Two weeks ago, Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot took the unusual step of confirming claims in the media about the May 13, 2016, killing of Hezbollah military commander, Mustafa Badreddine. A video report last month on the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network had claimed that Badreddine’s killing was not the work of Israel or of Syrian rebel factions. Rather, the report contended, the former Hezbollah commander was shot after a meeting with Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani—executed on the orders of Soleimani and Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
A week later, a second report in the German daily Die Welt cited and reiterated Al-Arabiya's claim and most of its details. “These reports,” Eisenkot said, “corresponded with the information we have and with our assessment.” What this showed, Eisenkot continued, was “the extent of the cruelty, complexity, and tension between Hezbollah and its patron Iran.”
Israel traditionally refrains from officially commenting one way or another on targeted killings of this sort, where it is suspected of involvement. The reason is obvious: If you were to deny responsibility for a particular operation, then if you don't deny it the next time around, it would be taken as an effective claim of responsibility. Wading in these waters, therefore, is a trap.
This is especially the case with Hezbollah. The organization has blamed Israel for assassinating Imad Mughniyeh, one of its founding members and its senior military commander, in 2008. At the time, Hezbollah vowed to retaliate for Mughniyeh's assassination, and has spent several years unsuccessfully trying to do so in a convincing manner. Hezbollah still considers Mughniyeh's assassination an unsettled account.
For Israel to avoid claiming responsibility for the Badreddine assassination then, would have been in keeping with established practice. What's more, Hezbollah pointedly shied away from directly accusing Israel of the assassination. Had it done so, the claim would have put pressure on the group to retaliate, which in turn could have sparked a full blown war at a time when the group was heavily engaged in Syria.
Because Israel would have also sought to avoid escalation, maintaining an official silence on the matter would have been prudent. Instead, Eisenkot broke protocol. He lent credence to media reports pinning responsibility on Soleimani and Nasrallah. The question is why?
To be sure, the claim that the killing of Badreddine was an inside job is not new. At the time of his death, some in the Israeli press floated the theory that it was the result of an internal dispute. Then, and now, the claim was based on Arab media reports, namely a 2014 report in the Kuwaiti Al-Siyassa newspaper citing anonymous sources, which talked about tensions with Badreddine in the party's security hierarchy regarding its external security organization. The report highlighted Badreddine's reputation as a playboy and cited his alleged affairs as a liability. However, as is the case with such reports, the sourcing is sketchy, and the Kuwaiti newspaper in question is a known conduit for information warfare against Hezbollah.
The question of sourcing for all these reports is an important one. For instance, one of the early claims that Badreddine was killed by his own side came from a Shiite sheikh on a Lebanese anti-Hezbollah website last August, during the pitched battle for Aleppo. The author, who was deeply critical of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, referred to Badreddine's death, without naming him, and claimed that the late military commander had wanted to spare his men from “the Aleppo trap,” and, as a result, was liquidated by Hezbollah's leadership. How this sheikh obtained this information was not made clear.
And yet this article was one of the very few sources cited in al-Arabiya's report in support of its thesis that Badreddine was the victim of an inside job. Similarly, Die Welt cited the same Shiite opposition source in its report, which is essentially a reiteration of Al-Arabiya's, along with a supposed confirmation from an unspecified “Western intelligence service” that this was how Badreddine met his end.
Thin sourcing is one problem. The other is the narrative explaining why Badreddine was supposedly liquidated by his own side. For instance, Al-Arabiya's report conflates two alleged motives: One was a personal grudge between Soleimani and Badreddine; the second was Nasrallah's desire to eliminate a comrade who had supposedly become a liability because of his role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The details of the alleged Soleimani-Badreddine feud are confused and stand in conflict with each other. For instance, the Al-Arabiya report claims that Soleimani was driven by a personal ambition to assume full operational command in the Syrian theater. This thesis assumes that Soleimani is not already calling the shots in Syria; but he is, answering directly to the Supreme Leader. Ignoring Iran's real chain of command in Syria, the narrative posits that Soleimani's “jealousy” led him to dismiss what it described as Badreddine's huge experience and accomplishments on the battlefield. Badreddine, the narrative went, was a successful field commander who disagreed with Soleimani's tactical plans, and resented the Qods Force commander's willingness to sacrifice Hezbollah foot soldiers in order to protect Iranian troops.
However, the evidence offered for this clash—a passage in an article in the Kuwaiti Al-Rai—doesn't hold together. Yes, it describes Badreddine's disagreements with Iranian officers (not specifically Soleimani) on the Syrian battlefield. But it also shows how a headstrong Badreddine led an attack without coordinating with the Russians and Iranians, which resulted in the death of 11 Hezbollah fighters. So, who was using Hezbollah foot soldiers carelessly?
It makes no sense—except in the context of Arab information warfare. The report plays on common narratives and stock themes intended to hit a very specific chord with Arab audiences, in this case Arab Shiites. In this context, Badreddine is an Arab Shiite indignant about Soleimani's Persian haughtiness and the Iranian commander's callous indifference to the lives of Arab Shiites, sacrificed in the service of Iranian interests. And as opposed to Badreddine, the noble Arab warrior who takes the field with his men, Nasrallah, is the lackey of the Iranians.
The theme is clear: Lebanese Shiites are being played for fools by the Iranians. The Al-Arabiya report then ends with a question about whether there will be further such liquidations at the hands of Soleimani and Nasrallah, and whether there will be splits inside the Lebanese Shiite community as a result. And this is the line that IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot picked up on: the prospect that there are tensions between Hezbollah and Iran.
This is highly speculative. Worse, it ignores fundamental facts about the history of Hezbollah-Iran relationship, starting with Badreddine himself. Badreddine was a member of the founding generation of Hezbollah. He, like Mughniyeh, was a trusted Iranian operative who conducted several operations for and under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards. This relationship goes back almost 40 years. The Iranians knew Badreddine intimately. He was a senior member of a well-defined structure for four decades, and had been in the Syrian theater for years. The notion that Soleimani's “personal ambition” to become overall commander of operations (which he already is) is what led to Badreddine's liquidation ignores the nature and workings of this well-defined structure.
Secondly, the execution of a senior Hezbollah commander of the first generation is unheard of and unprecedented in the four decades of the organization's history. There were tensions in the past between Hezbollah's first secretary general, Subhi al-Tufayli, and the Iranians. They were resolved by sidelining Tufayli and eventually easing him out of the group, not by killing him. One would imagine a similar course of action—a visit with the Supreme Leader, or a long vacation in Isfahan, or a reassignment to Iraq, etc.—had there been such trouble with Badreddine. Internal liquidation is not how Hezbollah resolves disputes with family elders.
The narrative describing tensions between Hezbollah and Iran revives standard misconceptions about their relationship. Perhaps the most prominent misconception is the idea that Hezbollah is fundamentally independent of Iran, or that there's tension between Hezbollah's “Lebanese identity” and its fealty to Iran. These are the same bad premises that led Western policymakers and analysts 20 years ago to talk about Hezbollah's “Lebanonization.” These speculative talking points were laid to waste in the previous decade and ought to have been buried in Syria.
Who knows why Eisenkot broke protocol and commented on the assassination of a Hezbollah figure that many thought Israel responsible for? If it was the purposes of psychological warfare, it was unwise to base it on a trope which has stood behind wrongheaded ideas that have misinterpreted the real nature of the Hezbollah-Iran relationship.
Tony Badran is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay.