ARUN RATH, HOST:
Not far from the border with Syria, early this Wednesday, a street in Beirut, Lebanon, became the stage for a political murder.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hezbollah is searching for whoever is responsible for the death of its military leader.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: …a senior Hezbollah commander has been killed outside his home in the Lebanese capital city of Beirut.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: …leader Hassan Houlo al-Laqis was reportedly gunned down just after midnight outside his home.
RATH: Mitchell Prothero covers Beirut for McClatchy, and he’s been trying to piece together exactly what happened to this commander, Hassan al-Laqis.
MITCHELL PROTHERO: It’s looking like a couple of people had staked out a safe house that he used as a Hezbollah, you know, senior level commander, which is what it’s come out he was. They waited for him to come back from work just after midnight and, very quickly, shot him to death behind the wheel of his car and, frankly, disappeared, which is leading an increased suspicion it might have been Israel.
RATH: Assassinations like this have happened before. As it has in the past, Hezbollah immediately blamed Israel for the killing. As it has in the past, Israel denied involvement. But this time, at least so far, Hezbollah has not retaliated. And in terms of figuring out exactly what al-Laqis did in Hezbollah, Prothero says Hezbollah hasn’t been very helpful with that question.
PROTHERO: I think Hezbollah is doing a really good job with this information right now by basically leaking just about everything under the sun as one of his responsibilities in order to keep what they actually were secret. We’ve been told that he was in charge of their drone program. We’ve been told he was a military commander in Syria. We’ve been told that he ran double agents against the Israelis, and we’ve also been told that he was in charge of moving weapon shipments into Gaza. So I’m sure one or more of those things are true, but I doubt all of them are.
RATH: Experts say Hezbollah is going through an identity crisis. It was formed as a militant resistance group to fight Israel and now controls significant parts of Lebanon. It’s a Shiite Islamic group and closely partnered with Iran, which itself is closely partnered with Syria. That complicates the question who might kill a senior Hezbollah commander because Hezbollah is not just dedicated to fighting Israel now. Their forces are in Syria fighting against the rebels.
MATTHEW LEVITT: Hezbollah is all in in defense of the Assad regime in Syria.
RATH: Matthew Levitt is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.”
LEVITT: Hezbollah obviously has an interest in maintaining Syria as a land bridge across which Iran can continue to supply Hezbollah with massive weapons, including the rockets that Hezbollah gets from Iran. Hezbollah is believed now to have somewhere between 60 to 80,000 rockets. And they’re therefore very active in Syria on the ground proving to be one of the most capable fighting forces. And increasingly now also serving as commanders overseeing others, in particular Iraqi Shiite militants who are coming in to fight alongside them as well.
RATH: Levitt says Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria against Sunni rebels makes them and their Iranian allies a target. Just last month, two suicide bombers attacked Iran’s embassy in Beirut, killing more than 20 people. And there’s been some speculation that Sunni rebels are behind the assassination of Hassan al-Laqis.
LEVITT: Given what’s happening in Syria, Hezbollah has more enemies right now than it has in the past. And frankly, its greatest enemy right now is not Israel, but the Sunni rebels.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)
RATH: Those are drums from the funeral held for Laqis. Mitchell Prothero, the reporter from McClatchy, went to that funeral.
PROTHERO: It was a very low-key funeral by comparable political assassination funerals in the Middle East. It was mainly his men, and obviously just about everybody in there was a flat-out member of Hezbollah or a family member of one. And there were very high-ranking Hezbollah officials, including top five members of the party. It was clear this wasn’t just some kid who’d been fighting in Syria and killed.
RATH: With everything going on around it, I mean, the tensions with – longstanding tensions with Israel, the instability, the violence in Syria that spilled over the borders and even inside the country, the longstanding religious and political tensions, how uneasy does it feel right now in Lebanon?
PROTHERO: Lebanon’s hit kind of an equilibrium of unease over the last year. Everybody is well aware that there’s an ongoing conflict right next door that’s very violent. It has tracked Lebanon into it politically. Parts of the country do see flashes of violence that originate from internal Lebanese tensions, but nobody doubts at this stage that they’re not being inflamed by what’s going on in Syria. It’s really split the country sort of down the middle in a lot of ways.
So people walk around living their lives normally, but they’re also sort of braced knowing that at any moment, something very bad could happen, which is sort of a standard Lebanese response. I mean, with the number of times that they’ve been invaded, the number of different situations that have occurred over the last 30, 35 years, it’s become kind of a stock reaction by the population here.
RATH: There’s no sign we’ll have clarity anytime soon about who killed Hassan al-Laqis or how Hezbollah might retaliate. What is clear is that the battle lines involving Syria, Israel and Iran are getting messier every day.
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