Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah carry pictures of Hezbollah's late military leader Imad Moughniyah as Nasrallah appears on a screen to speak at an event to commemorate the deaths of six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general killed by an Israeli air strike in Syri.
(photo credit: REUTERS/KHALIL HASSAN)
Hezbollah senior leaders and members were traveling to Damascus during the air strikes that rocked areas west of the Syrian capital on Tuesday evening. They were reportedly hit during the air strikes, leaving many questions about their identities and why they were targeted.
Newsweek reported on Wednesday that Hezbollah leaders were targeted in the airstrikes. According to several sources, including the Lebanese website NewLebanon.info, the Hezbollah delegation was journeying to Damascus to board a flight bound for Tehran. It was heading to the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an important Iranian cleric who was head of the Expediency Discernment Council. He died on December 24, and senior Iranian religious figures buried him on Wednesday. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei presided at the ceremonies, according to Iran’s Fars News.
It now appears that the Hezbollah delegation may have been heading to Damascus to board a flight to Tehran for the state funeral. Hezbollah and Iranian regime leaders regularly attend each other’s funerals and ceremonies. For instance, in 2015, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani went to the grave of Jihad Mughniyeh in Beirut.
A Mahan Air flight left Damascus around 10 p.m. in the midst of the air strikes. Mahan Air has been designated by the US Treasury Department for its links to the IRGC. Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said in 2016 that Mahan Air was among those whose flights have been used by Tehran to supply Hezbollah. However, these flights could fly directly to Beirut – so why would a Hezbollah delegation need to travel to Damascus to board the flight?
The claim that the Hezbollah members were targeted and that they were traveling for the Shahroudi funeral has not been confirmed. Newsweek reported that a Defense Department source said the strike was “conducted minutes after the leaders boarded a plane bound for Iran.” Strikes also targeted ammunition warehouses that held precision ammunition. In comments reports in ‘Haaretz,’ former director of Military Intelligence Maj-Gen. Amos Yadlin cast doubt on the report, saying it was a low probability that Hezbollah officials were struck.
The claim that the Hezbollah members had already boarded a plane has not been corroborated with any footage on the ground that shows a plane being hit. A strike on a plane at Damascus International Airport would be a serious escalation. The report may be only partly accurate, and may indicate that the men were struck on the way to board a plane, not after they had boarded.
Syria’s state media SANA claims that Syrian air defenses “intercepted hostile missiles fired by Israeli warplanes from Lebanese territory and managed to drop most of the rockets before reaching their targets.” SANA said the air strikes hit an ammunition depot and wounded three soldiers. Several Syria observers, including the Twitter account @Syria_SR, claimed the air strikes were more complex than that, involving “55 munition, four waves [of cruise missiles] in 35 minutes and managed to hit 7 times in 2 different locations.”
In response, Syrian air defense reportedly fired 60 missiles to intercept the attack. Several Syrian SA-125 anti-air missiles misfired during defensive action, falling in areas around Damascus and causing confusion.
If the Hezbollah members were in fact targeted, it would not be the first time that Hezbollah members have been struck in the same location – on the highway that leads from Damascus over the mountains to Beirut. For instance, two Hezbollah members were killed in an air strike near Dimas in December 2014. In January 2015, “senior Hezbollah figures,” including Jihad Mughniyeh, were killed near Quneitra. Mezzeh military airport was also struck in December 2016. Air strikes also targeted an area near Saboura on the mountain road in November 2016 and April 2017.
The road that passes from Damascus via the Mezzeh military airport and Saboura, Dimas and then over to Lebanon is a 116-km. stretch of beautiful mountain driving that normally takes two-and-a-half hours.
The allegation that the senior Hezbollah members were targeted on their way to the Shahroudi funeral has now been repeated by many sources on social media and online. Why would Hezbollah members expose themselves on the road to Damascus, knowing that there have been tensions in the region in recent months? Did they feel safe, hoping Syria’s S-300 air defense system – supplied by Russia in the wake of the downing of a Russian IL-20 in September during an Israeli air strike – would provide them security?
Targeted in the past on the same stretch of road, they would have known its dangers. It doesn’t answer the final question of why they didn’t board a flight directly from Beirut and save themselves the drive and exposure.
Hezbollah media and pro-Syrian regime media have been silent on this issue. Iranian regime media have also been silent, discussing only the Syrian air defense system’s “success” at targeting the attack and continuing the story that only a warehouse was hit and several soldiers injured. In the coming hours or days, the Syrian regime or pro-Hezbollah media may begin to reveal what happened. If senior members of the group were killed, they will want to hold lavish funerals for the “martyrs.”
Hezbollah is often outspoken about these kinds of events. On December 3, for instance, Hezbollah claimed none of its members were hit in an alleged November 29 air strike south of Damascus. This was in response to rumors that its members had been targeted. Now the ball is in Hezbollah’s court once again. We will see if the terrorist organization responds to the rumors from December 25 regarding its members being targeted.
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