Remember a few years ago when Iranian officials had to intervene to prevent Hezbollah gunmen from turning on their Syrian patrons? Few people do. Today, the "axis of resistance" is as strong as ever, with Iran and Hezbollah fully committed to fighting for the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, despite battlefield losses and the political costs of siding with a brutal dictator who gasses and bombs his own people. Most observers are not surprised that Iran and Hezbollah have come to the defense of a "pillar of the resistance," but the little-known fallout from a watershed event six years ago today suggests that it might have not have been the case.
It was the evening of February 12, 2008, and Imad Mughniyeh, head of Hezbollah’s terrorist network, had just left a meeting with Syrian intelligence. He was on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, was long in the crosshairs of Israel’s intelligence services, and was the target of at least three CIA rendition operations. He was tied to terror plots from Europe to South America, and until 9/11 was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than anyone else. Many countries wanted Mughniyeh taken out of commission. As he climbed into his Mitsubishi Pajero the evening of the 12th, an explosive device inserted into the drivers’ seat headrest detonated, killing him instantly.
Who killed Mughniyeh and how they tracked him down remains unknown. But Hezbollah security officers have a theory. In the course of a major FBI investigation, Hezbollah operatives informed undercover agents and confidential sources about a longtime Hezbollah campaign to steal money around the world that would then be safeguarded in Iran and later sent to Lebanon and used as Mughinyeh’s terrorist slush fund. The use of genuine, albeit stolen, currency instead of high-end counterfeit bills was implemented to ensure operational security for Hezbollah’s most sensitive operations. Maybe, Hezbollah speculated, someone followed the money back to Mughniyeh. That would suggest the involvement of a state intelligence service.
Today, Hezbollah is convinced that the Israelis were behind the hit. But at the time—even as Hezbollah publicly charged that Israel was to blame for the attack—both Hezbollah and Iran privately suspected that the Syrians may have played a role in Mughniyeh’s death. For their part, Syrian officials were shocked by the assassination of the terrorist mastermind in the heart of the police state's capital. U.S. officials reported at the time that the Syrian military and general intelligence services were "engaged in an internecine struggle to blame each other for the breach of security that resulted in Mughniyeh's death." Worse still, Hezbollah believed the Syrians may have been behind the bombing, an Arab diplomat in Beirut told his American counterparts.
While Mughniyeh was exceptionally close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its external operations unit, the Quds Force, his past relationship with Syria was often contentious. In 1987, Mughniyeh was recalled to Tehran to prevent capture following Hezbollah attacks against Syrian forces in West Beirut. He would remain there, while he waited for the security situation in Lebanon to improve. That likely took some time, considering Syria issued a warrant for Mughniyeh’s arrest in 1988.
No Syrian official attended Mughniyeh’s funeral, but a senior Iranian official reportedly made the trip not only to pay Iran’s respects, but also to convince Hezbollah not to retaliate against Damascus. Mughniyeh's assassination led to tensions between Syria and Iran that took more than a year to work out. Only in late 2009, when Qods Force chief Qassem Suleimani made a quiet visit to Damascus, did the relationship start to mend. Suleimani's long absence, U.S. officials speculated, might have been "a reflection of lingering tensions between Iran and Syria that erupted after the assassination of Mughniyeh."
Hezbollah and Damascus have historically had an odd relationship—sometimes intimate, sometimes shaky, often both—thus Mughniyeh’s escape to Tehran when Damascus was gunning for him in the late 1980s. But with the uprising against Assad kicking off in March 2011, it seems that Hezbollah and the Assad regime settled their differences just in time. Even if Hezbollah was still furious over the Syrian security lapses that may have played a role in Mughniyeh’s assassination, common interests—and reportedly a call to action from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—led Hezbollah’s General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah to dispatch a steady stream of Hezbollah fighters to battle alongside the Syrian regime since the very early days of the uprising.
Dr. Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.
A car bomb detonated today in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold. So far, four are reported dead and over 50 have been injured. With rumors spreading that the bombing may have been the work of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Sunni jihadist group with ties to al Qaeda, it seems that this was the latest in a series of moves indicating that the regional conflict with Syria as its red-hot center is growing ever wider, now encompassing all the Levant, from Baghdad to Beirut. In the Lebanese capital alone, within a one-week span a former Sunni minister was assassinated, Saudi Arabia bought a $3 billion share of a national army heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah, and then today the Party of God was targeted on its home turf.
In the wake of the interim deal that the White House signed with Iran Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said on the Sunday talk shows that nothing has changed, not with the American position in the Middle East, or with the U.S. alliance system in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is screaming his head off, but Israel has nothing to worry about says Kerry.
The cartoon above is from the Great Game era in Central Asia, when the British and Russians were in a contest for places like Afghanistan and Iran. It's strongly (perhaps perversely) suggestive given current events.
Lebanese authorities have arrested two suspects affiliated with a pro-Syrian regime group in the bombing of two Sunni mosques in Tripoli on Friday. Forty-seven people were killed in the attack in the northern Lebanese city, likely retaliation for a bombing the previous week in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, that killed another 27.
Even with all eyes turned toward Egypt and the increasingly violent rifts pulling that society apart, the region’s active civil war in Syria burns on. Last Thursday, the two-and-a half-year-long conflict touched neighboring Lebanon, again, when a bomb detonated in the Hezbollah-held southern suburbs of Beirut killing 27 people and wounding hundreds.
For over a week now, the Syrian town of Qusayr in Homs Province has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the two-year conflict. The struggle for Qusayr, says besieged President Bashar al-Assad, “is the main battle” in all of Syria.
CNN reports this evening that there have been Israeli airstrikes on Syria:
"Two U.S. officials are telling CNN that the U.S. believes Israel has conducted an airstrike into Syria," CNN reports. "Western intelligence agencies are reviewing classified data and they say they believe Israel conducted the strike today or late yesterday."
Eight years ago today, February 14, 2005, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, along with 22 others, when a massive explosive detonated as his motorcade drove past Beirut’s St. George Hotel.
Yesterday the Bulgarian government announced the results of its investigation into the July 18, 2012 bus bombing that killed 5 Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver in the city of Burgas. At least two members of what appears to have been a three-man team belong to Hezbollah. More specifically, explained Bulgaria’s interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, they were part of Hezbollah’s “military wing”—a peculiar turn of phrase that hints at the political implications of the Bulgarian investigation, which may have a major impact on European Union foreign policy as well as Hezbollah’s ability to operate on the continent. And yet the most serious repercussions may be felt inside Lebanon, where Hezbollah is already feeling the pressure.
Last week THE WEEKLY STANDARD published my article, “Smugglers Galore: How Iran Arms its Proxies.” It seems that part of it may have found its way onto the reading list of Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah.
NBC’s Middle East correspondent Richard Engel was released yesterday after being held for five days in Syria. When his kidnappers came to a rebel checkpoint, they were engaged in a firefight with a Free Syrian Army unit that allowed Engel and his colleagues to go free. NBC’s statement said he was taken by an “unknown group,” but Engel himself said he has a “very good idea” that the kidnappers are members of the shabbiha.
This morning, the State Department designated former Lebanese parliament member, and longtime ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Michel Samaha as a specially designated global terrorist. Treasury also designated Samaha for “undermining Lebanon’s democratic processes or institutions, contributing to the breakdown of the rule of law in Lebanon, supporting the reassertion of Syrian control or otherwise contributing to Syrian interference in Lebanon, or infringing upon or undermining Lebanese sovereignty.”