Hezbollah’s senior militia commander Mustafa Badreddine was killed in Syria, according to official accounts by Hezbollah. But questions regarding the circumstances of his death have brought the credibility of their version of events into doubt.
Evidence has since come to light that Badreddine did not die fighting in Syria, but rather, was assassinated. While Hezbollah maintains that he was killed by artillery fire from rebel groups, on the night in question a war monitoring group has confirmed that no rebel shelling took place in that area.
Israeli Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot told an academic conference that his death last May illustrated “the depth of the internal crisis of Hezbollah” and that Israel “believes that he was killed by his own officers.” He noted that the findings indicate that relations between Iran and Hezbollah are tense and complex. Hezbollah has deployed thousands of fighters into Syria, supporting Assad’s forces, which also have been backed by Russia and Iran.
Badreddine was not getting along with the Iranian military commanders, who were being led by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), over the losses his troops were suffering.
For years, Badreddine masterminded military operations against Israel from Lebanon and overseas, while managing to evade capture by Western governments. He was also indicted by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in connection with the 2005 killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and 21 others. Hezbollah has denied any part in the 2005 killings and indicated that the charges were politically motivated.
However, there was an increasing amount of tension between Iran’s Qassam Soleimani, a leader of Quds Force of the IRGC, and Badreddine. According to reports, Soleimani ignored Badreddine’s experience and was attempting to lead all the troops himself. Badreddine, seeing his troops being sacrificed to protect the IRGC forces, asked to lead his own men. As a military mastermind in his own right, he might have been seen as a threat to the IRGC commanders.
Nasrallah was under pressure to remove Badreddine from the Syrian battlefield by Soleimani. But it appears that he didn’t have a way to do that, so Badreddine had to be killed. Reports show that Badreddine arrived at the international airport for a meeting with three others, but he was the only one killed. The cause of death is assumed to be a vacuum bomb, but arial pictures show that the area of the supposed blast remains undamaged. Shiite cleric Abbas Hoteit declared that he was “killed by two treacherous bullets”. Airport employees were banned from entering the area where the operation took place by Hezbollah fighters.
“Also, it is unclear what weapon system would be in the hands of rebel groups in the vicinity of Damascus airport that could account for the ‘large explosion’ that Hezbollah said…killed Badreddine. Diplomatic sources in Beirut confirmed that there really was a powerful blast near Damascus airport on Thursday (May 12) even if its origins remain unknown,” said Nicholas Blanford, a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative.
Soleimani was also seen leaving the site minutes before the operation occurred and Badreddine was killed. Iran has issued condolences through its Foreign Minister, but questions about the IRGC’s influence in this matter remain.