Fire Spreads Both Ways / Jonathan Spyer

December 4, 2011
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 Palestinians.

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.

To keep this ambition alive, they need the Assad dictatorship in place.

The 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 suppressing demonstrations.

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.

But while 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 end.

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 out.

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.

Hezbollah’s physical 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 falls.

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 reassuring either.

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 concerned.

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.”

Amin concluded 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.

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters' Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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