Falling Out of Favour
Falling Out of Favour November 2012
The Syrian uprising is contesting the definition of resistance and forging new popular perceptions of its former axis.
By Abdulhamid Qabbani
Photo Adel Samara
From peak popularity six years ago, the axis of resistance is now in decline. The Arab Spring— particularly its bloody incarnation in Syria—has challenged the Middle East’s anti-Western powers— Iran, Syria, and the armed resistance groups Hezbollah and Hamas—with grave consequences for the region’s future alignments.
“I used to view [Hezbollah’s Hassan] Nasrallah as an Arab hero and would turn on the TV whenever he gave speeches,”said Ali, a 30-year-old from Aleppo. Now, however, Ali’s views have radically changed: he says the Hezbollah leader and his party “showed their true colours during the Syrian revolution by sending fighters to kill Syrian people who wanted reform.”
The axis members had gained the Arab World’s support as defenders of Arab rights and supporters of the Palestinian issue. This staunch anti-Israeli and anti-western colonialism stance stood in stark contrast to that of the moderate Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt—which normalised relations with Israel.
Following the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War, the axis’ popularity grew enormously, although Hezbollah’s victory in the 34-day military conflict was largely symbolic.
“Hezbollah came out with a political victory. Despite being defeated militarily, it still gained the Arabs’ public opinion as rallies took place to support it,” Akram Husam, an expert with the Cairo-based National Center for Middle Eastern Studies, told Syria Today.
This victory was supported by Iran and Syria, which also earned points from it with the Syrian street. Posters showing Nasrallah alongside the current and former Syrian presidents were displayed widely, and Hezbollah’s Lebanese TV channel Al-Manar drew a large audience.
The December 2008 Israeli assault on the Hamascontrolled Gaza strip likewise stirred Arabs’ sympathy and support for the Palestinian movement. Many viewed Hamas’ endurance of the three-week war as a victory for retaining the ability to launch missile attacks on Israel, since stopping Hamas’ rockets was considered the main goal of the Israeli assault.
“The 2006 and 2008 [wars] were well-employed by Syria and Iran…to promote this axis [of resistance],” Husam observed.
When the Arab Spring uprisings broke out, however, the axis’ contradictory stances towards these popular movements proved its breaking point.
Iran initially described the Arab Spring as an Islamic awakening. At a large state-sponsored rally celebrating the 32nd anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution on February 11 last year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed the Libyan and Egyptian uprisings as inspired by his country’s struggle against Western powers.
The Syrian uprising, however, is depicted by Iran as a foreign plot to destroy the axis of resistance. It is not “an internal issue but a conflict between [this axis] on the one hand, and [its] regional and global enemies…on the other”, announced Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, during an August 7 visit to Damascus.
He further emphasised the Islamic Republic’s support for the Syrian regime: “Iran will never allow the resistance axis – of which Syria is an essential pillar – to break.”
Echoing Iran’s stance, Hezbollah has stood by the Syrian regime and stands accused of sending snipers and troops as well as logistical support for the embattled regime. A YouTube video published on August 5 shows 48 Iranians captured by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Damascus, one of whom rebels alleged was an officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) with a permit allowing him to carry arms. Though Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that the Iranians were pilgrims, the rebels’ claim gained credence when Commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari said in a statement on September 16 that members of Revolutionary Guards are providing non-military assistance in Syria.
American daily the Wall Street Journal reported on August 27 that in addition to money and weapons, Iran is also sending “commanders and hundreds of elite soldiers to Damascus.”
“Today we are involved in fighting…a military [war] in Syria,” Gen. Salar Abnoush, commander of IRGC’s Saheb al-Amr unit, told volunteer trainees, according to the daily, contradicting earlier statements by Iranian officials that their country was not involved militarily in the conflict.
Therefore, many have lost faith in the notion of resistance. Muhammad, a 28-year-old Damascus-based journalist, observed that “people have lost faith in this axis, and the future of the resistance is catastrophic.”
Protestors have burned Hezbollah posters and the Iranian flag in anti-regime demonstrations as they chanted slogans denouncing the party for its suspected complicity in over 19 months of violence. A YouTube video from July 1 this year shows posters of Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah being burned in Homs.
However, while pro-regime political analysts admit that public support for the axis decreased “at the beginning”, they believe it has recently swung back.
“The Syrian people’s suffering, the loss of security and stability, and acts of killing and violence pushed those [who stopped supporting the axis] to retreat from their former positions and back Hezbollah,” Humaidi al-Abdallah, a pro-government Syrian political analyst, told Syria Today.
Calling his support for Hezbollah “a matter of principle more that realism”, a 22-year-old student in Damascus who requested anonymity told Syria Today that he supports the party “from the position of resisting the Zionist enemy.” He further explained that the party sided with the regime “because of the stupidity of the Syrian opposition, as they inserted Hezbollah’s name in the beginning of the events in Syria to motivate sectarian emotions [among protestors].”
In contrast to Hezbollah, Hamas distanced itself from the Syrian regime and remained largely silent about the Syrian conflict. Only on February 24 did its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, speak out, telling worshipers at Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque: “I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform.”
Consequently, Hamas left Syria, moving its headquarters to Qatar, and is withdrawing from the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance. The fact that Hamas did not side with the Syrian regime greatly disappointed its former ally. “Hamas was expected to follow suit like Hezbollah and stand by the [Syrian] regime which in the past offered a lot of support to Hamas,” Abdallah said.
Ali Bakeer, a Lebanese journalist and political analyst, argued that “ultimately, the Syrian people’s case is about rights. And because Hamas like other movements represents the case of wronged and disenfranchised peoples, it was natural for it to leave and distance itself from Assad.” He further expressed hope that Hamas would not be tempted by other calculations, like “some movements who pretend to be ‘resistance’ at a time that they are completely involved in the blood of the Syrian people.”
Indeed, Hamas’ ability to appear to ally itself with the Syrian people’s demands seems to have allowed it to save face with its Arabs supporters. Mohammed argues that Hamas is “different because it didn’t support the regime or send fighters into Syria, which makes it a true resistance [organisation], not a political hypocrite to Syrians.”
But Hamas’ association with the Syrian regime has nevertheless put the movement in a bind. “Obviously, the outbreak of the Syrian revolution exposed Hamas and Hezbollah to severe embarrassment,” Husam commented.