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Hezbollah Says Military Leader Died in Artillery Attack

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah declared Saturday that Mustafa Amine Badreddine, the senior commander who died in Syria this past week, had been killed in an artillery attack by insurgents whom the group has been fighting for the past four years.

Hezbollah said in a statement that the killing would increase "our determination to continue the fight against these criminal gangs and defeat them," blaming "takfiri groups," a term for Islamist extremists that Hezbollah broadly applies to insurgents opposed to its ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad.

But the declaration raised more questions than it answered, as fierce speculation continued about how, when, where and by whom Mr. Badreddine was killed, and what the death reveals about the state of Hezbollah and its war effort in Syria.

A day earlier, when Hezbollah announced his death, Lebanese media outlets sympathetic to the group initially blamed Israel, the group's main enemy, for the attack. Israel is widely believed to have assassinated several senior Hezbollah commanders over the past few decades and has carried out a number of airstrikes in Syria, officially unacknowledged but confirmed by Western officials, against the group.

If Israel was not responsible — as numerous Israeli analysts have suggested — that would ease the pressure from Hezbollah's supporters to retaliate. Retaliation could risk igniting a war on Lebanon's southern frontier at a time when the group, stretched thin because of its operations in Syria, cannot easily afford to open a new front.

On the other hand, if insurgents managed to pull off the assassination of a senior Hezbollah figure, rather than merely getting off a lucky shot with the usually imprecise attack of an artillery bombardment, that could be embarrassing for Hezbollah.

The group has presented itself as outmatching the insurgents in Syria and preventing them from expanding into Lebanon. Such an attack would make Hezbollah appear newly and surprisingly vulnerable to insurgent foes who had not demonstrated that degree of operational or intelligence-gathering sophistication.

"If one of their lead figures can be killed in a secure area by one of those groups, it would send a signal that they are far weaker than presented," said Phillip Smyth, an American analyst who studies Hezbollah and other Shiite militias fighting in Syria.

Adding to the mystery is that Syrian opposition monitoring groups and residents of Damascus, the capital, say there had been no major shelling over the past week near the Damascus airport, where, Hezbollah said, the attack took place.

And no insurgent group has taken responsibility for the attack — surprising given that the array of insurgents, from the Islamic State to Syrian Army defectors, would presumably be eager to do so. Despite rivalries and disagreements among them, they all view Hezbollah as a mortal enemy aiding Mr. Assad in crushing a popular uprising against him.

Some of Mr. Assad's opponents have speculated that Mr. Badreddine may have been killed in Khan Touman, in northern Syria. According to Iranian news outlets, a number of Iranian fighters and allied militia members, including Hezbollah members, have been killed there in insurgent attacks over the past week.

The killing also raises questions about operational security. As it expands in Syria, Hezbollah has begun working with many Syrian militia members, some of whom could be double agents.

The attack could also mean that a rebel or jihadist group worked with a foreign intelligence agency to pinpoint and attack Mr. Badreddine, said Ali Rizk, a Lebanese analyst close to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah's statement said the attack underscored its view of the Syrian war as being of a piece with its fight against Israel. The group sees the insurgents opposed to Mr. Assad and his closest ally, Hezbollah's patron Iran, as being allied with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

[Source: By Anne Barnard, The New York Times, Beirut, 14May16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 19May16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.