I’ve been reading interesting speculation among Josh Landis’ learned readers about the assassination of Imad Mugniyah in Damascus yesterday. Some say the Israelis did it. Others say the U.S. did it. Still others say the Syrians themselves did it to signal willingness for a deal with Israel and the U.S. But I’ve been thinking about a combination of several of these options.
Clearly, the Israelis had the most motivation to engage in this sort of act given their humiliation at Mugniyah’s hands in the 2006 Lebanon war (he was reputed to be the Hezbollah operation commander during that campaign). The U.S. too has a motive for its own involvement given Mugniyah’s hand in past attacks against U.S. intelligence targets and even the Marine barracks bombing in 1983. But one also should not dismiss U.S. interest in supporting the March 14th forces in Lebanese politics who’ve been deeply embattled by assassinations which many believe originate in the Syrian intelligence apparatus.
Reading of the many assassinations of Lebanese supporters of March 14th over the past months and years going back to prime minister Rafik Hariri, I often wondered whether or when members of this coalition might attempt to strike back against those who’ve carried out such bloody violence against them. In many ways, it seems to me that yesterday’s act might be such a response. First, tomorrow is the commemoration of the anniversary of Hariri’s killing. Could one think of a better time to send a message to Hezbollah and their Syrian sponsors than the day before memorializing March 14th’s chief martyr?
Second, I believe that the most recent previous assassination of Lebanese intelligence officer Walid Eid might’ve set in motion a potential cooperation between Lebanese intelligence, the CIA and the Mosad that could’ve led to the Mugniyah killing. Personally, I don’t believe that Israel could’ve successfully carried out this operation alone. I don’t see how it has the boots on the ground capability in Damascus to do this. I think it required some inside work within Syria that could’ve used the diplomatic cover of the U.S. embassy. And I’m not even sure Israel and the U.S. could’ve carried out such an act without the inside intelligence capability that Eid’s Lebanese colleagues could’ve provided within Syria itself. They are the ones who might have penetrated Hezbollah’s ranks in order to glean the highly specific information necessary to target as secretive a man as Imad Mugniyah. Eid himself was known to have performed the sophisticated communications intercepts which documented the Syrian-Lebanese conspiracy to murder Hariri. Is there any doubt that his colleagues would’ve been eager to avenge his death?
I even think the means by which Mugniyah was killed (in a car bombing) is intended as a statement to Syria since all of the Lebanese politicians died by car bombs. It’s as if Mugniyah’s killers are taunting the Syrians and telling them “two can play at this game.”
Third, there are many within Lebanon who would wish to humble both Hezbollah and Syria especially in light of the series of political assassinations which have endangered the ruling coalition’s hold on power. In killing Mugniyah they have done this in spades. They have put Syria on notice that further Lebanese killings could not only harm their Lebanese flunkies, but possibly even senior Syrian officials as well.
It will be interesting to see what the response is by both Syria and Hezbollah. If revenge is swift and fierce (Hezbollah will no doubt lobby for this route), then perhaps my hunch is wrong. But if Syria restrains Hezbollah and the Lebanese assassinations stop, then this will show that Syria got a clear message.