It still remains unclear who killed Hezbollah’s second in command, commander Mustafa Badreddine, last week in Syria, but if Israel turns out to be responsible as a Hezbollah MP claimed, it signals an aggressive tactical move by Israel to take advantage of the mayhem in the region to take out its enemies.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has been bending over backwards not to implicate Israel and instead push the unconvincing story that rebel shelling was responsible in order to put off any war with Israel for now.
It appears that both Israel and Hezbollah are satisfied with the alternative story for now, as neither party seeks war at the moment.
Whether Israel is responsible or not, perhaps the killing of such a senior Hezbollah figure is a sign that there is currently a ripe opportunity for Israel to take out terrorist leaders in the region.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah has suffered ongoing casualties during the Syrian civil war in its effort to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Israel has reportedly taken periodic action against Hezbollah targets in order to prevent weapons transfers from Syria to Lebanon since the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011.
The question is whether Israel should press to assassinate Hezbollah and even Hamas leaders, while regional chaos limits Israel’s enemies from uniting against it.
Hamas suffered greatly in the 2014 war and is busy preparing for the next round, including the building of tunnels into Israel.
Shi’ite Hezbollah is busy in a life or death struggle in Syria against Sunni rebels, including Islamic State. Hamas is isolated as the Egyptian regime has been destroying smuggling tunnels and cracking down on jihadists in Sinai. The group’s relations with Iran and Hezbollah are strained because of its past stance in favor of the Syrian rebels against Iran ally Assad.
It appears the current regional circumstances allow for the least aggressive retaliation by Hamas and Hezbollah for any action against its interests.
“Hezbollah needs to walk a fine line. On the one hand, it will ultimately retaliate, but while also looking to avoid a major escalation leading to a full-blown war,” Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Jerusalem Post.
Asked who he thinks is behind the attack, he responded that Israel is the most likely candidate, but Hezbollah is being careful in its statements, saying that it is still investigating the matter.
Badran points out that by naming Israel as the responsible party, Hezbollah would be forced to respond, even if not necessarily right away.
A number of Hezbollah commanders have been killed in Syria and Lebanon over the past three years, and, having blamed Israel for their deaths, Hezbollah has retaliated against Israel, if in a limited fashion.
However, Badran adds, especially after the strike in Quneitra that killed senior Hezbollah commanders and Imad Mughniyeh’s son in January of last year, “people don’t realize how close the situation came to escalating into a full blown war.”
Weeks after the strike in Quneitra, a Hezbollah operation killed two Israeli soldiers along the Lebanese border.
Badran speculates that if more soldiers were killed, Israel would likely have felt the need to escalate, and a war could have erupted.
At the same time, Hezbollah continues to be mired in the Syrian war. “Badreddine’s death comes at a moment when Hezbollah and the Iranians are taking a lot of casualties in Aleppo in particular,” he said.
“I don’t see Syrian war winding down any time soon, and even when it does, things don’t simply go back exactly to how they were before,” he added.
Asked if now is the time for Israel to launch more assassinations against Hezbollah, Badran replied, “One could make a case, that because of Hezbollah’s less than optimal position, as a result of Syria, it would be better to hit them now than wait until they improve their position.”
After the Syrian war winds down and Hezbollah secures its interests in Syria and Iran emerges as an internationally- recognized stakeholder in Syria, the situation could become more complicated for Israel.
“I suspect that, from the perspective of Israel’s decision makers, if you have good intelligence and the opportunity presents itself, you take it,” he concluded.