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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

The Death of Hezbollah

Hezbollah's flag. Image sourced from Wikicommons.

Hezbollah’s flag. Image sourced from Wikicommons.

Death of Hezbollah’s Military Commander Signifies a Disturbing Trend for the Shiite militia

May 2016 came in with a bang; this time, the leadership of the Shiite militia Hezbollah is at the receiving end.  The cousin and brother-in-law of the late terror mastermind Imad Mougniyah and head of military operations for Hezbollah, Mustafa Badreddine, was killed mysteriously near the Damascus airport in an uncredited explosion.[1]  In the immediate aftermath, Hezbollah officials pointed their fingers at Israel as the culprit, although this has since changed as linked to Syria’s anti-government factions are now considered responsible.[2]  This attack follows the 2008 assassination of the aforementioned Imad Mougniyeh by what was believed to be a CIA-Mossad orchestrated operation, and more recently an Israeli military strike on Mougniyah’s son, Jihad, as well as the assassination of operations chief Mohammed Issa in 2015.  In addition, several other Hezbollah commanders have been killed, both on the battlefield and by suspected assassinations, throughout the course of Syria’s civil war.[3] Regardless of those responsible for the attack that took Badreddine’s life, his assassination continues a trend that has seen Hezbollah’s leadership targeted in Syria.

The Danger for Non-State Actors

While Hezbollah has certainly done its part to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in fighting anti-government groups on the Syrian battlefield, Hezbollah remains a non-state militia group subjected to state controls and state power.  The deaths of its fighters over the past year, numbering over 1,000 dead[4] in addition to the fatalities at the highest echelons echoes this fact.  Hezbollah, with a constituency of ethnic Lebanese Shiites but which often times answers to the whim of benefactor Iran, has found itself in a conflict it cannot separate itself from while it is simultaneously unable to make demands of state actors such as Iran and Syria.  Hezbollah’s performance against Israel’s military in the 2006 war garnered it support from benefactors and admiration from its Shiite constituents; yet this luster has dulled as Hezbollah continues to bleed and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, finds it more difficult to justify his group’s losses at the behest of Iranian and Syrian interests.[5]

Between several rocks and several hard places

Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s civil war has elevated the group’s reputation as a fighting force, however the aforementioned death tolls the group has faced and its continued involvement indicates the many difficulties of remaining a client organization.  While Hezbollah has remained allied to Iran since the group’s founding in the early 1980s, its bolstering of Syrian government forces in the current civil war has complicated matters that much more.  As Nasrallah praised Bashar al-Assad’s regime for giving Hezbollah more than any other Arab regime in history[6], this generosity comes at a great cost.  The generosity Hassan Nasrallah speaks of comes in the form of “game changing weapons”[7] to be used against its stated enemy, Israel.  However, the group that has historically focused its efforts against Israel now must wager its troops in a neighboring country that is not Israel, but rather, a war-torn Syria that has grown increasingly complex. This particular development triggered diminishing support for the organization in tandem with rising criticism from former Arab Hezbollah supporters, who historically appreciated its traditional political and military stance against Israel.

The 2015 insertion of Russian forces into the foray further complicates matters for Hezbollah; as Russia and Iran maintain a similar strategy in floating the Assad regime, Russia also has also engaged in high-level security coordination with Israel.[8] This coordination has seemingly allowed for Israel to continue carrying out air raids on Hezbollah’s rocket shipments.  While Hezbollah’s chief ally and benefactor, Iran, is allied to Russia on the ground, this does not translate to Russian cooperation with Hezbollah.

Furthermore, Syria’s appreciation of Hezbollah’s battlefield acumen may not preclude the Assad regime from involvement in Badreddine’s assassination.  As mentioned, Israel’s involvement was considered in the immediate aftermath, conversely this has since been discounted by Hezbollah.  Their rejection of Israeli involvement, while likely based on fact, can also be attributed to Hezbollah leadership’s desire to avoid being put in a position in which they have to exact revenge.   “Hezbollah is deeply involved in a war in Syria which is taking great effort and causing it casualties, and Iran believes that Hezbollah’s fighters will not be able to handle two fronts”[9] said sources in Beirut.  So while Hezbollah accused “takfiri” rebel groups, or accusers of infidelity, many in Syria’s opposition claim this as an ‘inside job’[10] that reflects internal conflict between the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia.  Al-Arabiya journalist Mohamed Chebarro has quoted sources close to Israel’s establishment as claiming that the regime was “tying up loose ends” to eliminate high-risk individuals,[11] indicating Badreddine had outlived his usefulness to the regime.


Hezbollah’s role as a non-state actor, among many other non-state entities and powerful states, provides the group much less leverage in Syria.  Whereas Hezbollah remains ever-present and militarily powerful inside Lebanon, this cannot be said of its position in Syria.  As the aims of Syria’s allies and enemies continue to shift, the one goal of Russia, Iran, and possibly Israel at this current time, is to keep the regime in power.  Combined with U.S. interests and its own military coalition fighting the Islamic State, Hezbollah and other Shiite militias serving as mercenary forces at the behest of states become expendable.[12] Badreddine’s death serves as a stark reminder of this notion.


Hezbollah’s cold and hot wars against Israel have served its purpose as a “resistance” group, military force, and political body inside Lebanon.  The Hezbollah-Israel conflict has long-been established and provides an easier, clearer picture for its constituents.  Yet Hezbollah’s plunge into the worsening and quickly-evolving conflict in Syria distorts Hezbollah’s mission and purpose.  Is Hezbollah’s purpose to fight its declared enemy, the Israelis? Or is it sending its soldiers to die on a foreign landscape to serve the strategic aims of foreign governments?  Mustafa Badreddine’s death comes at a point when Russia, Iran, Israel, and the U.S. are all trying to pull Syria in different directions, some conflicting and some correlating; unless Hassan Nasrallah breaks ranks from his Iranian patrons or receives permission to withdraw, Hezbollah will continue to shed its blood on foreign territory.   If this continues, Nasrallah’s own position may become embattled as the group’s constituents and leadership become disillusioned with the high costs of fighting another people’s war.




[1] BBC Staff. May 16, 2016.

[2] Chebarro, M. May 15, 2016. “Iran, Russia, and Israel settling scores in Syria”. Al Arabiya.

[3] Associated Press. May 13, 2016. “A look back at the assassinations of Hezbollah leaders”. Haaretz.

[4] Ibid

[5] Chebarro, M. May 15, 2016. “Iran, Russia, and Israel settling scores in Syria”. Al Arabiya.

[6] Marquardt, A. May 10, 2015. “Hezbollah and al-Qaeda fighters edging closer to full scale confrontation”. ABC News. /story?id=19144119

[7] Ibid

[8] Aronson, G. February 9, 2016. “The Moscow-Jerusalem axis over Syria”. Al Jazeera. /indepth/opinion/2016/02/moscow-jerusalem-axis-syria-isis-putin-russia-160209054103460.html

[9] Perry, S. May 16, 2016. “No mention of Israel, please.” Ynet News.,7340,L-4803722,00.html

[10] JNI Media. May 15, 2016. “Syrian rebels: Badreddine’s assassination Hezbollah inside job”. World Jewish Press.

[11] Chebarro, M. May 15, 2016. “Iran, Russia, and Israel settling scores in Syria”. Al Arabiya. http://english.

[12] Ibid