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War, terror and a killing in Damascus

Matein Khalid
Filed on February 20, 2008

IT was ironic that Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s special operations chief whose car and truck bombs slaughtered more than 300 human beings, died when his own Mitsubishi Pajero was ripped apart by a bomb blast in Kfar Soussa, an upscale Damascus neighbourhood.

The killing of Mughniyah is a chilling message to Hezbollah and the Syrian security services that their enemies have somehow infiltrated their inner circles, made possible a hit that had eluded the CIA, Mossad and the intelligence agencies of Britain, France, the Lebanese Phalange and Saudi Arabia for almost a quarter century. Mughniyah’s bloody coups as a terrorist mastermind included the Mercedes truck bombs that massacred 241 US Marines and French Foreign Legionnaires in their Beirut barracks, the kidnapping and murder of CIA station chief Bill Buckley in Lebanon, the bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina that took the lives of 100 people, car bomb attacks against US and Israeli embassies. Mughniyah was also responsible for Saudi Hezbollah’s bomb attack on US troops in the Al Khobar Towers in Dhahran.

These grisly atrocities catapulted Mughniyah to the A list of international terror, an icon of the shadow world comparable to Black September’s Ali Hassan Salameh, Wadi Haddad of the PFLP, Abu Nidal, Prabhakaran of the LTTE, even the master terrorist Ilich Sanchez, the fabled Carlos the Jackal. Yet last week, nemesis overtook the Lebanese Shia peasant whose terrorist bombs reshaped the modern international relations of the Middle East.

Even though Israel has denied involvement, Mughniyah’s assassination bears the unmistakable fingerprint of a Mossad hit. After all, Israel hunted down and killed all the Black September chieftains who had planned the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. Israel has also used its Apache helicopter assassins to kill Hezbollah chief Abbas Moussawi (Nasrallah’s predecessor) and Hamas founders Sheikh Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantissi. Mossad assassinated a generation of Fatah, PFLP and Saqa commanders in the 1980’s. In the past, Mossad infiltrated its agents into the pinnacles of power in Baathist Syria. Israeli spy Eli Cohen was appointed Deputy Defence Minister of Syria before his clandestine radio transmissions were intercepted, leading to his arrest, trial and hanging in Damascus. The Israelis have sent Mossad hit teams to assassinate enemies of the Zionist state in hostile Arab capitals. Abu Iyad was assassinated in Tunis, Salameh in Beirut, Islamic Jihad’s Sobhi in Damascus, Khalid Meshal almost murdered in Amman. The intelligence agencies of the Middle East have long memories and vengeance is the language of counter–terrorism.

Mughniyah’s assassination in Damascus touches a particularly raw nerve. After all, President Assad recently boasted that Damascus is the “capital of resistance” yet the Arab world’s most efficient, quintessential Mukhabarat state was unable to protect Hezbollah’s most notorious commander, the human symbol of Bush’s “axis of evil”, its liaison to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Al Quds Force. It is also significant that Mughniyah’s killing in Damascus, just three months after the White House invited Syria to the Annapolis peace conference, vindicates Washington hardliners who argue for sanctions and even regime change in Syria because it provides a safe haven for terrorist who have shed American blood. This includes remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime who direct insurgent attacks on US combat troops in Iraq. The fact that Mughniyah’s enemies were able to assassinate him in the heart of Damascus is a blow to the prestige and brutal reputation of Syria’s numerous intelligence agencies, the backbone of the Baathist regime. His killing could well ignite tensions between Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Syria moved in the crosshairs of Washington as the US ordered fresh sanctions against top Baathist apparatchiks to punish Damascus for its politics of murder and intimidation in Iraq and Lebanon. Israel has also exhibited a willingness to embarrass the Baathist regime rather than the anticipated post–Annapolis diplomatic rapprochement on the Golan Heights. IDF warplanes buzzed the presidential palace in Latakia, the epicenter of the Assad regime’s Alawite heartland as well as bombed an alleged North Korean nuclear facility in Dayr az-Zawr. The Mughniyah killing is a triple whammy for Syria. The Assad regime was embarrassed that he was targeted in Damascus, the fact that its security forces could not protect him, the fact that a well placed insider in Damascus could well be complicit in the hit. The presence of Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki in Mughniyah’s funeral is a testament to Iran’s role as the logistics base, financier and cheerleader of Hezbollah’s terrorist attacks against the US, and France in the 1980’s. Even though Hezbollah has evolved into a political movement and armed militia, its shadowy ties to Syrian intelligence and Iran’s Pasdaran (the IRC, the only foreign military corps designated as terrorist by Washington) makes it anathema to the US, Britain, France and the Sunni Arab states allied to the West. When Supreme Leader Khameini hails a Lebanese terrorist whose truck bombs once killed hundreds of American Marines and French paratroopers in West Beirut as “a great man”, the determination in the Elysee Palace and the Oval Office to prevent a nuclear Iran becomes implacable.

As usual, Lebanon is the immediate victim of the geopolitical shock waves from Mughniyah’s killing. Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the top name on Mossad’s hit list, promised “open war” against Israel outside the “natural battlefield” of Lebanon. This is no empty threat. Hezbollah’s horrific bomb-attack in Argentina was revenge for Israel’s aerial hit on Abbas Mussawi. Hezbollah ordered the kidnapping of two IDF soldiers that escalated from border skirmishes into full scale war in 2006. Nasrallah’s speech pointedly noted the timing, location and method of the Damascus car bomb. He promised that Lebanon will remain a “country of resistance” against Israel. A Hezbollah attack against an Israeli embassy or Jewish institution anywhere in the world could well trigger a full scale Israeli invasion of South Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah’s rocket launcher sites and command bunkers.

Moreover, the political stalemate in Beirut will become more dangerous as the Christians, Druze and Sunnis arm their own militias for an imminent showdown with Hezbollah. In death, as in life, Imad Mughniyah could well prove Shia Lebanon’s angel of vengeance against its enemies.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst


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