A very hot summer is behind us. A number of times it seemed that Washington will finally go to war against Iran. Starting with the complete quit from the JCPOA and the cancellation of the waivers for some countries to keep a limited trade open with Iran tension was building. The peak was reached by the controversies around the oil tankers blocked at Gibraltar at one hand and in the Persian Gulf by Iran. At that time it briefly seemed that a number of Gulf states might in fact manage to seduce Washington into an open confrontation with Tehran and the infamous B Team was ruling the scene. But something very fundamentally started to change. The Bahrain Summit failed to bring about the deal of the century, the UAE started to pull out from Yemen and signed a security protocol with Iran, and after the Iranians brought down an American drone in their own airspace there was no American retaliation. The last chapter, probably the last major attempt by the B Team to spark a major war was Netanyahu’s recent bid to attack all his perceived enemies in all fronts. But he got a sobering response by Ḥizb Allah, and the Americans ended up a very delicate situation, when their are losing ground in Syria and their presence in Iraq is ever more hard to justify. But the real sign that the height of the tension is over, at least for now, came this week, as Trump replaced one of his most hawkish advisor, John Bolton.
This replacement, the failure of Bolton, the response by Ḥizb Allah to the Israeli aggressions and the strong opposition of the al-Ḥašd aš-Ša‘abī pushing the Iraqi government into a quagmire with the Americans all point to the same direction. There is a group in the Middle East, which firmly says no to the American plans and willing to pay any price for this stance. And there are a number of other similar signs as well. After a sudden surge in the exchange rate of the Syrian pound, it started to modestly come back and there are similar signs of economic resistance in Iran as well. Meaning that the former ultimate weapon of the USA, the economic sanction are not as invincible as they were before. Especially after the recent Israeli attempt, it became very tangible that there is a force, which can present military and economic results even against the strongest pressure by the West and its allies in the region.
What is very noticeable now, however, that all this came with very little, or almost unnoticeable Russian support. It is not like in 2015, when practically Moscow saves Syria from an open American intervention. Not like Moscow left the scene, but had remarkably little word in Gulf tension and even its role in Syria’s Idlib was very ambiguous. Therefore it is fitting, after the failure of Netanyahu and the departure of Bolton to look into the form of resistance forming in the Middle East and where the great power competing with America, like Russia and China have a role in this. In other words, using the terms of the region, what is the difference between the Axis of Resistance and the regional cooperation?
Shia Crescent or Axis of Resistance?
It was 2004, when King II ‘Abd Allah introduced the term “Shia Crescent” to the general political public describing the regional situation. At that time, right after the destructive occupation of Iraq, the Americans only started to realize that they have way more enemies in the region than previously anticipated, and they are very capable. In other words, the reshaping of the Middle East will not be as easy as it was in the Balkans with the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Washington started to realize that there is a very capable group, which can cross a number of its attempts and way more resilient as it was previously believed. They managed to sink the Americans into a quagmire in Iraq, preventing them to expand either into Syria, or Iran, and later they blocked the Israeli war machine in Lebanon 2006. That group was based on the alliance between Iran, Syrian and Ḥizb Allah, but even at that time included some elements of the Palestinian resistance and some Iraqi groups.
At that time it was just a nuisance for Washington, but a very threatening prospect for a number of Middle Eastern countries under the American patronage. Like Jordan, for example. The term “Shia Crescent” was introduced to describe this phenomenon and its nature, as if Iran was expanding in the Middle East through its proxies by inciting sectarian unrest and pushing Shia propaganda. That is how it managed to build up Ḥizb Allah in Lebanon, and that is how it found an ally in Syria, as its state leadership is predominantly Shia. This theory had a number of strong points. Thought it was not the most comprehensible one in the West, where the nature of the Shia and Sunni political struggle has little persuasive power, but it was convincing that Iran was expanding by finding friends. In the Middle East, however, it was a much more successful phrase, where the sectarian sensitivity is receptive to such slogans and could present the states under the American patronage as only defending themselves from sort of aggression, or political incitement. Especially after this Iran lead group found a following in Palestine and started to vindicate the right of protection of the Palestinians for itself, which was always the Sunni-centered, Gulf dominated realm. Wherever in the Middle East there was significant Shia minority, or tangible Iranian presence the Shia Crescent theory became popular. And it still is, as this group is not only expanding, now including the al-Ḥašd aš-Ša‘abī in Iraq with a huge political presence and following, a way bigger political alliance in Lebanon, and the al-Ḥūtī Movement in Yemen, which is gaining momentum now, with the Saudis’ failure, but also manages to gain outer supporters, like Russia and scored significant scores in the region. In other words, after more then a decade and a half, after several attempts for crushing it, it not only stayed alive, but it getting stronger every year.
The Shia Crescent tag, however, had a number of deficiencies from the very beginning, and this is where the Western and the Middle Eastern comprehension of the term significantly deviates. The Western understanding of this this idea was that Iran is forcing a number of actors in the region under its own umbrella and is reshaping this countries to fight the American presence in the region. In fact the core of this block is the alliance between Syria and Iran, which was born in the Iraq-Iran war, and in the beginning Syria was the dominant party in it. Though that balance changed significantly by now, and it is true that in all other aspects Tehran has a much more significant role, in all relations this is based in mutual agreement and need. That is why it was weakening in the ‘90s, only to be reawaken by the renewed American activity. That could be argued with quite some merit that with all other parties Iran plays a role of nexus and coordination, nor Damascus, nor any other side plays an inferior role. If someone follows the speeches of Ḥasan Naṣr Allah, but even the tone of channels, like al-Mayadeen, not strongly connected to the block, one can notice that there is a genuine interest by all parties for all the others, and the tone is not set directly around Iran. Tehran might be the most significant party, but it is far from dominating the landscape. Not necessarily for not having an appetite for this, something surely exist in the minds of many Iranian politicians, but simply the realities are very far from this. Even now, when the possibilities for the Iranians by far exceed those of the Syrians, the Iraqis or the Yemenis in this regional cooperation, Tehran does not intrude into internal matters.
The understanding of the term in the Middle East had a much more sectarian edge. In this mindset not as much Iran was expanding, but the Shia propaganda. That of course emanates from Iran, but it is only empowers Shia groups, which aim to take revenge on Sunna and for that aim they fund and arm sectarian based terror groups. This comprehension has an even bigger number of contradictions. And not just the fact that the vast majority of terrorist groups in the region are Sunni ones. The core alliance between Syria and Iran is in fact built on a cooperation between a secular state with a Sunni majority and theocracy. That is far from fitting for a sectarian based cooperation, especially if someone knows the history of the Syrian politics, which indeed for long had the ambition to influence the inner dynamics of regional states to its own likings, but that tone was always set on Arab grounds, not on religious ones. Syria for its own inner complexity is much more sensitive to religious propagation than many other regional states, which are more homogeneous. One might argue that it is not a coincidence that the other pillar of the alliance is Ḥizb Allah, which indeed in the ‘80s worked hard to copy the Iranian model, but since than it left agenda, and back at the day Damascus was promoting another, much more secular party in Lebanon, the Amal. Only by the gradual loss of support for Amal Damascus agreed to support Ḥizb Allah, however, that happened at the time when Ḥizb Allah was changing and toning down its previous Iran style tone. But that proves sufficiently that the very idea of cooperation is not based on sectarian understanding, but much rather on practically. And that point is even more obvious in relation to the Palestinian realm, where all allies are firmly Sunni or secular ones, not any one of them is having any Shia inclination. If we expand the time scope even farther now, this alliance found such supporting partners, like Qatar, or Turkey, clearly Sunni states. These might not be core members of the alliance, but that would still be a strange move from a sectarian based cooperation.
Yet the Shia Crescent description has an even bigger flaw, which is not the lack of clarity how Russia fits into the picture. Was it a secret agenda, or a destabilizing attempt by Iran, it would be very hard to explain why is it an openly admitted initiative. Because this regional cooperation has a widely used name by its very members, which is the Axis of Resistance [Miḥwar al-Muqāwama]. The term was allegedly first used in 2002 by a Libyan daily, az-Zaḥaf al-Ahḍar [The Green March], countering Bush’s “Axis of evil” term. In time the Iranian and the Lebanese press pick up the term and since then it openly became a part of the political parlor. The main idea is behind it that the most important thing, which connects the members of this alliance is its determination to curb American-Western interests in the region, including the Israeli ones, and bring about a reshaped Middle East relying on itself and its own resources. That is even a suggested model for the whole region, far apart from the otherwise different political and economic considerations.
That is in fact not a new idea. That dilemma is almost as old as the independence struggle of the region’s countries. Which always had its counter in an other set of regional powers, which gave preference to the Western patronage. What changed since the days, when ‘Abd an-Nāṣir in Egypt as Nūrī as-Sa‘īd in Iraq clashed over the Baghdad Pact are two things. By now it stepped over ethnic boundaries of the Arabs, and includes others, most prominently the Iranians. The other is that at that time, and this was practically true until the ill-fated attempt of Ṣaddām Ḥussayn to be the last one, it was always perceived that it has to be lead by someone, it needs an ultimate leader. Either a person or a country. Now, however, it became truly multilateral, where the members of the alliance are connected by their main objective, and political view about the future and a military-security cooperation, yet they are not striving for union in any sense and do not intrude into each other’s domestic affairs, only on the limit to secure each other’s survival.
That is what we saw from Syria in 2006, when it supported Ḥizb Allah against Israel, but after the Syrian pull-out in 2005, it didn’t have an overwhelming influence in Lebanon any more and did not intrude into domestic affairs, like before. The same was true, when Ḥizb Allah returned the favor and helped out after 2011, yet the Lebanese organization has practically no influence over Syrian domestic affairs. Of course the members support and promote their political allies, like in the case of Iraq, where the al-Ḥašd aš-Ša‘abī’s numerous factions are not only militarily, but also politically are highly supported by Tehran. That form of support, however, differs greatly from the kind of military occupation the Saudis did with Bahrain in 2011, or the enforcement of puppet regimes, like their attempt on Yemen. The members can even have strikingly different domestic and economical models, yet their alliance functions well, since the main idea, the regional cooperation without Western interference and exploitation is a common interest. In other words, what was once Homeīnī’s vision of the Islamic Revolution’s export, which failed, became a model of regional cooperation for the own benefit of the members, without deeper ideological intrusion.
Where Russia fits in?
A number of times the role of Russia became curios in this topic. In one hand, they helped out greatly in Syria, in many ways prevented Iran to be destroyed economically, or stood by them diplomatically, so they did a number of cases and ways to cross the Americans in the region. They, along with China, defended Syria in the UNSC from a direct American military invasion, and launched the Astana process, which by involving regional partners seemed to operate much more effectively, than the Geneva process before. These would obviously mean that they are part of the alliance. Yet, they had almost not word to say about Yemen, nor about the last set of operations by Israel, they failed with all their military presence to keep Israel away from committing aggressions against Syria, and when it did and caused the death of a Russian squadron, still that did not provoke a major reaction. One could ask that if Moscow was part of that alliance, how could they let Libya fall, Bahrain to be occupied, and even Syria to suffer so much alone, until they did come to Damascus’s aid in 2015. That is very far from the tone and nature of cooperation we see from Iran, Syria and Ḥizb Allah, when Ḥasan Naṣr Allah said that any attack on Iran counts against all members of the Resistance. Quite the opposite, Moscow has very functional ties with Israel, it is willing to sell the most modern weapons to Turkey, some of what it did even sell to Iran, and has lucrative business treaties with Saudi Arabia. So there seems to be a huge contradiction. In the case of China the same question stands, however, less pressing, since Beijing did not get military involved in the region. At least openly.
This is something also relatively discussed in the region, thought still form large part of political deliberations. The source of the dilemma is in fact comes from the high expectations about Moscow in the Middle East, to be the savior from the Americans, especially after they finally moved into Syria. In many ways similar feelings are attached to the Chinese as well. However, that is not only exaggerated, but even misjudged both from the inner and from the Russian point of view. Russia simply does not have the economic power to stand a regional race with the Americans. But has modern military technology to sell, some capital, and significant diplomatic influence to lend. Therefore Russia looks for partners and opportunities in the region to promote its own interests. These matched so far with a large number of the interests of the Axis of Resistance. But that did not make any part of it, regardless the high level of trust and cooperation between them. Russia pursues its own interests, and it takes the bests out of every opportunity with the minimum level of confrontation. Syria was and is a high priority, but in a number of economic and strategic matters Damascus was not willing to give into Moscow, until the situation became really grim. Since than Russia does indeed provide a commendable amount of help, but not to expanse of its bigger, regional interests. That is why Moscow was, and still is willing to turn a blind eye to Turkey continued breach of the Sochi agreement, since turning Turkey away from the US is more valuable than the already secured positions in
Syria. That is why Russia has no major reactions to Israel’s relentless aggression on Damascus, since that is officially focuses on Iranian troops and the inner dealings of the Axis. Therefore this is none of Russia’s matter, and Moscow is even somewhat happy that the Iranian competitor is somewhat pushed to the side, or kept busy.
Should that mean, that the Russian support is all hypocrisy and void? That would be the other extreme to say. After all, they did indeed sacrificed troops in Syria, and gave impressive support to Iraq and Iran as well. Russia will indeed provide a safety net under the Axis, not letting it fall, or being destroyed by an American aggression. But it shall not go to war with the Axis against the Americans or the Israelis either. That support, though much more limited and selfish as sometime seems, still very valuable. And since the Axis proves to operate well, this sort of Russian support seems to be even more valuable, than the American, because there is no direct economic exploitation, nor attached ideological pressure. That is why Riyadh, even in at the height of cooperation with the Americans – at least seemingly – in Yemen, try to cut deals with Russia as well.
The suggestion that Russia would be part of the Axis of Resistance is in fact refuted by the very members and contradicted by the very basic concept behind it. Since the point of it is a regional cooperation, not to rely on outer partners. Accepting Russian help is a necessity now, but not the aim. As much as Russia’s and China’s economic and strategic considerations might fall along with those of the Axis, whenever they don’t we see a very natural divergence. That is not only accepted by Resistance, but in a number of cases that is a political necessity for them.
Where the tracks go
In a number of cases the cooperation with the BRICKS states, or just with Russia and China, might even with India seems promising. Like the Iranian-Indian cooperation in the Čābahār port. In a number of cases that is disappointing, like Moscow unwillingness or incapability to force Turkey to compliance with the Sochi agreement and prevent them from aggression against Syria.
Their future economic presence in the region, however, is a given fact and will be much needed, when the reconstruction will commence after the wars of the Arab Spring and the destruction of the economic sanctions. Therefore, regardless all the hard feelings, the cooperation will not break, much rather evolve.
This week, however, three major victories came for the Axis of Resistance and all of them from their own power. A week past by and Israel did, or could not respond to Ḥizb Allah’s move in Avivim. And since than there was no attack on Iraq either. On 13 September 2019 the Yemenis carried out an attack with ten drones against Saudi Arabia, hitting the biggest Aramco oil reserve some 1300 km away from the border. This was so far the biggest Yemeni attack, and this time hit very hard the Western interests as well. After several similar ones, this major attack proved the total incapability of the Saudi air defense to counter this warfare. Regardless of becoming the third biggest military spender in the world. And finally the dismissal of Bolton. The Axis survived Bolton in all his positions and attempts, since he was behind the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, he promised the toppling of the Iranian government for a former terrorist organization and he was the mastermind behind the last major escalation in the Gulf.
All these point to the ability of the Axis of Resistance to evolve and improve. They pay a huge price of it, should we just think about the immense suffering of the Iraqi, Syrian and even more, the Yemeni people for the wars imposed on them. But the toll on those gave up their self determination is not much less, with a much less promising future.