by Yoav Limor
Had the Shiite group refrained from assigning blame for Badreddine's assassination, or had it alluded to Israeli involvement, it would have boxed itself into a situation where it would be expected to exact revenge.
The death of Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine on Thursday dealt Hezbollah a massive blow -- the harshest since the Shiite terrorist group's operations chief Imad Mughniyeh was killed in 2008. It is also one of the toughest setbacks the group has suffered since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, five years ago.
Badreddine was part of Hezbollah's core group of founders; a veteran operative, who owed much of his rise through the ranks to his brother-in-law -- Mughniyeh. Badreddine was involved in almost every aspect of Hezbollah's operations, making him a prime target for nearly every Western intelligence agency.
Following Mughniyeh's assassination, which was largely attributed to Israel, his responsibilities were divided between several top Hezbollah officials, including Badreddine, Talal Hamieh, and Hassan Laqqis, whose 2013 assassination was also attributed to Israel.
None of the three possessed Mughniyeh's charisma or capabilities, so, relatively speaking, the blow sustained by Badreddine's death was moderate, but it cannot be discounted: Not only has Hezbollah lost yet another seasoned operative, which is bound to create knowledge gaps along its top echelon, Badreddine's assassination proved that once again, a mysterious entity was able to penetrate the tight protection the Shiite group provides its top officials, executed a surgical strike, and left no trace in its wake.
This is why many instinctively attributed Badreddine's death to Israel. Given the United States' categorical denial of any involvement -- a bizarre statement in and of itself -- who else can obtain such accurate intelligence and carry out a precision strike like this?
It was only Hezbollah's official statement saying the rebels were responsible for Thursday's explosion in Damascus, effectively exonerating Israel from any involvement in the incident, that somewhat de-escalated a situation that was beginning to heat up.
That was precisely Hezbollah's aim: After vowing to avenge Mughniyeh's and Laqqis' assassinations, and reiterating its threats after the assassinations of Jihad Mughniyeh in January 2015 and Samir Kuntar in December 2015, Hezbollah attacked Israel, targeting Israeli forces on the northern border. Had the Shiite group refrained from assigning blame for Badreddine's assassination, or had it alluded to Israeli involvement, it would have boxed itself into a situation where it would be expected to exact revenge.
Hezbollah's decision to publicly exonerate Israel from responsibility in this case reflects the effectiveness of Israel's deterrence, as well as the pressure Hezbollah is under in Lebanon. With over 1,500 fatalities and 8,000 casualties in the Syrian civil war from among its own men, Hezbollah has been the subject of scathing criticism in Lebanon. Stating that Badreddine was killed by the Sunni enemy signals to Hezbollah's operatives and their families that even the group's highest-ranking officials are taking an active part in the war and are not immune to the most painful of consequences.
In this respect, Badreddine is yet another victim of the bloody civil war tearing through Syria, with no end in sight. Hezbollah will continue to remain invested in the conflict, heeding the orders of its Iranian patrons to send men and arms to fight alongside the Syrian army, but that does not mean it will take its eyes off Israel.
The fact that Hezbollah does not hold Israel responsible for Badreddine's death represents one moment in time, which may have temporarily deferred escalation on the northern border, but both Israel and Hezbollah continue to prepare for such an eventuality. It is, after all, only a matter of time.
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