Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia announced Friday that its top military commander in the Syrian civil war died in a mysterious blast in Damascus, dealing a major blow to the powerful Iranian-backed group.
The killing of Mustafa Badreddine, 55, comes as Hezbollah struggles to balance combatting its traditional nemesis, Israel, with its costly intervention in the Syrian conflict to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against rebel factions, including some groups backed by the United States and its allies.
Badreddine is the most senior Hezbollah official killed in Syria. He was linked to deadly attacks in 1983 on U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait, and was among four people indicted by a U.N. tribunal for involvement in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
In a statement, Hezbollah said a “huge explosion” near the airport in the Syrian capital killed Badreddine. The group refrained from specifying who carried out the attack or when it happened, but promised that it would release details soon of an internal investigation into the incident.
The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Hezbollah, blamed the killing on Israel, which has carried out a number of air raids against the group in Syria in recent years. In 2006, Israel fought a brief war with Hezbollah, but failed to dislodge the group from strongholds in southern Lebanon.
Those have killed high-profile Hezbollah militants and destroyed what analysts say were high-powered weapons – possibly including missiles provided by Iran – that the group could have used against Israel.
Israel generally neither confirms nor denies involvement in such attacks.
According to the U.S. government, Badreddine commanded Hezbollah’s substantial military operations in Syria – an intervention involving thousands of the Shiite group’s militants who were waging intense ground battles against the Sunni-led rebellion.
The group’s well-trained fighters have played a crucial role defending the Syrian leader, who also relies on thousands of Shiite militants from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Analysts say that Badreddine led key battles in 2013 that helped turned the tide of the Syrian civil war in Assad’s favor.
The fighting has taken a heavy toll on Hezbollah, resulting in well over 1,000 of its militants killed.
Over the past decade, several top figures Hezbollah and the Palestinian faction Hamas have been killed in apparent targeted attacks.
In 2008, Badreddine’s predecessor, Imad Mughniyeh, was killed in a bomb attack in Damascus. In Dubai in 2010, a team using disguises including fake beards killed senior Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Hugh Naylor, Suzan Haidamous