and closed a Saudi-backed broadcaster in Lebanon. The Gulf countries are also expelling Lebanese expatriates they say have ties to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, which maintains a dominant militia force in Lebanon, has also aligned itself with the Saudi-opposed Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war.