Ten years ago, the Resistance Axis (mihwar al-muqawama)—an alliance between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas against Western and Israeli interests in the Middle East—was ascendant. Today, this cross-sectarian, state/non-state coalition has almost completely unraveled—a product of both its inherent differences and the events that have ravaged the region in the intervening years. That is not to say that analysts foresaw this eventuality. Indeed, the opposite—its continued expansion—seemed much more likely for quite some time. Led by Iran, which had both strategic ambition and the resources to match, the Resistance Axis aimed to reignite a resistance agenda throughout the region, transcend sectarian divisions, and support Palestinian efforts to liberate Jerusalem from Israeli occupation. Syria’s role was to provide Iran with a forward operating base from which to exert influence and gain access to its two non-state allies: Hezbollah and Hamas. Specifically, Iran would transfer weapons and funds to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria’s territory, while it would meet with and provide material support to Hamas’s exiled leadership in Syria proper, where they had been given safe haven in Damascus by President Bashar al-Assad.
This Axis stood in direct opposition first and foremost to the United States and Israel, but also to the motley crew of seemingly complacent monarchs and presidents who were seen to be in cahoots with the Big Satan (the United States) and the Little Satan (Israel). These countries (and entities)—namely Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority—were all supportive to some degree of a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians brokered by the Americans. The Resistance Axis, as its name would suggest, was bent on undermining this effort.
There were a few key events that strengthened its comprising actors in a way that gave the impression that the Resistance Axis would prevail over its adversaries. First, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the subsequent elimination of Iran’s twin deterrents—the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq—left Tehran unbridled and poised to exert it hegemonic ambitions throughout the region. Second, Hamas’s victory over Fatah during the U.S.-instigated Palestinian elections of 2006 transformed a problematic terrorist group into a much more powerful, democratically elected semi-state actor. Third, Hezbollah’s ability to consolidate power in Lebanon during and after the 2006 Lebanon War similarly transformed it from a powerful militia to a politically active semi-state actor. And finally, the initial wave of Arab uprisings that swept the region in late 2010 and early 2011 rocked the capitals of many of the Resistance Axis’s adversaries.
That is, until the uprisings hit Syria in March 2011. What began with pro-democracy protests in the city of Deraa following the detainment and torture of a few teenagers who tagged a school wall with revolutionary slogans soon became the pivot point upon which regional ire would turn to focus on the Resistance Axis. Why? How did protests in Syria have a different impact than, for example, protests in Tunisia or Jordan? The Arab uprisings created a dichotomy in the region that pitted autocrats in favor of stability at all costs against Islamists in favor of remaking the region in the name of (their version of) Islam—and, when convenient, the people. In certain locales, like Egypt, the lines on the battlefield were clear. Hosni Mubarak, followed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and then finally Abdel Fattah el-Sisi represented the autocrats, while the Muslim Brotherhood—sometimes under the leadership of its short-term President Mohammed Morsi, other times in conjunction with Salafi elements in the country—represented the Islamists. However, in other locales, such as Syria, the lines were blurred.
First the extreme use of violence by the Syrian regime against its people, including the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons on the population, seemed to “cross a red line” (to borrow a phrase that in this context has become somewhat neutered) for much of world. Second, owing to the fact that the Resistance Axis comprised a theocracy, an autocracy, and two Islamist militant groups, it quickly became clear that the dichotomy that arose from the Arab uprisings drew a line in the sand directly through this alliance. Hezbollah and Hamas each had to make a choice, and both spelled trouble for the future viability of the Axis.
Hezbollah, being the vanguard of Iran and having been created and sustained to serve its patron’s interest, had little choice. Sticking with Iran, and supporting and (as of 2013) even fighting for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, was the only logical move. However, this move turned the region against the Shi‘a militia once and for all, revealing its true loyalties to be solely to its patron, rather than to Lebanon or the Palestinians as it had tirelessly claimed. Hamas, on the other hand, could not bring itself to side with Bashar and his butchery in the name of autocratic survival. Hamas’s sole purpose for existing was to liberate Palestine according to its Islamist agenda. Thus, its loyalties were with the Islamist camp in this showdown. As early as 2012, Hamas’s exiled leadership quit Syria, seeking out new safe havens in the Gulf and elsewhere. Hamas’s move, though popular among the Sunnis who had reviled the group for getting into bed with Iran in the first place, simply weakened the Resistance Axis by costing it a member.
Finally, there is Syria itself—that is, Syria of 2016. The country is all but destroyed; its President clings to power by dint of his ever-present powerful allies, Iran and Russia; relatedly, it is the site of multiple proxy wars; and it houses a nest of snakes in the form of miscellaneous jihadi groups, all fighting under different banners and toward different goals. Syria has gone from being an asset to a liability for Iran and what’s left of the Resistance Axis, and it doesn’t look like the situation is going to improve in the near- to medium-term. The implications of this state of affairs for the Axis are dire. Without a reliable forward operating base from which to conduct its business and supply its proxy, Hezbollah, Iran’s ability to assert itself (and sow violence for that matter) in the Levant will be significantly handicapped. What’s more, after Syria, it seems unfathomable that the original quartet of villains will reconstitute, therefore denying Iran a true tie (Hamas) to the Palestinian cause that it claims so fervently to support.
All this boils down to one conclusion. When one asks, “what happened to the Resistance Axis?”, the answer is quite clear: It is no more. Western policymakers and regional leaders might have had cause to rejoice at this revelation, but no. The situation in the region is too dire. The ongoing Syrian conflict, Iran’s nefarious adventurism in the region, and Hezbollah’s ever-evolving terrorist machinations—to say nothing of ISIS, Iraq, Yemen, and other challenges—mean that those countries who want stability and security to return to the region have much to keep them up at night and know that there is much left to be done. The real question that remains is: How?