By MICHAEL YOUNG
This past week several British parliamentarians were in Beirut to learn more about the situation in Lebanon and Syria. They met with politicians, academics and journalists, and an argument they took home with them was particularly intriguing. It pertains to what has become known in the West as the “resistance axis.”
As a parliamentarian put it to me, they had heard from one of those with whom they chatted not to underestimate the solidarity between members of the “resistance axis” – mainly Iran, Syria, Hezbollah
and Hamas – and the intensity of the ideological principles uniting them. With Syrian President Bashar Assad facing an existential threat to his rule, his fellow “resisters” would ride forcefully to his aid.
So, what did I think of this view?
Certainly, I replied, Iran and Hezbollah have bolstered Assad and his acolytes, and will continue to do so as they slaughter their own population. They may be preparing for the possibility of Assad’s downfall, but they are also doing everything to ensure that repression succeeds. Yet rather than representing a common culture of “resistance,” this team spirit merely reflects parallel interests. At the leadership level, the alleged moral underpinning defining “resistance” is secondary.
The notion of a “resistance axis” has been a casualty of the revolts in the Arab world. Using the term displays willful blindness to what has taken place during the past year. Resistance, the way the word is currently understood in the Arab world, implies resistance to injustice and hegemony, principally imposed by the United States and Israel. Yet when Iran and Syria, pillars of the axis, have been at the vanguard in violently and unjustly suppressing freedoms at home, the term “resistance axis” elicits only laughter. And yet there are people who need to keep the term alive, with its moral implications, because their professional agenda is invested in its being taken seriously.
The most prominent of these is Alastair Crooke. He is a former MI6 agent who heads Conflicts Forum in Beirut, which promotes dialogue between the West and Islamist groups. However, Crooke has become less a mediator between the two sides than an interpreter, advocate and relayer of the Islamists’ messages to the West, above all those of Hezbollah. This drift into partisanship has pushed Crooke to take positions in defense of the Assad regime that have exposed him to ridicule, as when he wrote in Asia Times last July that “Syrians also believe that President Bashar al-Assad shares their conviction for reform” and that there is “no credible ‘other’ that could bring reform.”
Lebanon has also attracted inferior knock-offs of Crooke, but their message is similar and their attitude toward the carnage in Syria as mercenary and inexcusable. They realize that with Assad facing a popular uprising, the conceptual edifice that they have spent years building up is about to collapse. The only thing that can save them is for the Syrian leader to prevail. That is why they have hemmed and hawed on Syria, when they have mentioned it at all, admitting to the regime’s brutality before tossing in caveats playing down such behavior, showing how unnerved they are with the prospect that they may lose a rationale to fund their enterprises.
Why is the conceptual edifice of Crooke and his imitators in danger? The Arab revolts have already brought Islamists to power through democratic means in Egypt and Tunisia. If Assad goes, two things risk happening in Syria: the Muslim Brotherhood will enter the political mainstream, even if it is unlikely to replicate the successes of its brethren in Egypt; and Hezbollah’s regional star will rapidly dim, as a majority of Syrians turn against the party for supporting Assad.
Both dynamics are problematic for would-be mediators like Crooke. The legitimization of Islamist parties through elections has forced Western governments to seriously contemplate dealing with them directly, without passing through non-governmental organizations. And if Hezbollah is perceived in the West as being weaker, there will be far less of an impetus to sponsor dialogue initiatives with the party, and far more to push for Hezbollah’s marginalization. That won’t happen quickly, so those like Crooke will still hold a job for awhile; but it will be principally a cleaning up job, because the profitable nexus that they have hitherto depended upon, that of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas – the “resistance axis” – will be no more.
How odd that proponents of the “resistance axis” have failed lately to feed Hamas into their equation. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has found it tricky to stand with Assad against the Syrian Brotherhood. From the moment the prominent cleric Sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi declared last March that the train of revolution had reached Syria, it was apparent that Hamas would one day have to make a choice. It has delayed doing so, but with Assad calling the Syrian Brotherhood “brothers of Satan” in a speech on Tuesday, a pillar of the resistance coalition may be nearing disintegration.
The template of those peddling a “resistance axis” line is the same as the one highlighting the perils of Western neo-imperialism in the Middle East, with its Arab nationalist pedigree. In the name of the struggle against Israel and neo-imperialism, Arab societies were turned into leviathans of subjugation. Yet the overriding message in the Arab revolts is that Arab populations, whatever their outlook toward the outside, now want their domestic tribulations to be given priority.
No fantasy of a “resistance axis” can survive in such an atmosphere. Resistance against whom? On whose behalf? Arabs want to resist the cruelty of their own leaders, to secure their future as free citizens and that of their children. Opportunists flogging schemes that ultimately benefit the tyrants will not convince the Arabs otherwise.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster). He tweets @BeirutCalling.