Hezbollah’s co-optation with the ‘axis of evil’
BEIRUT - During the commemoration of Ashura, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who promised his adherents a quick victory in Syria in 2012, called for an all-out jihad against takfiri groups wherever they are found. George W. Bush could have easily labelled the call a “War against Terrorism”.
Hezbollah’s gradual yet growing engagement in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad has signalled the increasing difficulties that regime has faced holding its ground. But four years of financial and military backing by Hezbollah and Iran have failed to turn the tide. Drastic measures have been ordered to rescue the Damascus government, evident in Russia’s direct military intervention in support of the Syrian Army.
Nasrallah, along with the Iranian leadership, applauded Russian intervention. Nabil Qaouk, deputy member of the executive council of Hezbollah, considered that “Russia’s air strikes have reinforced the axis of resistance against the takfiri groups”. Both Iran and Hezbollah have found in such a development a better alternative to the potential collapse of the Assad regime.
In his Ashura speech, and to shift attention away from Russia’s “new colonialism”, Nasrallah blamed the United States for all Muslims’ ills. Yet he kept silent about joint Russian- Israeli military exercises and the Russian-US memorandum of understanding, signed to avoid plane collisions over Syria. Nasrallah made no effort to explain the reasons behind growing cooperation between US-led forces and the pro-Iranian Shia militia of al-Hashed al-Shaabi in Iraq fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
Despite Nasrallah’s furious rhetoric, realities on the ground reveal an unprecedented and rapidly developing harmony between the “axis of evil” and the “axis of resistance”. It appears to be reaching its climax in an undeclared alliance fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Recent talks in Vienna between Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been described by Kerry as a promising discussion regardless of lingering disagreements over Assad’s fate. Nonetheless, convergences of interest are being clearly expressed in a plan for a new Middle Eastern contestation.
Iran is eagerly pursuing a partnership with Russia to expand its influence by claiming a protectionist role over the Shia community in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Russia, on the other hand, is finding in alliance with Iran and Hezbollah critical gateways to restore lost Soviet prestige and strategically reposition itself in the Levant.
The United States and Israel, on the other hand, may have been growing increasingly convinced that Hezbollah and Iran are more assuring to regional stability than the fragmented Arab and Turkish Sunni leadership. For Israel, in particular, the rise of Shiaism amid a widening wedge with the Sunni world is sure to help undermine Palestinian resistance and shift the Muslim and Arab cause away from calls to “protect Jerusalem” and for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Both Iran and Hezbollah recognise full well that the attainment of Shia protectionism in the Levant necessitates a significant convergence with Israel, the United States and Europe over common interests. After all, post-nuclear deal Iran must demonstrate, and persuade its allies to do likewise, a willingness to play a stabilising regional role, securing Israeli borders, suppressing Sunni militancy and participating in power-sharing arrangements with other minority and sectarian groups. This is crucial to maintaining economic cooperation and advancing normalisation with the West.
At a later stage, backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah may need to diffuse Saudi-Qatari-Turkish opposition to expanded Iranian Shia influence in the region. Other than tilting the balance of power in their favour on the battlefield, the “axis of resistance” may also need to demonstrate a disposition towards resolving other regional dilemmas that have arisen directly as a result of conflict in Syria. First, help suppress Kurdish secessionist drives, a primary concern to Turkey. Second, develop a partnership with the Arab Sunni world to rearrange spheres of influence in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. And third, cease intervention drives in the internal affairs of the Gulf States, including ending support of Yemen’s Houthis.
The international Quartet recently appeared closer to such an understanding within the framework of an anti-ISIS coalition. Lavrov has proposed to open the Quartet’s membership to Iran and other stakeholder countries, such as Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
For the time being, however, no one expects Hezbollah’s sectarian mobilisation to end soon. Nor it is likely that Nasrallah’s populist and fierce criticism denouncing Israel and the United States and claiming resistance against the “axis of evil” will at any time be watered down.
Yet, Hezbollah will continue to demonstrate its ability to maintain calm along the Israeli borders regardless of the Palestinian intifada. The party is to support the United States and Western armament efforts of the Lebanese Army to help in the fight against “Islamic terrorist organisations”. And finally, as expressed in Nasrallah’s Ashura speech, the party will uphold dialogue with their Lebanese opponents, while simultaneously labelling them the “slaves of American and Saudi petro-dollar”.
“Co-opting with the ‘axis of evil’” seems to best describe the party’s domestic strategy and Iran’s emerging regional rapprochement.