What Mugniyeh’s assassination means
The assassination of the former head of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (or Foreign Security Organization), Imad Mugniyeh, in a car bomb in a Damascus suburb yesterday, closes a long chapter in the West’s bloody meddling in the Levant, which began (or some would say resumed) in the early 1980s when the Lebanese Shiite organization was born.
The problem, however, is that the killing will likely open a new, and perhaps bloodier, chapter.
Despite Israel’s denial it had anything to do with the assassination, no other country, not Iran, certainly not the US, has the technical skill and geographical and social access to mount such a targeted operation against the elusive militant, who was believed to be in hiding either in Iran or Lebanon. While Mugniyeh was wanted by Interpol for, among others, his alleged involvement in embassy bombings and abductions in Lebanon in the 1980s, the 1985 hijacking of a TWA aircraft and the 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, assassination by car bombs is not in the arsenal of the international police organization.
Israel, on the other hand, has long refined the technique of decapitating the leadership of the various organizations arrayed against it, including Hamas (against whose cadres it struck twice in recent years) and Hezbollah, and has made no effort to hide this policy. Interestingly, Mugniyeh’s assassination comes days after Jerusalem announced it could attempt to overthrow the Hamas regime in Gaza, and three years, almost to the day, after the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005.
But despite the celebrations in Jerusalem, today’s assassination was not vengeance. Rather, it was strategic positioning through an attempt to alter the status quo.
Like Hamas, Hezbollah is sponsored by Tehran, the Jewish state’s No. 1 source of fear, mostly because of the rhetoric of its firebrand leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the belief that Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons. Ever since a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), released late last year, claimed that Iran had ceased nuclear weaponization efforts in 2003 — thus deflating (though not ending) ongoing efforts to isolate Tehran — Israel, which disagrees with the NIE findings, has shown increasing signs it is willing to go it alone against Iran, perhaps in a repeat of its preventive bombing of a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981.
(The presence of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Turkey, Israel’s main regional ally, the same day Mugniyeh was blown to pieces may not have been coincidental either. Despite denying it is so, Turkey would serve as the most logical launch pad for Israeli strikes against Iran.)
Mugniyeh’s assassination will also create additional pressures in Lebanon and risks undermining ongoing efforts to create a stable government there by bolstering the Shiite organization and pro-Syrian factions. Hezbollah, which announced the killing yesterday on its Al-Manar TV station, will very likely retaliate. Expecting this, Jerusalem has put its overseas missions on notice and called for a redoubling of security in preparation for a move by Hezbollah — which may just be what Israel is waiting for, as it would provide it with the justification it needs to launch an attack against Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor. As I have written on many occasions on this site, it’s all connected.
The ashes had barely settled in Beirut following the July 2006 war against Israel than prospects of a renewal of hostilities — especially if Hezbollah renews its rocket attacks against Israeli positions or launches raids from Lebanese territory — seem to have become more likely, if not inevitable.
Involved in many deadly operations during his lifetime, even in death Imad Mugniyeh risks leading to many more.