Hezbollah’s co-optation with the ‘axis of evil’

Friday 06/11/2015
Female supporters of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah movement

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.