Mystery has swirled over the killing of an alleged Hezbollah operative near Syria's demarcation line with Israel, with local sources blaming Israel and telling The National he was assassinated in an aerial strike.
In a cryptic report Sunday, Syria’s official news agency Sana said that a shell struck a car outside the town of Saasaa, killing the driver and a child while injuring three women. The report did not identify the victims or assailants, providing scant details about the unusual incident in the normally secure area.
Shortly afterwards, local media in the nearby Druze-populated town of Hadr announced that Mashour Zidan, who they dubbed “a hero of the Resistance,” was killed when a guided missile targeted his vehicle.
The announcement included a photo of Zidan in front of a poster of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s late military commander assassinated 2008 in Damascus.
Although Zidan’s funeral in his hometown of Hadr was absent of Hezbollah symbols, a resident of the town circulated a martyrdom poster on Facebook of Zidan in front of the flags of the Lebanese Shiite group and the Syrian government as well as an icon of the Druze faith.
Zidan was "one of the figures in south Syria most closely linked to Hezbollah," Omar Alhariri, an activist working for the Daraa Martyrs' Documentation Office, told The National, explaining that Zidan was under the direct authority of the Lebanese organization.
Amid silence from Damascus over the circumstances of Zidan's death, a source provided details on the incident to The National.
At 11 am on July 21, Saasaa residents heard a reconnaissance aircraft overhead, the source said on condition of anonymity. Half-an-hour, later a loud blast was heard near a bend in a nearby road where cars slow down.
The source said that a civilian vehicle was targeted in the explosion, killing the driver.
“State media did not report anything until a full hour afterwards, after which it said a shell [hit the car],” the source added. “However, there are no militants [in Saasaa] and the area has been secure for a long time.”
Another source, who also wished to remain anonymous, told The National that Zidan was targeted by an aerial strike. Meanwhile, a local media source sympathetic to the Syrian government said that Israel assassinated Zidan because he was a "hero of the Resistance."
The National could not independently verify these claims.
Zidan's fiery death comes three-and-a-half years after senior Hezbollah Druze commander Samir Kuntar was killed south of Damascus in an airstrike blamed by Hezbollah on Israel.
Kuntar, labelled a specially designated global terrorist by the US government, was arrested in Israel at the age of 16 after killing a local police officer and the members of a family he tried to kidnap.
He was released in a 2009 swap with Hezbollah and then reportedly worked to recruit residents in mainly Druze-populated areas of southern Syria, including Zidan’s hometown of Hadr, on behalf of the Lebanese group.
Israel’s justice minister at the time of Kuntar’s death said the Hezbollah commander oversaw the group’s covert efforts to entrench its presence along the Golan Heights.
Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, a researcher with contacts in southern Syria, told The National that Zidan was "involved in Hezbollah and an associate of Samir Kuntar."
Daraa activist Omar Alhariri said that Zidan was “one of the commanders who worked with Kuntar’s groups” in the Quneitra province along the border of the Israeli occupied Golan Heights.
“Hezbollah in Quneitra, specifically in Hadr, depends heavily on local Druze groups,” Alhariri added.
Hezbollah's activities in Quneitra are not necessarily tied to a sectarian angle, Mr Al Tamimi told The National, explaining that "it just happened to be the case that Hadr was one of the villages that stayed under government control all these years so there was an opportunity for recruitment."
There has been no official word from the Israeli military or government. Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria in recent years although it has only recently started to acknowledge them and even then intermittently.