(May 14, 2019 / JCPA) In early May, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech to mark the third anniversary of the death of Mustafa Badr al-Din, who was the commander of Hezbollah forces in Syria and was killed near Damascus on May 13, 2016. In his remarks, Nasrallah revealed new details about the Ansariya Operation, which was carried out on the night of Sept. 4-5, 1997, against an Israeli Shayetet 13 commando force operating in Lebanon.
Nasrallah noted that Hezbollah had already revealed in the past that it collected the information that led to the ambush of the Israeli force through technical means. Nasrallah said Hezbollah had managed to intercept, in real time and over two weeks, images transmitted by an Israeli drone that showed the Shayetet 13 force’s designated landing area.
Accordingly, Hezbollah prepared an ambush. Nasrallah now added, however, that Hezbollah was able to discover that an Israeli force would land on the shore and that two or three fighters would advance toward Ansariya through an orchard-covered area. From this Hezbollah deduced that the force would be seeking a target to kidnap or kill—something it had not realized.
Based on this information, Hezbollah carried out a situation assessment. Taking part in it were Badr al-Din, who was appointed to command the operation; Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s security and military commander and Badr al-Din’s cousin and brother-in-law; Nasrallah himself and others.
The initial strategy considered was to prepare an ambush for the two or three Israeli fighters who had landed on the shore and returned to it several times. However, because it was clear to Hezbollah that these fighters were preparing a larger operation, it was decided to wait patiently, track them and refrain from attacking. Instead, it was decided to set an ambush for the larger Israeli force.
The two senior Hezbollah commanders, Badr al-Din and Mughniyeh, personally went to the ambush site. They examined the nearby orchards and walked along the path on which—in keeping with the intelligence collected—the Israeli force would proceed, and devised a plan of action accordingly.
The problem they faced was that the orchards were not empty. Farmers came to work each day at sunrise and left after sunset. So it was not possible lay booby-traps, even though it was clear the Israeli operation would be carried out at night.
They decided to prepare forces that would hide in the vicinity of the orchards. When the farmers left in the evening, the Hezbollah forces would plant explosive devices and wait in ambush all night. If the Israeli force had not arrived by the next morning, the explosive devices would be dismantled, the ambush called off, and they would go back into hiding.
And that, Nasrallah said, was how it went during long days and nights. Badr al-Din, commander of the operation, stayed with his forces at all times. Hezbollah waited patiently for the Israeli force to land, make its advance and fall into the orchard ambush.
Thus, while in Israel it was thought that the ambush had been by happenstance, it turns out that it was meticulously planned. The result was difficult for Israel: 12 dead and four wounded. As for Badr al-Din, he entered the pantheon of Hezbollah military commanders.
Later, in June 2011, Badr al-Din was one of a group of operatives indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on charges related to the assassination of former Lebanon prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
When Hezbollah sent its forces to Syria in 2013 as part of Iran’s support for the Assad regime, Badr al-Din was appointed commander of Hezbollah forces in Syria. Nasrallah asked that Badr al-Din command the forces from Lebanon. Badr al-Din, however, demanded to fight alongside his forces on the Syrian battlefield. His demand was granted.
Badr al-Din racked up achievements in the war against the rebels in Syria. But Hezbollah forces soon began to suffer losses, and as the fighting continued, these only increased. Bodies were returned secretly to Lebanon and buried in villages and towns in the middle of the night. Lebanese Shi’ites reacted bitterly to the fact that their sons were dying in a war that was not a jihad against Israel, and were becoming cannon fodder for Iran.
Badr al-Din was killed in May 2016 in an incident whose circumstances remain unclear to this day. He was supposedly hit by artillery fire or a missile at one of the Hezbollah bases near the airport in Damascus—by a projectile that, strangely, struck him and only him. In an official announcement, Hezbollah claimed he had been killed by rebel fire. The investigatory committee set up by Hezbollah did not arrive at any definitive conclusion.
According to the information disseminated, blame for his death was pinned on harsh internal rivalries within Hezbollah—and specifically on the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, who was the last to meet with him, in a building near the airport. Badr al-Din had not agreed to Soleimani’s demands regarding Hezbollah’s tasks in Syria.
In his recent speech, Nasrallah did not refer to the circumstances of Badr al-Din’s death in Syria and did not pin the blame on Israel or the rebels, nor did he promise to avenge the death of the most senior of Hezbollah’s military commanders after Imad Mughniyeh. On March 21, 2017, then-Israeli chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said the reports about Badr al-Din being killed by the Iranians were consistent with Israel’s information and testified to the depth of the crisis in Hezbollah.
This year in Iran there were no special events to commemorate Mustafa Badr al-Din. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made do with a short letter to Nasrallah in which he praised Badr al-Din. From the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in whose service the Hezbollah military commander had operated since the beginning of the 1980s, not a single word was heard. This contrasts especially with the anniversary of Mughniyeh’s assassination, which is marked with great pomp and splendor.
One might have thought that under other circumstances, certainly when an imminent crisis between the Revolutionary Guards and the U.S. Army threatens to erupt in the Persian Gulf or in other places where the Quds Force can activate its proxies in Yemen, Iraq, the Golan Heights front and Lebanon, an appropriate place and time would be found to mention and commemorate one of the senior Hezbollah military commanders.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Military Secretary to the Prime Minister and as Israel Foreign Ministry chief of staff. He edited the Jerusalem Center eBook “Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat.”