Hizballah's hands tied as it suffers 'fatal blow'

Hizballah's hands tied as it suffers 'fatal blow'
Analysis: How can Hizballah respond if Israel is involved in the killing of top commander Mustafa Badreddine? Given recent losses in Syria, their options appear limited.
6 min read
13 May, 2016
All eyes will be on Hizballah in the coming hours, days and weeks [AFP]
With some of its most formidable assets bogged down in the Syrian civil war, it is not clear what options Hizballah has to respond to the assassination of one of its top commanders in Syria.

Mustafa Badreddine was killed in an explosion on Thursday night, with the chief culprit being Israel. However, Hizballah has since said Takfiri groups were responsible.

The fact that Badreddine - the number one man in the armed wing of the Lebanese powerful Shia Muslim party - was operating in Syria, is proof alone of the extent of Hizballah's involvement in the war far from the front with its stated enemy Israel.

Badreddine's roles are not confined to military and intelligence operations in Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and beyond.

He has also been the subject of much media attention. The Daily Beast describes him as a pyromaniac playboy and he is wanted by an international tribunal for his alleged involvement in the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hizballah's unusual exoneration of Israel notwithstanding, it is still unclear how the shadowy figure was killed and by whom. Israeli press reports reacted by suggesting it stands to benefit greatly from the elimination of a key figure in Hizballah's command structure.

Proposed command structure of Hizballah [Click to enlarge]

Israeli commentators said the death of the man thought to be in charge of Hizballah's military operations in Syria was a "fatal blow" to the party. They argued that he was an even bigger threat to Israel than Imad Mughniyeh, who is thought to have had been killed by the Israelis, possibly with the assistance of US intelligence.

Badreddine's death will be a huge blow because he was the de-facto commander of Hizballah's military wing, wrote Yossi Melman, intelligence and strategic affairs commentator in Israel. He described him as "Mughnieh's successor".

Badreddine's assassination follows the killing of Samir al-Kuntar, another Hizballah commander and former detainee in Israel five months ago. Again, Israel was widely viewed as the culprit.

Israel was also blamed for the assassination of Mughnieh's son in January 2015, along with other Hizballah operatives in Syria. In 2013, Hassan Lakkis, a senior Hizballah operative, was killed in Beirut by suspected Israeli agents.

The deaths were likely part of Israel's targeted killings policy, which aims at eliminating Palestinian, Lebanese and others deemed as a threat to Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently hinted this policy would continue.
Israel has often maintained a plausible deniability stance vis-a-vis targeted killings
However, Israel has often maintained a plausible deniability stance vis-a-vis such targeted killings.

Moreover, Hizballah's enemies now also include a long list of states and entities - from the US and Gulf powers, to Syrian rebel factions - in both Syria and Iraq.

Hizballah said it would launch an investigation into Badreddine's death, and establish how he was killed. The explosion could be the result of an air raid, rocket strike or artillery shell, a statement by the group said.

The statement did not explicitly blame Israel, but one Hizballah MP Nawar al-Sahili believes Tel Aviv is responsible.

"This is an open war, but we must not pre-empt the investigation," he added. "[The resistance] would carry out its duty in the right time," in reference to Hizballah's potential military response.
The heavy involvement of Russia, Israel's close friend and ally, in concert with Hizballah in Syria could alone force the Lebanese party to avoid escalation
Hizballah's options

Despite having lost a veteran commander, Hizballah has enough seasoned cadres - hardened by the wars in Lebanon and Syria - to replace Badreddine.

Yet the Lebanese party will feel under pressure to respond to boost morale in the ranks and act as a deterrence.

However, due to losses in the Syria war, Hizballah's options are limited, and previous threats have been empty.

Russia's involvement in the Syria war - a close friend of Israel - alongside Hizballah could force the Lebanese party to avoid escalation.

Hizballah has failed to set a red line, beyond attacking Israeli patrols in south Lebanon and the Golan Heights.

Hizballah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has often threatened to a proportional response on Israeli targets, but so far has failed to do so.
Like in the aftermath of every such escalation in Lebanon, the question on everybody's lips in Beirut right now is whether there will be a new war with Hizballah
Will there be war?

What people in Beirut are asking now, is if war will break out between Hizballah and Israel?

But a number of considerations make a full-scale war unlikely, just as it is unlikely in Gaza.

Firstly, Hizballah's main priority remains securing the Syrian regime's power, at least for the time being.

It is likely Hizballah has the assets in Lebanon to hold off a sudden Israeli war - until reinforcements are brought in from Syria - the heavy losses it has suffered recently in southern Aleppo means it will want to avoid a new war.

Hizballah has also reportedly lost thousands of fighters in Syria which means it would be unlikely to recruit many more Lebanese for a second front with Israel.

Hizballah's financial capabilities are also limited due to US and GCC sanctions and the political and media landscape in Lebanon and beyond is also hostile. Many in the Arab street have dropped their support and lost sympathy for the once-revered Lebanese resistance party, due to its support for Assad.

Secondly, with the conflict raging in Syria, Hizballah will calculate that a major response that would force Israel into a brutal escalation. This could cause a refugee crisis in Lebanon itself.

This time, however, there is nowhere for Lebanese refugees to go, unlike in 2006 when many fled Israeli bombing to Syria. (The roles have since been reversed, and Lebanon is host to millions of Syrian refugees).
Many in the Arab street have shed their support and sympathy for the once-revered Lebanese resistance party
Thirdly, with the Syrian regime significantly weakened, it is unable to supply Hizballah with the weapons and ammunition the Lebanese militia needs to fight Israel, as Damascus did in the 2006 war. A protracted conflict would deplete Hizballah's stockpiles without it being able to resupply easily.

Meanwhile, UN resolution 1701 passed to stop the 2006 war in Lebanon has established a strict security regime along the border with Israel. Thousands of international peacekeepers have been deployed there, making it logistically difficult for both Hizballah and Israel to go to war.

The post-war calm has largely been maintained, and both sides stand to gain from maintaining it. A ten year relative peace has spared Lebanese and Israeli lives and infrastructure.

Hizballah's options thus boil down to carrying out a limited response that would help it save face but would not cross Israel's red lines. In that case, Israel would respond in a limited way as well, since Hizballah's massive rocket arsenal remains a threat to the Israeli "homefront".

However, there is always a risk of miscalculation. Arguably, Hizballah miscalculated in 2006, when it captured two Israeli soldiers, triggering the 33-day Israeli war that killed thousands of Lebanese civilians and decimated much of the country's infrastructure.