Hezbollah is now squeezed between Syria and Iran.

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Feb. 19 2008 2:04 PM

A Death in Damascus

After the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah finds itself squeezed between Syria and Iran.

Imad Mughniyah
Imad Mughniyah

We still don't know who assassinated senior Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah in Damascus, Syria, last week. The incident was only the latest setback for the Shiite party as it faces rising anger in Lebanon for perpetuating a domestic political crisis that has lasted for months.

Opponents of President Bashar Assad's regime quickly blamed Syria for the bombing that killed Mughniyah. Because it occurred in a high-security area, they argued, the operation must have been an inside job. Why would the Syrians do this? To cut a deal with the United States amid mounting international pressure against Damascus—including the establishment of a tribunal to judge suspects in the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was almost certainly a Syrian hit. Allegedly, Mughniyah's elimination is proof of Syria's goodwill.

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Director of U.S. National Intelligence Mike McConnell was thinking along the same lines when he declared on Sunday: "There's some evidence that it may have been internal Hezbollah. It may have been Syria. We don't know yet, and we're trying to sort that out."

However, such explanations could be efforts to deepen the mistrust of Syria's regime among its allies rather than statements of fact. Although everything is possible with the Assads, and participation by individual Syrians cannot be ruled out, Mughniyah stood at the nexus point of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. It would be remarkable for Damascus to have sacrificed such a figure without an explicit quid pro quo while potentially jeopardizing its ties with Hezbollah and Tehran. Mughniyah was more the icing on a prospective deal than an opening offer.

Whoever was behind Mughniyah's death, and some Israeli intelligence sources are saying it was Mossad, Syria's reputation is taking a beating. People offering condolences to Hezbollah reported that its sympathizers expressed suspicion of the Assad regime. Syrian trustworthiness was not helped when sources in Damascus denied that Syrian, Hezbollah, and Iranian investigators were jointly looking into the bombing, even though an Iranian official had confirmed this.

The Syrians also insisted that Mughniyah arrived in Damascus the day before his assassination without their knowledge. This was plainly nonsense. Syria's intelligence services keep close tabs on anybody of note entering their frontiers. In clumsily trying to shift the blame elsewhere, the Syrians looked as if they were covering something up. Anti-Syrian Arab newspapers added fuel to the fire. For example, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, which sometimes has good Saudi intelligence information, reported that Mughniyah was living in a Damascus apartment owned by a business partner of the powerful cousin of President Bashar Assad.

Hezbollah finds itself in a bind because of Mughniyah. The party blames Israel for the bombing, but it is also peddling a more complex plotline that includes Arab involvement. A source close to Hezbollah told another Kuwaiti daily that the assassination was "Palestinian-Israeli," used American technology, and was financed by an unidentified Gulf Arab official. A Lebanese daily close to Hezbollah and a Syrian newspaper owned by Assad's cousin also mentioned an Arab angle. This account could be politically motivated, allowing Syria to later hit out in many directions against its regional foes, particularly in Lebanon.

With so much contradictory information circulating, what can Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, do? At Mughniyah's funeral, he threatened to engage in open war against Israel, indicating that Hezbollah would respond outside the geographical parameters of the conflict. This implies an attack against Israeli targets or Jewish centers worldwide. But things are not that simple. Hezbollah has spent years successfully burnishing its international image—one reason it remains off the EU list of terrorist groups. Giving that up just to avenge Mughniyah would be costly. Besides, every intelligence agency in the world now expects Hezbollah to retaliate, so the party will not find it easy to do so.

Add to that Hezbollah's ruinous behavior inside Lebanon since the end of the summer 2006 war against Israel. Many Lebanese blamed the party for provoking that destructive conflict. Things have improved little since the end of the war, because Hezbollah has collaborated with Syria's efforts to reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon after its army's withdrawal three years ago. The party has blocked the election of a Lebanese president, part of a Syrian strategy to impose its conditions on any new officeholder. The ensuing stalemate has greatly discredited Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Arab world.

But the situation in Beirut is only a symptom of a larger dilemma Hezbollah has faced since 2000, when Israel withdrew its army from Lebanon: Without open-ended conflict, the party cannot justify retaining its weapons; but without weapons, Hezbollah cannot exist. Its leadership knows that political normalization in a Lebanon free of Syrian interference would lead to the party's disarmament, since most Lebanese want their government to have a monopoly over the use of violence. To ward off this eventuality, Hezbollah favors a decisive return of Syrian domination over Lebanon, knowing that Assad will necessarily have to rely on Hezbollah's weapons as leverage before he can consider resuming negotiations with Israel.