Russia may be salvaging the ‘Axis of Resistance’
Defined by its anti-Western and anti-Israeli stance, the so-called “Axis of Resistance” has over the last decade gone through an up-and-down trajectory. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq provided a boost to the Iranian-led block, with the rise to power in Iraq of pro-Iranian Shiite politicians such as Nouri al-Maliki and the gradual growth of various Shiite militias in Iraq.
After Hezbollah’s display of resilience in the war against Israel in the summer of 2006, the leader of the Iranian-sponsored militia, Hassan Nasrallah, was hailed as a hero by many in the Muslim world, despite the loss of hundreds of experienced fighters and the conflict’s devastating consequences for Lebanon.
However, the eruption of the Syrian conflict, and the prospect of seeing President Bashar al-Assad fall, represented a life-threatening development for the axis. Thus Iran and Hezbollah intervened to protect a leader slaughtering his own population and willing to burn Syria to the ground.
This intervention shattered the image the Iranian regime had been seeking for itself as protector of Muslims in distress. Palestine’s Hamas, the only Sunni member of the axis, closed its main office in Damascus and broke away in 2012.
It would be both a strategic straightjacket and a display of insecurity from President Vladimir Putin to tie Russia so closely to the Iranian-led axis.
Beyond Hezbollah’s need to preserve key supply routes and strategic lines, in the eyes of many in the region it also revealed the militia’s darkest side and its loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader above all else, while neglecting its obligation to shield Lebanon from the mess next door.
Former Hezbollah Secretary-General Subhi al-Tufayli, who had split from the movement after criticizing it as “too moderate,” accused it of no longer being the party that defends the Umma (Islamic Nation). “Instead it plagues the Umma,” he said in an interview.
Despite the Iranian-led efforts to prop up Assad, government forces lost control of much of the territory, and the Sunni opposition grew increasingly radicalized. The various opposition groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have built up the pressure on the regime, to the point that Assad himself recognized bluntly this summer that his army was severely struggling.
The current Russian military build-up in Syria is inescapably linked to that recognition, although Russian intentions are complex. With Assad, Iran and Hezbollah under pressure, is the ongoing Russian intervention just what the axis needs to eventually regain the upper hand in Syria?
While Moscow is already conducting aerial strikes in Syria following approval from Russia’s parliament, according to Iraqi military officials there is an effort under way to intensify intelligence and security cooperation between Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria to confront ISIS.
Going far beyond intelligence and security cooperation, the editor-in-chief of the pro-Hezbollah daily newspaper Al-Akbhar recently claimed that secret talks between the four countries have given birth to a new alliance, “the most important in the region and the world for many years.” Wishful thinking?
The axis has cornered millions of Syria’s Sunnis between Assad’s forces, Shiite militias and ISIS. Russia may be on the way to giving it a major hand.
Yes, says the president of Iran. Just a few days ago in New York, Hassan Rouhani dismissed the claims about an Iranian-Russian coalition. All there is between Iran and Russia, he claimed, is intelligence-sharing. Yet Rouhani still recognized that the Iranian and Russian views of the Syrian crisis are like “a mirror” of one another.
It would be both a strategic straightjacket and a display of insecurity from President Vladimir Putin, who aspires to beef up his country’s global and Middle Eastern roles, to tie Russia so closely to the Iranian-led axis.
The debate about Russia’s intentions will go on, but at least a few aspects of its Syria strategy seem relatively consensual among pundits: prevent the fall of the Syrian regime, seriously degrade ISIS, and ensure a key role for Russia in any future political settlement.
Moreover, it is possible Moscow will eventually realize that Iran’s cynical position on Syria – serious negotiations on a political settlement and political reform only when and if ISIS is defeated – is a disaster for Syria and the region, and thus contrary to Russian interests.
One of the main doubts is whether or not Moscow is honest about the only military target being ISIS, and not every opposition group threatening Assad’s regime. Even if it only targets ISIS – something quite complicated to achieve – then the big problem with Russia’s new assertiveness on Syria lies with the law of unintended consequences.
Without a push for a political settlement, the effort to beef up the Syrian regime’s strength and protect it from the most radical groups can have an impact on the conflict beyond the fight against ISIS. If that happens, Russia will be contributing to the further weakening of the moderate opposition groups and fragmentation of Syria.
In 2012, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iran’s supreme leader and former foreign minister, described the importance of Syria to the axis: “The chain of resistance against Israel by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, the new Iraqi government and Hamas passes through the Syrian highway… Syria is the golden ring of the chain of resistance against Israel.”
Today, the axis has cornered millions of Syria’s Sunnis between Assad’s forces, Shiite militias and ISIS. Russia may be on the way to giving it a major hand.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.