May 18, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Hizballah Bleeds in Syria

• The death of Mustafa Badreddine, military commander for Hizballah’s forces in Syria, is the most significant loss for the group, but one of a growing list of casualties sustained in the civil war

• Hizballah is transforming into a different organization than the one it was when it began its armed support for the Assad regime

• Long a cult of personality, relying on legendary commanders such as Badreddine and his infamous brother-in-law Imad Mughniyah, Hizballah’s fighting force is becoming more institutionalized and less dependent on a handful of people

• Close relations with the Iranian military and improving military capabilities might not offset Hizballah’s losses if the casualties continue to mount.


The only constants in the Syrian civil war are the suffering of civilians and the ceaseless upending of assumptions regarding the war’s many outcomes. At the beginning of the conflict, which began as a popular uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, few would have predicted just how costly Hizballah would find its support for its long-time patron in Syria. As the uprising bled into full civil war, there was no doubt that Hizballah would get involved. The scale of its involvement, however, is likely more significant than even Hizballah could have predicted or desired. 

On May 13, Hizballah announced the latest blow in what has become the terrorist group's first sustained conflict outside of Lebanon. Long-time military commander Mustafa Badreddine was killed near the Damascus airport in circumstances that remain unclear. In a statement, Hizballah said shelling from an unspecified takfiri group killed Badreddine, who was a legend in the group and a wanted criminal elsewhere. Badreddine was tied to some of the most infamous Hizballah operations, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, as well as bombings of the French and U.S. embassies in Kuwait that same year. Almost 20 years later, Badreddine is believed to have played a leading role in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which had enormous repercussions for the region. 

Badreddine was the brother-in-law of the only Hizballah military commander more infamous than himself: Imad Mughniyah, who was also implicated in the U.S. Marine bombing in Beirut, among other crimes. Mughniyah was killed in Damascus in 2008 under equally unclear circumstances, though it is widely believed and reported that some combination of Israeli and American action was involved. It is noticeable that Hizballah, in its statement about the death of Badreddine, did not accuse its usual suspect, Israel, but rather an undefined takfiri rebel group. Israel, determined not to let the war in Syria empower Hizballah, has periodically struck at targets in the country. It is unknown if the Israelis did so this time, though Badreddine would have been a target shared by both Tel Aviv and Washington.

Hizballah has now lost more than 1,000 fighters in Syria, and the pace of losses has recently increased with sustained combat against rebel groups, including al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. It is rather remarkable to assess that, at least for the moment, Hizballah’s biggest enemy is not Israel, but Sunni rebel groups. Whatever peace agreement is forged in Geneva, the fighting will likely persist at a lower, but still destabilizing, level; Hizballah will be party to the fighting no matter how much it may want to refocus on its own troubled lands.


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