The assassination of the elusive Mughniyah on February 12 could be a major turning point in the Middle East – but in what direction? The answer to that question depends heavily on identifying who was behind the assassination.
If Hezbollah truly believes that Israel was behind his assassination, then we will witness a major operational shift in Hezbollah’s conflict with Israel. Let me explain.
Following the period of bombings (which included the American Embassy and Marines compound in Lebanon) and kidnappings of western hostages in the eighties for which Mughniyah was chiefly responsible, Hezbollah changed its modus operandi by restricting its operations to Israeli military targets within the Lebanese theatre. It adopted a tit-for-tat approach in its response to Israeli actions.
Following the assassination of Hezbollah’s leader Abbas al-Musawi in 1992 by Israeli forces, a shadowy group by the name of Islamic Jihad orchestrated the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Mughniyah was reportedly responsible for that act of terror. The bombing was a clear message to Israel that Hezbollah would not tolerate Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations and, unlike the Palestinians, Hezbollah would respond much more forcefully.
Ever since the Buenos Aires bombings, the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah remained contained within the Lebanese theatre and focused on military targets. The assassination of Mughniyah in Damascus, Syria, changes everything. Hezbollah will go after Israeli targets anywhere in the world thus inviting Israeli retaliation.
This may easily escalate into an all out war between Israel and Hezbollah, especially that each side feels the need to “settle” the unfinished business of the summer 2006 war. An open war between Israel and Hezbollah not limited to the Lebanese theatre of operations may have catastrophic consequences on peace and stability in the region. In a best case scenario, it will dramatically reverse the security gains achieved by the surge in Iraq, heighten tensions with Iran, and possibly increase Syria’s involvement in Lebanon. In a worst case scenario, a regional devastating war may erupt with all key players drawn into it.
Several voices accused Syria of involvement in Mughniyah’s assassination. Let us analyze this possibility by asking the key question: what would Syria gain from such an act?
Some claim that Syria carried out the assassination just two days before a major anti-Syrian rally were to take place in downtown Beirut to commemorate the assassination of Prime Minster Hariri and to shore up support for the Beirut government in order to steal the initiative and thunder away from its Beirut detractors. There is no doubt that Hezbollah’s rally in Beirut to mourn Mughniyah overshadowed the pro-government rally and increased the level of anxiety among the Lebanese. But would Syria jeopardize its alliance with Hezbollah and Iran for such a minor gain?
Most astute observers of the region dismiss this accusation as part of a psychological campaign aimed at Syria that will have no impact. If that were Syria’s true aim, then, Syrian intelligence could have easily orchestrated a fake assassination of Mughniyah with the full knowledge of key Iranian and Hezbollah leaders. After all, very few people knew what Mughniyah really looked like. There were only a couple of photographs of him and he had reportedly undergone several plastic surgeries to change his appearance. Although such a scenario is a bit far fetched, conspiracy theories in the region would salivate over this!
If, however, Syria’s alleged role in the assassination were to be taken seriously and be validated, then Syria’s involvement would represent a major turning point. What better way to send a powerful signal to the United States that Syria was willing to change course?
Mughniyah’s assassination brings closure to that chapter of terrorism, which had targeted the United States during the eighties. If that were the case, the assassination would present a turning point in a totally different direction. The possibility of Syrian involvement, however, raises two more questions: was the assassination condoned by Iran and Hezbollah, and if so, were they too sending a message? If not, would this constitute a “crack” in the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran axis? These are interesting questions that require serious consideration.
Whether the new direction in the region is more conflict and violence or a new opening for constructive dialogue, Mughniyah’s assassination is definitely a turning point in the state of affairs of the Middle East.