Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho)
Before the Arab upheavals of 2011, the Middle East was dominated by a cold war,
pitting US-aligned regional states against a self-designated “Muqawama
(resistance) Axis” of states and movements led by Iran. Both these blocs still
exist. Both have been in different ways diminished by the ferment currently
under way in the Arabic-speaking world.
The Iran-led Resistance Axis
liked to portray itself as the representative of authentic local Muslim forces,
arrayed against a corrupt and declining alliance of local collaborators aligned
with the US and Israel. Contrary to its preferred script, however, various
components of this bloc now find themselves under siege and threatened by forces
unleashed by the Arab Spring.
This was not how it looked at the start.
The first two casualties of the 2011 ferment were staunchly pro- Western Arab
leaders – Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The
Iranian leadership at that point heralded the “Islamic Awakening” across the
region. Syrian President Bashar Assad explained in a seminal interview with The
Wall Street Journal on January 31 that Syria and its allies would remain
untouched by the ferment because of their identification with the deeper desires
of the peoples of the region; namely, opposing the West and supporting the
The Resistance Axis was looking forward to settling down
and enjoying the sight of the rival bloc tearing itself apart. It hasn't quite
turned out like that.
The only Arab state member of the axis – the Assad
regime in Syria – is currently fighting for its life. Far from remaining immune
to the winds of change, the Syrian dictator is battling a growing Sunni-led
insurgency. Syria is a vital component of Iranian regional strategy. The
Iranians hoped, once the US left Iraq, to build an uninterrupted chain of
supportive states from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean.
this ambition alive, they need the Assad dictatorship in place.
Iranians are consequently busy at work aiding Assad’s repression.
Representatives of both the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guard, and domestic
Iranian law enforcement agencies have been identified in Syria, helping to
suppress the uprising. Sophisticated eavesdropping equipment has been provided.
Eyewitnesses have reported the presence of Iranian snipers among the forces
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Syrian opposition sources are currently
claiming that Iran-aligned Shia militiamen from the Sadrist movement in Iraq and
the Lebanese Hezbollah are also taking part in the repression.
this assistance has helped keep Assad in power, it is also making Iran and its
allies increasingly hated throughout the Sunni Arab world. This is visible in
Assad’s growing diplomatic isolation. From the Iranian point of view, the
disappearance of its resistance image in the eyes of masses of Sunni Arabs is no
less important. The Resistance Axis currently appears to be energetically and
brutally resisting the will of an Arab people.
The consequent public
statements from Tehran encouraging reform and even reaching out to the
opposition are transparent exercises in PR. Tehran is with Assad to the
The most significant fallout of this process so far is the attempt
by Hamas to extricate itself from the Iran-led bloc.
Hamas is a branch of
the Muslim Brotherhood. It has found itself in recent months facing a situation
wherein its hosts and sponsors – Syria and Iran – are jointly engaged in a
bloody crackdown against a rebellion in Syria at least partly led by its fellow
Muslim Brothers. This is an untenable state of affairs for the Palestinian
Islamist group. Hamas was always the Sunni odd-man-out in an alliance led by a
Shia state and consisting overwhelmingly of Shia forces. Now it wants
Hamas is consequently attempting to re-align itself. The movement’s
natural new sponsors would be a Muslim-Brotherhood dominated Egypt. This is also
its preferred choice, as shown by the Egypt-sponsored reconciliation process and
the Egyptian-brokered deal to release Gilad Schalit. Iran is angry but powerless
to prevent this shift.
The jewel in Iran’s crown – the Lebanese Hezbollah
– is also feeling the chill. Syrian refugees are finding their way in increased
numbers across the border into Lebanon. The Hezbollah-backed government remains
staunchly behind the Assad regime. The Lebanese Armed Forces are busily rounding
up Syrian refugees and oppositionists. In a notable incident last week, local
residents of the town of Arsal in the Bekaa Valley physically prevented the
Lebanese army from apprehending Syrian fugitives. A number of military vehicles
were burned. The opposition Future movement, led by former prime minister Said
Hariri, held a huge rally in the Sunni town of Tripoli. Anti-Hezbollah, anti-
Assad and anti-Iranian placards were displayed.
domination of Lebanon is not at risk as long as Assad remains in place. But the
movement is storing up growing resentment of it on the part of non-Shia
Lebanese, which may well have consequences if the Syrian dictator
So the Resistance Axis is buffeted by a storm blowing across the
region. Add to these examples the failure to make any real headway in sustaining
dissent in Bahrain, or fermenting it in eastern Saudi Arabia, and the result is
a somewhat bleak picture.
Mysterious explosions in security facilities
and the curious deaths of research scientists on the streets of Teheran are not
Iran and its allies, suffering the blows of a covert
war, are not succeeding in turning the “Islamic Awakening” into an asset. Iran's
leaders and its regional loyalists are aware of this and are
One of the Resistance Axis’s most eloquent spokesmen, Ibrahim
al- Amin, editor of the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper, described the
Iran-led bloc as currently “focused on withstanding the war of attrition waged
against it forced to hunker down and fend off threats.” He promised, however,
that Iran was preparing to take on a “new regional role.”
with characteristic bombast that “fire cannot be stopped by steel walls or
multinational forces.” The Iran-led Resistance Axis is currently finding out, to
its evident dismay, that this latter point works both ways.
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