Mystery of a death on the Beirut road

Last week, a senior commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was killed on his way out of Damascus. The key question is what he was doing there

A senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – with two names - dies mysteriously on the Damascus-Beirut highway earlier this month.

Three Shia Muslim Hezbollah fighters are killed and 20 wounded inside the Syrian frontier in a battle with rebels.

The Lebanese army surrounds a Sunni Muslim Lebanese village of 40,000 which supports the Syrian opposition. And Lebanon’s former Sunni Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, accuses Hezbollah and its weapons of being at the root of his country’s problems. Being Lebanese these days is like taking part in a crime drama.

First, the Iranian. Hessam Khoshnevis – or Hasan Shateri, if you prefer his other identity – was an engineer who officially led Iran’s “Committee for Reconstruction in Lebanon” based at Iran’s embassy in Beirut. He was apparently shot dead inside Syria as he was returning from Damascus. But why was a man helping to rebuild southern Lebanon’s infrastructure after years of war in Damascus in the first place? Iran’s Revolutionary Guard called him “Commander Hasan Shateri” and said he was “martyred en route from Damascus to Beirut at the hands of Zionist regime mercenaries and backers”.

To millions of Lebanese, this was just a case of “ho-hum”. And the rumours began to spread; Khoshnevis/Shateri had been shot trying to drive from Damascus airport to the Syrian capital, or he was on the Damascus highway to Aleppo. Or was he returning from Damascus towards the Syrian-Lebanese border after a “fraternal” visit to Iranian intelligence men in Syria? After all, the capital of a country in the midst of a near-civil war is not the obvious place to go to help the south Lebanese repair their homes near the Israeli border.

Iran’s genial Ambassador to Beirut, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, opened a book of condolences at his embassy and said the dead Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) officer – he called him “Engineer Hessam Khoshnevis” – “was assassinated because he played a major role in Lebanon’s reconstruction following the Israeli aggression against the country in 2006”.

This, too, raised more questions than it answered. Why would Israel kill the man in Syria if he was working in southern Lebanon? A Hezbollah MP, other officials from the pro-Iranian party, the former pro-Syrian security General Jamil Sayyed and Palestinian and Lebanese religious officials, dutifully trooped across to the embassy to shake Mr Roknabadi’s hand.

As if this was not enough, Hezbollah – Iran’s loyal allies in Lebanon – announced the death of three of their members and the wounding of 14 others during fighting with Syrian rebels inside Syria. Only one, it seems, has so far been buried in Lebanon.

Since 12 Syrian fighters were killed in the same battles, it seems certain that these Hezbollah men were among those “defending” Lebanese Shia villages just over the Lebanese border but inside Syria. What were they doing fighting the Syrian opposition? Or were they trying to prevent further rebel arms smuggling across the frontier?

This would not be surprising, since the border village of Ersal – which lies just inside Lebanon – has now been surrounded, along with its 40,000 residents, by the Lebanese army. This follows the killing of two Lebanese officers two weeks ago in an apparent ambush. Ersal, it should be pointed out, has long been an arms trafficking point to Syria and is fiercely loyal to Syrian opposition fighters.

Lebanese troops insist they are not besieging the villagers – merely searching all those with cars when they go and come to their homes. Just how many weapons are passing across Lebanese territory to Syria is not known, although Sunni Muslims in the southern city of Sidon have been demonstrating against the passage of fuel trucks from Lebanon to Syria. Is this benzine destined for Assad’s army?

The Lebanese government, which insists it must remain neutral in the Syrian struggle – for powerfully obvious reasons – replies that UN sanctions don’t apply to petrol being shipped from Lebanon to Syria.

To cap all this, Lebanon is supposed to hold elections in June – don’t hold your breath that they will take place, since politicians cannot agree on a new election law.

The campaign looks like it is darkly shaping up to be a battle by Saad Hariri (who blames Damascus for the assassination of his father Rafiq eight years ago) against Hezbollah.

Hariri and the Druze leader Walid Junblatt have been suggesting that the Shia Hezbollah, which claims to be a “resistance movement” – against Israel – should support the Syrian resistance against the Assad government. Add to this a rash of armed robberies across Lebanon and a few macabre murders, and you get an idea of how the Lebanese are feeling right now.

Syria: Shateri’s Role

The importance of the man known as Hassan Shateri – or Hessam Khoshnevis – to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was evident at his funeral in Tehran earlier this month.

Among those attending the high-profile event included several high-ranking Iranian figures, including Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Revolutionary Guard chief General Mohammad Ali Jafari and the head of the Guard’s Quds Force, General Ghasem Soleimani.

General Shateri was a veteran of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, and had served in Afghanistan before heading off to Lebanon.

Officials said that for the past seven years he had been engaged in civilian reconstruction in Lebanon – repairing the infrastructure that was destroyed during Israel’s invasion and the war with Hezbollah in 2006.

Given the close relationship between the two, some have concluded that General Shateri was involved in facilitating military support from Iran to Hezbollah.

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, both Hezbollah and Iran have admitted to providing support to Bashar al-Assad.

That General Shateri was killed in-between Damascus and Lebanon suggests he played a role in that support.

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