Who killed Hezbollah’s Samir Qantar?

According to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar, Samir Qantar, a Lebanese commander who had become a high-profile figure in the group, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on Saturday.

Israeli officials welcomed the news but did not confirm responsibility for the attack.

While Hezbollah had no hesitation in accusing Israel, as Raed Omari notes, Syrian officials have been more circumspect:

Remarkably enough, the Syrian account of the incident resembled to a greater degree that of Israel – no confirmation and no refuting.

‏But the Syrian statements on Qantar’s killing were worded with a heavy Russian military presence in the background and they were inseparable from new political developments on Syria and the new international coalitions in the making.

It can’t be that the Israelis launched an airstrike on Syria now without coordination with their Russian allies who now control Syria’s airspace. And if the Syrians confirmed that Israeli jets killed Qantar, then they would appear as either having prior knowledge of the plan or have no sovereignty over their country.

Who actually killed the 54-year-old Qantar? In my opinion, Israel is a likely perpetrator but the question is how its jets flew over Syria now without being spotted by the Russian satellites and space power. The Russian silence on the incident is also worth-noting.

Meanwhile, a Syrian rebel group has released a statement claiming that they were responsible for Qantar’s death.

The New York Times quotes a Druze militia group that said the building which was targeted had been hit by “four long-range missiles.”

An Israeli columnist quotes “Western sources” claiming that Qantar was a “ticking bomb.”

The sources said Kuntar had recently not been working on behalf of Hezbollah, but rather acting with increasing independence alongside pro-Assad militias in Syria.

The attack in Damascus comes at a moment when, according to Israeli sources, “Iran has withdrawn most of the Revolutionary Guards fighters it deployed to Syria three months ago.”

Assuming that this was indeed an Israeli airstrike, it appears to have not only been aimed at an individual, but also intended to send some additional messages: that Israel is not unduly constrained by Russia’s air operations in Syria and that the Hezbollah fighters propping up the Assad regime are more expendable than their Iranian counterparts.

Creede Newton writes:

Regardless of who fired the missile, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, has already made his decision: this was Israel. Now, the question is, how will Nasrallah respond to another high-level assassination?

Some think Hezbollah’s falling popularity with the Sunni majority in the Middle East due to its meddling in the Syrian conflict could use a boost, and a conflict with Israel would help.

Others say Hezbollah is stretched, and a war with the powerful Israeli military is the last thing the Shia group needs.

Nicholas Blanford writes:

The current situation mirrors the immediate aftermath of an Israeli pilotless drone strike on 18 January in the Golan that killed Jihad Mughniyeh — son of former Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh — an Iranian general and five other Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah struck back 10 days later with an anti-tank missile ambush against an Israeli army convoy at the foot of the Shebaa Farms hills, killing an officer and a soldier.

Following the ambush, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that the rules of engagement that had defined the tit-for-tat conflict between Hezbollah and Israel were over.

“From now on, if any Hezbollah resistance cadre or youth is killed in a treacherous manner, we will hold Israel responsible and it will then be our right to respond at any place and at any time and in the manner we deem appropriate,” he said.

Nasrallah is due to speak Monday night and will probably reaffirm that commitment, which will ensure a state of tension along Israel’s northern border in the coming days.

The concept of reciprocity is a cornerstone of Hezbollah’s defense strategy against Israel, which may offer a clue as to the party’s response to Kuntar’s assassination. In the years following the 2006 War, Nasrallah has articulated on several occasions Hezbollah’s strategy of retaliating in kind for Israeli actions against Lebanon in a future conflict — if Israel bombs Beirut, Hezbollah bombs Tel Aviv; if Israel blockades Lebanese ports, Hezbollah will blockade Israeli ports with its long-range anti-ship missiles; if Israel invades Lebanon, Hezbollah will invade Galilee.

Even on a tactical level, Hezbollah has sought to achieve reciprocity against Israel. In October 2014, Hezbollah mounted a roadside bomb ambush in the Shebaa Farms that wounded two Israeli soldiers in response to the death a month earlier of a party military technician who died when a booby-trapped Israeli wire-tapping device exploded.

The January anti-tank missile attack against the Israeli convoy in the Shebaa Farms also sought to echo Israel’s deadly drone missile strike in the Golan 10 days earlier.

“They killed us in broad daylight, we killed them in broad daylight… They hit two of our vehicles, we hit two of their vehicles,” Nasrallah said at the time.

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