Across the Bay

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mughniyeh Assassinated in Damascus

Hezbollah's head of special overseas operations Imad Mughniyeh was killed in a car bomb in Damascus yesterday.

This is a major blow to Iran, Hezbollah and Syria.

Mughniyeh's record is quite illustrious, and the blood on his hands is extensive, from the terror operations against the US and hostage taking in Lebanon in the 80s to the attacks in Argentina in 1992 and 1994 to the attack on the Khobar Towers in 1996, all the way to his involvement in Iraq in recent years (the Quds Force also had ties to Zarqawi, who was nailed by the US while hiding in a Quds Force safehouse).

To say that Mughniyeh was an Iranian asset is to understate his relationship with the Iranians. He was much more than an asset. He was an organic part of the Iranian regime, with direct access to Khamenei. Just like Hezbollah is itself an organic extension of the Islamic Revolution -- an Iranian ministry as one Iranian analyst told me -- Mughniyeh is like one step above that, according to some analysts.

As such, this is a big loss for the Iranians and Hezbollah. It was perhaps best encapsulated in the statement by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, who declared that "the march of Jihad against the enemy has lost an essential pillar." Operationally, this adds to the losses suffered by Hezbollah in 2006, which, unlike stockpiles of Katyushas, is much more difficult to replace.

But it's also a huge embarrassment for Syria. As Michael Rubin noted at NRO's Corner, "as important as who was killed is where." Not that we needed this, or Mughniyeh's aunt Fayza for that matter, to know that Damascus is terror central.

Coming a few months after the Sept. 6 hit on their nuclear facility in Deir el-Zor, this hit on a most-wanted terrorist, harbored in a joint Iranian-Syrian location in the heart of Damascus is a major embarrassment for Assad. Regardless who did it, it reflects quite badly on Assad, not long after his secret nuke facility was pulverized. Speculation over who did it only adds to the embarrassment no matter how you cut it, and whether Israel did it or not, the suspicion that it did would once again make a mockery of Assad's and Hezbollah's proclamations regarding the "loss of deterrence" after the 2006 war.

Yet there's always room for idiocy, like the following gem of an "analysis" by the clueless Paul Salem, and his perennial obsession with the "deal" rubbish:

``It's a big blow and very significant blow no matter who did it,'' Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said in a telephone interview from Beirut.

``This was done in Damascus,'' he said, adding that, if the Hezbollah commander was killed by Syria, ``then it's enormously significant and, if not, then who was able to penetrate Damascus so coolly and comfortably?''

Syrian Deal?

Mughniyeh was a hard target and his killing could be part of a deal between the U.S. and Syria, Salem said. ``He was one of the figures that was always asked for by name by the U.S. If, and it's a big if, it's part of a Syrian agenda, it means that the U.S. and Syria must be making progress and there is some deal-making on Lebanon.''

Mmmm, yes... Deep. And it makes perfect sense too. A top Iranian commander, near an Iranian facility in Damascus probably crawling with IRGC personnel, was taken out by the Syrians, in Damascus (I repeat), presumably without informing the Iranians, and of course not paying any attention for the embarrassing fallout of having a hit go down in "a security area in close proximity to an Iranian school and the offices of the Syrian intelligence services and military intelligence unit," in return for... "progress" in the "deal-making" between the US and Syria on Lebanon! Such penetrating analysis. Such acumen. Such a well thought-out, careful observation. It's perhaps only rivaled by this nonsense from Duane Clarridge -- who, I might add, has been out of the loop for years, and clearly doesn't know what he's talking about here. But to be fair to Clarridge, the quote by one Ted Karasik of the Rand Corp might surpass it in the category of astounding idiocy.

But enough with nonsense.

The Syrians, exactly like they did after the hit on the nuke site in Deir el-Zor, issued an unofficial official response through their proxy, the PFLP-GC, whose Anwar Raja declared that the assassination of Mughniyeh "crossed all red lines, and it is an act of aggression against the sovereignty of an Arab state, and has political and security fallouts."

And this brings us to the issue of what the retaliation might be. Syria was exposed after the strike against the nuke site and neither it nor its proxies (the outrage of the PFLP-GC at the time notwithstanding) were able to mount a retaliation, further exposing Syria's weakness.

Expectations are different now, it would seem. The Hezbollah reaction that it reserves the right to retaliate "anywhere" might be an early hint of operations abroad. But this too will have repercussions against Hezbollah and Iran for that matter.

This becomes an interesting issue because of the constraints on Hezbollah in south Lebanon, and whether Hezbollah wants to risk the consequences of its breaking the 1701 security regime in the south.

More to come.

Addendum: On a side note, and just for the historical record, some have even speculated that Mughniyeh, in cooperation with the Syrians, was behind the assassination of Elie Hobeika. Mughniyeh's brother Jihad was killed in 1985 in a car bomb intended for Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. Hobeika is thought to have been behind the attempt. Mughniyeh's other brother, Fuad, was killed in 1994 in a hit intended for Imad.

Update: Two excellent points by my friend Abu Kais:

Hizbullah, which spent years trying to publicly disassociate itself from the man, is now mourning him as a resistance leader, vowing revenge and what have you. To now claim that he was an active member of the group is to finally admit to being an international terrorist organization that never really "changed" after the end of the Lebanese civil war, as many had convinced themselves. Mughnieh was practically an Iranian intelligence operative, and was linked to attacks in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. His assassination left Hizbullah exposed. The group that could no longer argue for the holiness of their weapons, could no longer claim their theater of operations is restricted to Lebanon. [TB: Regarding the point on Hezbollah's attempts at distancing itself from Mughniyeh in the past, see what Judith Palmer Harik said here.]
The March 14 statement said Mughnieh's assassination should be an occasion for unity, especially that it took place on the eve of a planned demonstration to commemorate the killing of Rafik Hariri. Unity of what, I wonder. The two men had nothing in common, and worked towards opposite goals. Mughnieh could have killed Hariri for all we know. I would like to think that today, Hizbullah and March 14 became united in vulnerability. It could be wishful thinking, but why not.