The Evolving Mission of the Axis of Resistance
(Picture: "Men who bow only to Allah." Taken in a Damascus market.)
For nearly forty years, the Axis of Resistance has endured despite numerous challenges and external 'shocks', reflecting the core orientation of the Islamic Republic and its partners -- Syria and Hezbollah -- with respect to hostility to Western hegemony, antagonism toward Israel, and antipathy toward the conservative, pro-West status quo in the Arab World and the Middle East. Against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War and the upheavals in Lebanon in the early 1980s, this regional alliance was formed around shared interests, ideological affinity, and steadfast determination to re-shape the Middle East and to withstand the variegated reactionary pressures aimed at the weakening and or unravelling of the Axis of Resistance. The Axis was bolstered by a military pact between Tehran and Damascus in 2006, as well as by the decision of Palestinian Hamas to bandwagon with it, given the benefits that it derived from it in terms of moral and material assistance.
Without a doubt, the on-going conflict in Syria represents one of the greatest challenges confronting the Axis of Resistance, causing the defection of Hamas and the erosion of Syrian power at an inopportune time when Iran was subjected to comprehensive international sanctions. The cycle of violence that gripped Syria as of Spring 2011 escalated to a new spiral in 2014 after the sudden takeover of Mosul by Daesh/ISIS terrorists, backed by foreign powers, which soon extended to a vast swath of territory in both Iraq and Syria. By then, Syria was already fragmented and the armed rebels were hoping to turn their control of parts of Aleppo into a second capital, thus making Syria's partition into a fait accompli, this while the Syrian Kurdish forces were fighting their own battles against the mostly foreign fighters alongside the Turkish border. Convinced that it was only a matter of time before Damascus fell as well, the Saudi and Turkish officials repeatedly told Iran to give up its support for the Syrian government as it was both hopeless and useless, per recent statements by some Iranian former officials. But, history proved them wrong and today we witness Turkey's near open admission of its errors, which have proved rather costly to the country. For nearly two years now, the Syrian army, backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and a large group of volunteers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, has been on the offensive, regaining territory after territory, tipping the balance of forces in its favor, to the point that nowadays the representatives of rebels in Geneva readily admit that they have little leverage to bargain with Damascus. Turkey too, which has been lectured by visiting American diplomats about the Syrian people deciding the fate of their own country, has just ended its military operation along the Euphrates, declaring it to be a success, although it is not exactly clear what this 9-month operation has actually achieved.
Thus, although the conflict in Syria is far from over, it has reached the tipping point against the armed rebels and the assortment of terrorists operating in Syria over the past six years and it is simply a matter of time before Raqqa is liberated from the barbaric hands of ISIS terrorists, following the liberation of Mosul. On the other hand, the departure of Barack Obama, who never really prioritized the fight against ISIS, is also a welcome development and as the Iraqi Prime Minister visiting the White House recently confirmed, there are signs that the new US administration is more determined to defeat ISIS than its predecessor. Still, there are disquieting signs of an incoherent US approach that may result in contradictory actions and even "creeping interventionism" in Syria. The US's hands are somewhat tied however, and it seems unlikely that Washington would commit major resources into Syria, given the absence of vital US national interests at stake in Syria.
Meanwhile, the Axis of Resistance, which was badly battered in the initial phases of the Syrian conflict, has recuperated and even strengthened as a result of several inter-related factors:
1. Closer strategic partnership with Russia, a colossal military power. This partnership, reflected in the sale of S-300 missile defense system to Iran and the installation of S-300 and S-400 in Syria, which was able to shoot down an intruding Israeli jet recently, has added real muscle to the Axis of Resistance, bolstering its military and deterrent capability.
2. Expansion of the composition of the Axis via the war mobilization of thousands of volunteers from Iraq and elsewhere.
3. The post-nuclear accord thaw in Iran's relations with Europe, and to a much lesser degree US, which has acted as a catalyst for Iran's inclusion in the Syria peace process and, on a broader level, conflict-management in the region.
4. The hard-earned battle experience and coordination of military wings of the Axis of Resistance and the signs of its attraction by a number of other regional powers such as Egypt.
Of course, in addition to the above, an objective assessment of the Axis of Resistance must also include the exorbitant costs of war, the human toll and physical destruction, the war fatigue, etc. But, although important, these pale in comparison with the long-term gains mentioned above, which may also include Hezbollah's ability to procure previously unavailable surface-to-surface missiles from the Syrian inventory, and the like, thus strengthening the Axis's hands vis-a-vis Israel, which continues to occupy the Syrian territory and threaten its Arab neighbours. Already, Hezbollah has benefited from the peaceful change of government in Lebanon, now ruled by an inclusive coalition, thanks in part to the smart diplomacy of Axis of Resistance.
In light of the above-said, the Syrian war has shifted the geopolitical tectonics in the Middle East and, in turn, raised new questions, opportunities, risks and challenges, for the Axis of Resistance, its purpose and mission in particular. One of the significant ramifications of the Axis's strategic partnership with Russia is that Russia inevitably weighs heavy on the future decisions of the Axis, which might not be easy to deal with since Russia is primarily concerned about the NATO threat and its Middle East policies are sub-sets of its global policies. Whether or not this will constrain the Axis of Resistance in the future depends on a myriad factors including the future of Russia-NATO relations, the evolution of inter-state relations in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
But, what is clear, however, is that the Axis of Resistance can enjoy greater future stability and viability by following the prescriptions of "smart diplomacy" and making the necessary adjustments in tune with the evolving context of its existence. Over the past 6 years, a good deal of the Axis's energy has been expended on fighting terrorism and extremism, which is a common regional good bolstering the image and prestige of the Axis of Resistance, which has yet to take sufficient credit for its noble efforts. Consequently, counter-terrorism has now become chief identity marks of the Axis of Resistance, which will likely ramify a sustained stability role in the future. This new development to some extent transforms the very nature, purpose, and mission of Axis of Resistance, which must telescope itself to region-wide cooperative security. Like the Owl of Minerva, rising from the ashes of the Syrian conflict, a new Axis of Resistance is emerging before our eyes that will be ever more organically in tune with the rules and principles of international law, good neighborly relations, respect for the sovereignty of nations, and a firm commitment to its norms of justice and solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians and others. Nurtured by the heroism, blood and honor of a whole generation of people across the Middle East, the new Axis of Resistance is bound to become the fulcrum of a brave new Middle East, one that is no longer hostage to the scourge of war but bound to the winds of historical progress.