Mustafa Badreddine, Hezbollah’s military commander, was killed in Syria on Thursday night according to Lebanese television channels close to Hezbollah. Al-Mayadeen TV claimed Badreddine was killed in an Israeli strike near Damascus airport, and eventually Hezbollah itself confirmed the news in a statement carried by al-Manar, the group's official channel. However, the statement did not assign blame or provide any further information on the circumstances of Badreddine’s death. Curiously, some Lebanese news reports claim Badreddine was killed two days earlier, on May 10.
Badreddine is the highest-ranking Hezbollah leader killed since the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Badreddine’s brother-in-law and predecessor. Badreddine took over Muhgniyeh’s role as Hezbollah’s top military commander after the latter’s death, and it’s likely now that other senior members of Hezbollah’s Jihad Council – such as Ibrahim Aqil or Fouad Shukr, both designated as terrorists by the U.S. Treasury – will assume Badreddine’s responsibilities in Syria.
Like Mughniyeh, Badreddine’s career began in the 1970s, when Shiite cadres joined the Palestine Liberation Organization, and were recruited by Iranian operatives who later became senior commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Along with Mughniyeh, Badreddine gained international notoriety in 1983 for attacks against the U.S. embassy and Marine Barracks in Beirut (which killed 63 and 305 people respectively, among them 258 Americans), and a string of attacks on the U.S. embassy and other sites in Kuwait that killed five people and wounded 86. In 2011, the UN-established Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicted Badreddine for his role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
In its 2015 terrorist designation, the U.S. Treasury assessed that Badreddine was “responsible for Hizbollah’s military operations in Syria since 2011,” and that since 2012, he “coordinated Hizbollah military activities in Syria” in support of the Assad regime. Badreddine was also reported to have led Hezbollah’s two-month offensive on the Syrian border town of Qusayr in the spring of 2013. The battle for Qusayr marked Hezbollah’s formal entry into the Syrian war, and was a critical node in Hezbollah’s drive to maintain territorial contiguity between Lebanon and the Assad regime’s territory. Another report in February 2015 claimed that Badreddine was leading Hezbollah operations in the Quneitra countryside, as the group made a push in southern Syria toward the Golan Heights.
Hezbollah is now struggling to dispel the image that it is mired in the Syrian conflict, as many of its commanders and officers have fallen there – either to anti-government forces or special operations carried out by Israel. For example, Hassan al-Laqqis was shot in December 2013 outside his apartment, a hit that Hezbollah blamed on the Israelis. Then in January 2015, Hezbollah lost a number of military commanders, along with a senior general in the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force and Mughniyeh’s son Jihad, in an Israeli strike in Quneitra. And in December of 2015, Samir Quntar, who reportedly was working for Hezbollah as a liaison with members of the Druze community in the Golan, was killed in a Damascus suburb in a strike widely believed to be the work of Israel.
An obvious question now is if and when Hezbollah will respond to Israel. Despite several attempts, the group never managed to retaliate convincingly for Mughniyeh's assassination. While Hezbollah did retaliate for Laqqis and the Quneitra strike, it did so in a more limited fashion, which did not lead to an escalation – likely out of fear, given its heavy involvement in Syria. Still, those retaliations, especially in response to the Quneitra convoy, could have brought the organization close to full-blown war – had they resulted in more IDF casualties, Israel would have found it difficult not to escalate further.
The same calculus applies today. For now, Hezbollah has not directly accused Israel for Badreddine’s death. However, the group will ultimately feel compelled to respond to the loss of its veteran military commander. And although it would not be in its interest to start a major war, any retaliation will inherently carry that risk.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay