New claims surrounding the death of a prominent Hezbollah commander shed light on the shifting ground realities in Syria and the region.

In May 2016, Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon received the crushing news that one of their top commanders in Syria had been killed. 

The Shia group organised something similar to a state funeral for the much-admired Mustafa Badr al Din, who was killed by an Israeli air strike that was targeting Hezbollah activities and weapons movements in Damascus.

That is the official story, or the one widely reported by both regional and international media at the time.

In reality, it is unlikely that he was killed in one of the many airstrikes on the Syrian capital by the Israeli air force, as it was brazenly claimed in the Israeli press. 

It is more likely that he was assassinated at point blank range by officers working under the Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, someone who the Americans murdered in an airstrike in the Iraqi capital Baghdad in January 2020. 

Both of these murders are key turning points in the West’s hot-and-cold war against Iran.

In one Israeli newspaper, a contributor with sources deep in the IDF and intelligence circles, claimed that Soleimani’s men killed Badr al Din with pistols after a long chat over tea in Damascus in which a rapprochement was being sought over a strategy for both Hezbollah and Iran in Syria. 

Soleimani could not get Badr al Din to agree to his bold vision for Syria - one which would have proved a threat to Israel.

Soleimani planned to ship in 100,000 Shia fighters from a number of countries and to then build air force and intelligence bases, as well as with missile sites aimed at Israel, in an operation which would have cost $100 million. 

Critically, he needed Hezbollah support in the supplying of more fighters from Lebanon, and particularly so they could take on Israel with a new front in the Golan Heights.

The ambitious plan would have represented an unprecedented threat to Israel.

In any case, the Hezbollah commander couldn’t agree to the plans, and went on to argue that in his opinion, fighters should, in fact, be reduced. It was said that Soleimani, for whom this must have been the final straw, upped and left the room.  

Seconds later, his men entered and shot Badr al Din at point blank range in scenes not dissimilar to ‘The Godfather’.

The murder itself, however, debunks a few important myths. Primarily, it is a reminder to any Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah, that the group does not enjoy any sort of independence under the control of Hassan Nasrallah in Syria.

But it also raises a number of questions. Can it be assumed that plans were already underway when Israel bombed a weapons ‘research’ plant in Aleppo, where new grade missiles were apparently being created?

In recent days, numerous reports from trusted sources have made much of Iran pulling out its military from Syria. In reality, the move is more about shifting military garrisons further away from the south of Syria (where they pose a threat to Israel) and putting them closer to the Iraqi border where they will vex Israel and Russia.

Why Russia?

Another myth which both assassinations have quashed, is that since the downing of a Russian observation plane in September 2018, Russia has become a foe to Israel. 

Indeed, since that “accident”, Russia has beefed up Syria’s anti-aircraft defence systems by enrolling the S-300 missile, which, given its power, would be capable of taking out any IAF American-made F16s. So why don’t they?

Russian shift

In recent days, we have witnessed what appears to be a new chill in relations between Russia and Iran in Syria. What’s behind this? 

It centres around Putin, who appears to be complaining about Assad siding with Iran over the blocking of the Russian leader’s plans to attract investors for reconstruction in Syria. We’ve also seen reports of Iran downsizing its footprint in Syria.

In reality though, this awkwardness with Iran is not exactly new. Now, with the lid coming off both the Hezbollah commander’s assassination, and the Iranian military chief who ordered it, the situation is pointing to a new reality: Russia, far from wanting to make Israel an enemy, wants to work with it in the region.

Hezbollah is a huge supporter of Putin. In Lebanon, Hezbollah talks about Putin as though he belongs to a new world order, as a new tough guy to challenge the US. Hezbollah’s reverence of Putin is almost at odds with Iran’s acknowledgement of Russia and its power. 

Was it possible that Badr al Din not only opposed Soleimani’s big plan but also had worked out that Russia was never going to actually fire one single S-300 missile at any Israeli F16 or even the stealthy F-35s? Had the two men argued about this? 

In the months that followed, once the S-300s had been installed, had Soleimani realised this also, and so therefore ploughed ahead with his plan in Syria?

It begs the questions over whether this was the real reason he was assassinated by a US strike in Baghdad. One wonders whether Israel convinced Trump that without the Iranian commander, the entire Iranian program in Syria would wind down. It benefits no one if Israel is fighting Iran inside Syria in a war that no one cares about in America, nor understands.

Did Badr al Din parrot a Hezbollah view that building Iranian garrisons in southern Iran was too dangerous and would inevitably drag Lebanon into a full-blown war?

It is interesting that it is being suggested that Putin would never dare fire S-300s at Israel as this might backfire on him if some of them missed their targets. 

But in reality, Putin would never do this. At the end of the day, Putin wants Iran out of Syria and by allowing Israel to constantly bomb Iranian military targets – and not Russian ones of course – then his objectives are aligned with those of Netanyahu. 

Putin was never going to fire any S-300s at Israel. It makes no sense whatsoever to use someone else’s war to draw fire on yourself, firstly, and secondly, to then go on to risk a negative PR campaign which might further offset other contracts in the region, such as those with Turkey. 

Since the killing of Soleimani, we are seeing the bold plan and the missile projects being wound down significantly and Iran withdrawing its troops and hardware.

For Russia, this is only a win-win situation as Putin needs now to bully Assad into accepting his reconstruction plan, which includes incorporating opposition groups into the political sphere. 

It is also seen by Israel as the fruits of a long partnership with Putin who, by not opposing one air strike, has contributed considerably to the plan. 

Iran on the backfoot

There can be no denying from Iran that losing its top man has considerably taken the edge off their game in Syria and in its greater ‘war’ with the US and its allies. 

With the collapse of the Iranian economy and Soleimani no longer at the helm, Israel can assume that it has scored a major victory with his assassination earlier this year and is looking to exploit both the relationship with Russia and Iran being on the run in Syria. 

Iran’s missile upgrade has suffered a major setback, as indeed has Iran’s big plan in Syria. There is a genuine feeling in Israel that Iran can be pushed out of Syria altogether now. 

Soleimani was almost certainly murdered in January of this year because he saw Syria as the new battlefield with the West where Iran had a chance of really making an impact. It meant, of course, that it posed too much of a threat to Israel and the US. 

But any such campaign would have also placed Putin in an impossible position as both standing on the touchlines of such a new proxy war and keeping the S-300s under lock and key, would have made the Russian leader look weak and his presence in Syria as incongruous as the Iranians - or even Hezbollah’s, for that matter. 

The two assassinations have thrown an awkward light on how Russia plays an excruciating balancing act in the region, forever remaining in the grey areas, rather than opting for polarised friendships. But it also shows the same problem is affecting Iran and its supporters. 

Hezbollah balances its adoration for the Iranian Supreme Leader on one hand, with its superstar idolisation of Putin on the other. 

For many Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon, Putin is seen as a modern leader that they could only dream about having in Lebanon. But how long will that remain so, not least when they come to learn of his loathing of Iran and his admiration of Israel?

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