BEIRUT: The assassination of a top Hezbollah commander Wednesday night dealt a blow to the group, but the loss is more personal than it is military and unlikely to impact its capabilities, experts agreed Wednesday. Hassan Hawlo al-Lakkis was shot five times at close range outside his home in the southern suburbs by at least one, and possibly several, unidentified gunmen, according to a security source.
Longtime observers of the Shiite party were unanimous in their assessment that the weight of evidence thus far points to Israel as the perpetrator, despite recent attacks on Hezbollah’s civilian base and staunchest ally, Iran, which have been linked to Islamist militants seeking to punish the party for sending its fighters to support the forces of President Bashar Assad against insurgents in Syria.
“The Sunni extremist organizations like to blow things up in a more indiscriminate fashion,” said Bilal Saab, the director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Washington D.C. “This was much more professional.”
But the success of the assassination raised questions over whether the party had overextended itself following its decision to fight in Syria.
“Has their job securing the southern suburbs become more difficult due to their involvement in Syria? Yes, but to what extent that directly endangers their officials I couldn’t say,” Saab said.
“I don’t know how really overstretched the organization is,” he added, suggesting that the notoriously secretive group has been more conservative in its deployment of fighters in Syria than its detractors have suggested.
Ghassan Azzi, a political science professor at the Lebanese University, noted that the party was now busy fighting in Syria, securing the southern border and boosting its defenses around the southern suburbs of Beirut and elsewhere, while its controversial stance on the Syrian war made it easier for Israel to find local collaborators.
“This operation was undoubtedly carried out by local agents, not Israeli nationals,” he said.
“The domestic [political] climate has created fertile ground for the recruitment of Israeli agents,” he added. “There are many who might have supported Hezbollah against Israel, but they oppose them due to their intervention in Syria.”
Hezbollah expert Amal Saad-Ghorayeb also said it was possible Hezbollah was struggling to maintain security. “They have to impose security measures on two fronts, but I don’t know what that means operationally,” she added.
Saad-Ghorayeb said that while Hezbollah and its allies sometimes “undermined” themselves by immediately blaming Israel for acts carried out by other groups, such as last month’s deadly suicide bombing at the Iranian Embassy, she was convinced that Lakkis’ assassination was much closer to the modus operandi of Mossad than that of the militant Sunni Islamist groups that have threatened Hezbollah over its role in Syria.
“[After] every single attack in the southern suburbs, Hezbollah comes out and blames Israel and later on says ‘this is takfiri groups’ or ‘this benefits Israel,’” she said, noting the distinction between accusing Israel outright and accusing the party’s enemies of aiding the Jewish state by their actions.
“With an operation like this it’s very obviously Israel,” she said. “Don’t forget that Hezbollah cannot automatically blame takfiris because of sectarian tensions. They try to shy away from blaming them unless they have direct evidence.”
Saad-Ghorayeb described Lakkis as a “senior military figure” adding that the boastful tone of some Israeli press reports, which paid little more than lip service to Israel’s official denials, were not a case of “empty bragging.”
But she dismissed any suggestion that the loss of Lakkis would have a significant impact on the party.
“Hezbollah has a military strategy in place, what [Hezbollah leader] Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah called the ‘Imad Mughniyeh school of fighting,’” she explained, referring to the former Hezbollah commander who was also killed in a targeted assassination. “That’s in place. People are trained.”
She went on to say that the investigation into the assassination would most probably be carried out by Hezbollah alone, without the involvement of state authorities.
“The question is how [Lakkis’ killing] affects Hezbollah’s security and this idea that it’s impenetrable,” she said. “I just think this calls for a ... reassessment of security needs and strategy, and a [reallocation] of resources accordingly.”
The experts who spoke to The Daily Star were divided over whether Hezbollah would retaliate, with Saad-Ghorayeb noting the implicit threat contained in Hezbollah’s statement following the assassination.
Saab also cited the history of tit-for-tat operations between Hezbollah and the Israelis, but Azzi said he did not think it was in the party’s interest to strike back just now.
Unless Hezbollah chooses to retaliate, the assassination of Lakkis will amount to little more than a minor setback for the party and perhaps a new talking point in the ongoing war of words between the rival March 8 and March 14 camps.
“I think the Israelis are not foolish enough to think that such operations would lead to the downfall of the organization,” Saab said.
“I bet that in the next few days we will see Hezbollah come out and say, ‘we should not forget that the struggle is with Israel,’ and the Future Movement will say, ‘Hezbollah is trying to distract from what it is doing in Syria by talking about Israel.’”
“This is how it will play out in the silly local politics.”
This article was amended on Thursday, December 05 2013
This article was corrected on Dec. 5, 2013. The original article stated that Bilal Saab is a research analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. In fact, Saab is the director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Washington D.C. We regret the error.