Last week I briefed a Korean official who asked me whether the situation in Israel is better since the enemies of Israel are busy killing each other rather than attacking Israel. I answered him that most Israelis would probably agree with him, but I disagree. I explained that in my point of view, it is better to have one strong government on the other side, that we can either fight against or negotiate peace with, then the chaotic situation in which many factors are threatening our security along the borders (Hizballah, ISIS, Al-Qaeda etc.). Today IDF has to gather intelligence on many factors and be prepared for various challenges and scenarios. He laughed and said: “Well we have got North Korea, a very dangerous and strong government”. He made me doubt my opinions.
Last week, Mustafa Badreddine, number two in Hizballah, was killed in an artillery attack near Damascus airport. This was a very hard blow to the organization. The initial reports on Hizballah’s’ websites expressed confusion and perplexity. Indeed it was not a very positive week for Hizballah, after losing the lives of dozens of troops in the battles south to Aleppo. In the short range, this week incidents might affect Hizballah’s troops motivation, but for the long term, the question whether Hizballah is getting weaker or stronger will not be affected by the need nominate a new chief of staff, but rather by external reasons such as the motivation and capability of its enemies to defeat the organization or weaken its position in Syria or in Lebanon.
Moreover, from the operational aspect, according open sources, Talal Hamie, another senior commander of Hizballah is already in charge of many of the missions of the chief of staff though Badderdin was announced as chief of staff a. It seems that important lesson of the assassination of the former chief of staff, Mughnia, in 2008, who had a very strong position in Hizballah, was to divide the various powers between few commanders. So, Hamie or Mughnia’s son Mustafa, are the natural candidates to replace Badreddin, so it seems that in this respect, Hizballah is able to overcome Badreddin death quickly enough.
Badreddin had many enemies. He was an arch-terrorist who was involved in attacks in many countries: In Kuwait he was sentenced to death for an attack he conducted in the 80’s, but managed to escape Kuwaiti jail in 1990 when Sadam Hussin invaded the country; In Saudi Arabia he was wanted for being involved in terror attacks in 1996 against foreign targets in the country; In Lebanon he planned and carried out the attacks against American and French presence during the 80’s. These attacks took the lives of hundreds of American soldiers. Moreover, the International Tribunal accused him of Prime Minister Hariris’ murder in 2005, and the trial is still being held in his absence. During all these years Badreddin was involved in dozens of attacks against Israel in Lebanon and abroad. After 2011 he became the head of Hizballah forces in Syria. So, in conclusion, many people wanted Badreddin dead, and that was without even mentioning the rumors of enemies inside Hizballah, due to opposed affairs he had with married women.
It seemed that Hizballah was reluctant to blame Israel for the attack, as it has usually done. In a very unlikely way – comparing to previous incidents – the organization took a few hours to phrase the official announcement, that finely accused Sunni (“Takfiri”) armed groups in Syria. “Anyway”, the statement continued, “It is the same battle against the American-Zionist project that the terrorists are spearheading,” (A-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 14th)
Hizballah secretary general, Nasrallah, has yet to address his people – he would do so only next Friday. Enough time to decide with the Iranian patron how to retaliate and against whom. Meanwhile, in another article, Hizballah promised that the reaction would be “an action of a deferent kind”, that will aim to deter, retaliate and prevent the Sunni groups from gaining any political achievements from the attack (Al-Akhbar, May 14th). At this point it is worth mentioning the rapid deterioration in the sides patrons’ relationship in the past few months, which began with the killing of the leader of Jesh Al-Islam, a Sunni group in Syria, supported by Saudi Arabia, and later the execution of Al-Nimer, a prominent Shiite leader in Saudi Arabia, an incident that was followed by the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. In February, Hizballah was declared a terrorist organization by The Arab League led by Saudi Arabia.
So, who will be Hizballah’s’ next target? It seems that though the Sunni groups were the first to be blamed for Badreddin killing, Hizballah wants to keep the option of attacking Israel on the table, as saying, “we will decide when, where and how”, or in its own words: “It is an open war”. Translating that to the situation in the field – Hizballah will not retaliate on Israel’s Northern border and it is more probable that it will target the Sunni groups and their Saudi patrons. Parallel to this, Hizballah will try to plan attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad, but will only carry that out when it will be positive the attacks would not cause a full-blown war with Israel. Having said that, I am not sure that these days Hizballah is capable of carrying out this kind of “quality” attacks, in which it already failed a few times in the past.
Going back to the Israeli point of view, the next challenge of the Israeli Intelligence is to find out, not only what Hizballah’s’ intentions are, but also whether the organization is able to adapt its capabilities to intentions. As for Israel’s’ strategic situation, involved or not in Badreddin assassination, Israel’s’ enemies are in a difficult situation that puts them under great pressures and causes many restraints that allow Israel to act with relative freedom on its Northern front. In this respect the Korean official was right. The civil war in Syria is weakening Israel’s enemies. And yet, the wide instability so close to the Israeli border, demands high flexibility in IDF ongoing assessment, in a reality that is more unpredictable than ever, while Nasrallah continues to threaten mass killings of Israelis in the scenario of a large-scale conflict, emphasizing that Hizballah will retaliate to any attack against it.
Special thanks to Ran Elkayam who brought the materials and translated from Arabic.