Hezbollah’s very public display of affection for assassinated terrorist Imad Mughniyeh represents a stunning about-face. As Martin Kramer notes on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog, Hezbollah has broken from previous denials regarding its connections to Mughniyeh, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah eulogizing him and a Hezbollah flag draping his coffin—clear symbols that Mughniyeh ranked highly in the Hezbollah chain. Indeed, its ties to Mughniyeh were so profound that Hezbollah appears prepared to fight Israel in response to his killing, hinting that it will attack Israeli interests abroad.
But Hezbollah isn’t the only Levantine player willing to engage Israel over Mughniyeh’s death. Yesterday, at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “Whoever assassinated Imad Mughniyeh has assassinated any peace efforts”—a statement clearly aimed at Israel. Critically, al-Moallem seemingly echoed Mottaki, who had proclaimed at Mughniyeh’s funeral earlier in the day, “The freedom-seeking nations … have millions of such fighters, who are ready to join the fight against the terrorists who perpetrate such the unmanly crimes.” Following the funeral, Mottaki had arrived in Damascus for “brotherly talks,” meeting with al-Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to discuss the developing situation in Lebanon.
In the days and weeks ahead, it will be important to monitor whether Hezbollah-Syrian cooperation is strengthened as a result of their unified defiance in the wake of Mughniyeh’s assassination. Of course, sustained Iranian involvement makes this quite likely.
Still, domestic Lebanese politics could intervene and force Hezbollah to downplay its Damascus contacts. At a massive rally held to commemorate the third anniversary of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination yesterday, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri castigated the Syrian regime as an “Israeli product.” Yet even as he lashed out against Syria—the regime that murdered his father—Hariri showed rare respect for Hezbollah, ending his rally at 2 PM so as to not interfere with Mughniyeh’s 2:30 funeral. Hariri further appealed to Hezbollah to negotiate a peaceful solution to the ongoing presidential crisis—a sharp break from his comments last week, when he accused the Hezbollah-led opposition of “destroying Lebanon.”
The big question is thus whether Hezbollah might see itself as having enough popular Lebanese support in the aftermath of Mughniyeh’s assassination to avoid relying on Damascus, a regime that is still reviled by a substantial portion of the population. Or, alternatively, Hezbollah could quickly return to Levantine politics as usual, taking its cues from Iran with Syria’s active consent.