Saturday 21 April 2018

Top Hezbollah military commander killed in Syria

Mustafa Badreddine has been killed in Syria (Hezbollah Media Department via AP)
Mustafa Badreddine has been killed in Syria (Hezbollah Media Department via AP)

A top commander of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group has been killed in an explosion in Damascus.

Mustafa Badreddine, 55, is the highest-level figure from the group to die since it threw itself into Syria's civil war.

He had been the mastermind of Hezbollah's involvement in the war, which has been crucial to preserving President Bashar Assad's hold on power against rebels but which has come at a heavy cost for the Iranian-backed Shiite guerrilla force, with more than 1,000 fighters killed.

His death was a severe blow to the group, robbing it of a commander with decades of experience.

However, observers said Hezbollah was not likely to scale back its intervention in Syria, where it has fighters battling alongside Mr Assad's army on multiple fronts.

"I really do think it will affect their morale. This is not just their commander in Syria. This is one of the most elite and uniquely pedigreed Hezbollah personalities," said Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Counterterrorism Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

However, he added: "I don't think they are going to waver in their commitment in this."

He pointed to Hezbollah's own interest in stemming Sunni militants in Syria and the determination of Iran to keep Mr Assad in power.

The cause of the explosion which killed Mr Badreddine on Thursday night remained a mystery.

Hezbollah said it occurred near the Damascus airport, without giving further details.

The airport is close to the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, where the group has a strong presence and several military positions.

The group said it was investigating whether the blast, which wounded several others, was from an air raid, missile attack, artillery shelling or other causes.

Hezbollah's traditional enemy, Israel, has assassinated leaders from the group in the past.

However, Sunni opposition forces could also be behind the explosion, including militants like Islamic State or the al Qaida branch in Syria, the Nusra Front.

The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Hezbollah, initially said Mr Badreddine was killed in an Israeli air strike but later removed the report.

There was no immediate comment from Israel.

Hezbollah's deputy leader, Naim Kassem, said that by Saturday the group will release information on who was behind the killing of Mr Badreddine.

"We will continue to confront Israel and we will continue to confront Takfiris," he told a gathering ahead of Mr Badreddine's funeral. "Takfiris" is a term for Sunni extremists.

"For us, there is only one enemy, which is Israel and those siding with it. The picture may differ and the positions may change but they are all at the end inside the Israeli project.

"By killing you, they gave a new push to our drive that produces a martyr after another, as well as a commander after another."

Mr Badreddine's death is the biggest blow to the militant group since the 2008 assassination of his predecessor and brother-in-law, Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a bomb attack in Damascus.

After that, Mr Badreddine became Hezbollah's top military commander and adviser to the group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

He was to be laid to rest next to Mr Mughniyeh on Friday afternoon at a Shiite cemetery south of Beirut.

Mr Badreddine was one of four people being tried in absentia for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The 2005 suicide bombing that killed Mr Hariri and 22 others was one of the Middle East's most dramatic political assassinations.

The trial is ongoing in the Netherlands. A billionaire businessman, Mr Hariri was Lebanon's most prominent politician after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Hezbollah denies involvement in Mr Hariri's assassination and says the charges are politically motivated.

One of the group's most shadowy figures, Mr Badreddine was also known by aliases Elias Saab and Sami Issa.

He was only known to the public by a decades-old black-and-white photograph of a smiling young man wearing a suit until Hezbollah released a new image of him in military uniform.

He was suspected of involvement in the 1983 bombings of the US and French embassies in Kuwait that killed five people.

The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on him twice for his involvement in the Syrian war, in 2011 and in 2015.

According to US officials, Mr Assad and Mr Nasrallah co-ordinated Hezbollah's actions in Syria on a weekly basis, with Mr Badreddine present at top Damascus meetings.

Mr Badreddine was also known for his expertise in explosives, and his trademark was to add gas to increase the power of sophisticated explosives.

In its statement announcing his death, Hezbollah said "a strong explosion targeted one of our centres near the Damascus International Airport, leading to the martyrdom of brother commander Mustafa Badreddine and wounding several others".

Top Hezbollah officials attended a mourning ceremony at a hall in southern Beirut on Friday, where Mr Badreddine's family members received condolences.

His only son, Ali, wept as a senior Hezbollah official hugged him.

Press Association

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