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THE MIDDLE EAST BRANCH OF THE “AXIS OF EVIL”:


In the demonology at work in Washington D.C. and allied capitals, the Axis of Evil is an undifferentiated collection of governments and organizations, whose biggest sin is their opposition to a Western-dominated world under the leadership of the United States. The original members of the Axis of Evil were Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and “their terrorist allies” (George W. Bush, “State of the Union Address,” January 29, 2002). Shortly after, Cuba, Libya and Syria became bona-fide members (John R. Bolton, “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” May 6, 2002). After violent regime-change took Iraq out of the group in March 2003, Libya quickly learned the lesson, dropped its quixotic stand against the West, and received US assurances it would no longer face the threat of regime-change. With intense bloodshed continuing unabated in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, focus is now on the remaining Middle Eastern parties of the Axis of Evil.

 

In an interview on July 16, 2006, four days into the Israeli military onslaught on Lebanon, Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and current Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, referred to Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran as “those three or four parties that want to run the world and rule over it.” He went on to say that, in its war against Lebanese and Palestinians, Israel should be supported “because there is a need not to let these groups take over.” Of these four nefarious parties, Peres presented Hamas and Hizbollah as compliant executioners of Iran’s policies, “the two are submitted to Iran,” while the “Syrian army is old and weak,” leaving Iran as the head of the conspiracy.[1]

 

There is no particular reason to invoke Shimon Peres’ wisdom for how to deal with these “evil parties,” except that it closely reflects the worldview and policies of the Bush administration. Indeed, if it were not for active support from the US government, Israel would not be able to pursue its violent and unrelenting campaign against Lebanese and Palestinians. This US support has amounted to between $2 and $3 billion a year since 1971, two-thirds of which has been military assistance, making Israel the largest recipient of US foreign aid. The close relationship was once more demonstrated by the rushed delivery of a large arsenal of US weapons (cluster bombs, satellite guided bombs, laser guided bombs, bunker busters, aviation fuel, etc.) just as Israel started its offensive to bring Lebanon to heel.

 

But so much for demonology. It is of course absurd to think that Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran want to “run the world” (Peres’ words), let alone that they can. The far bigger threat to the security of the Middle East and the world is unbridled US power, controlled by what is at the end a tiny band of mean-spirited politicians. The far greater danger to Israelis themselves, if they are to live in peace with their neighbors in the long run, is to continue to let their own government and military power be instruments of empire and colonial aggression.

 

As for the Middle East section of the Axis of Evil, an honest examination of the record over recent decades gives evidence for different ideologies and different policies among these four parties — Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran — sometimes united, sometimes clashing, largely independent especially on local matters, and now together besieged by another “axis of evil,” this one quite real, headed by the US, with Israel as first accomplice and Britain as first cheerleader. This other axis controls an overwhelming concentration of firepower, the kind for “shock and awe,” which it has used with devastating effect and no compunction. Witness the frightful destruction of Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and now once more southern Lebanon.

 

What of Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran? Can they form a united front, cohesive enough to withstand repeated assaults to destroy them?

 

The Bush administration views Hamas and Hizbullah as proxies, which can be moved and stopped on orders from Tehran or Damascus or both. Liberal commentators are less manichean in their view of the world, but still consider Iran and Syria as the responsible parties, abetting or restraining Hamas and Hizbullah, depending on circumstances. They all ignore or dismiss as implausible that Hamas and Hizbullah may act without informing Iran and Syria, or even against advice from the latter two. That there may be local reasons, unrelated to Iran’s and Syria’s respective conflicts with the West, is not considered. In reality, even if it is a matter of speculation how close (or distant) relations are among Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran, available evidence does not suggest a single agenda according to which they all act in unison against the US and its allies. By comparison, the other real “axis of evil,” headed by George W. Bush, has a clear chain of command and a far higher level of coordination.

 

SYRIA IN THE MIDDLE

 

Nothing illustrates better the conflictual relationship between these four parties than the situation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. The Brotherhood is a Sunni political movement founded in Egypt in 1928. The movement spread to other Arab countries and gradually grew at the expense of the nationalist parties that dominated the anti-colonialist struggle after WWII, as the latter encountered repeated internal and external failures and defeats.

 

Today, strong branches of the Brotherhood exist in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and several other Arab countries. The Brotherhood derives much of its popularity from various networks of services it provides to poor sections of society. Because the Brotherhood is officially banned or severely restricted in most countries, it has been generally unable to participate in government or to gain outright power through elections.[3]

 

In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a strong force in the late 1960’s. Along with other lesser Islamist groups, it was ruthlessly repressed by the Baathist regime in Damascus. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, there was near constant warfare between the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood and the Syrian army. In February 1982, the Brotherhood led a major insurrection in Hama, a city of about 350,000. The Syrian military responded by bombing Hama for several weeks, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 people. The massacre of Hama marked the defeat of the Syrian Brotherhood and Islamist groups in general in Syria, forcing members that escaped the military juggernaut to go underground or into exile.[4]

 

Many imprisoned members of the Brotherhood in Syria were pardoned and released in the 1990’s. In May 2001, retreating from their earlier confrontational policy, the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood published a statement in London rejecting political violence, and calling for a modern, democratic state. More recently, the exiled leader of the Syrian branch, Ali Bayanouni, said “the Muslim Brotherhood wants a peaceful change of government in Damascus and the establishment of a ‘civil, democratic state’, not an Islamic republic.”[5] Nevertheless, Muslim Brothers are still not allowed to function as an independent party in Syria. Political dissidents and democracy activists in Syria, who as much as sign a petition with exiled Muslim Brothers, are routinely arrested by the police. Since May 14, 2006, several of the Syrian signatories of a declaration entitled “Beirut-Damascus / Damascus-Beirut” which appeared a few days earlier in the Beirut press, have been detained by the police. The declaration was rather tame in its demands, calling for a normalization of relations between Lebanon and Syria based on respect for the independence and sovereignty of both countries, but Ali Bayanouni and other exiled intellectuals sympathetic to the Brotherhood were among its signatories — enough to bring down the Syrian Baathists’ wrath on the declaration’s initiators.

 

For all their antagonism to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements at home, the Syrian Baathists now have a close alliance with Iran. In addition to being the only Arab state that has maintained reasonably friendly relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran since its founding in 1979, Syria is Hizbullah’s main geographical link to the outside and a refuge for exiled Hamas leaders. Thus, while the Syrian regime does not brook any Islamist opposition internally, it keeps connections with Islamist movements outside its own borders, no doubt as it feels mounting external pressure from the other “axis of evil” and grows anxious about its intentions. Helping Hamas and Hizbullah, which are highly popular in Syria and other Arab countries because they have dared to stand up to American and Israeli dictates, also eases the pressure on the Syrian government from its own internal opposition.

 

IRAN UNDER SIEGE

 

The prospect of being left alone to fend off the US and its allies is as much Iran’s concern as it is Syria’s. In the standoff on its nuclear program, Iran has sought to build alliances with the large Asian countries (China and India) or mollify wavering Europeans. Iran’s ability to withstand US and Western pressures does not depend on the survival of Hamas and Hizbullah, two relatively minor and distant forces. To resist the kind of regime-change (and destruction) that neighboring Iraq has endured, Iran will have to shore up its own internal front, finding ways to re-mobilize a population of some 70 million that is showing increasing signs of disgruntlement or even alienation from the Islamic Republic.[6]

 

On July 14, 2006, Saudi Arabia issued a statement harshly critical of Hizbullah’s operation to capture two Israeli soldiers two days earlier. The statement was praised in Washington and Jerusalem, and well received in Cairo, Amman and other allied Arab capitals.[7] On July 15, the Iranian Supreme National Security head, Ali Larijani, was in Riyadh for consultations with King Abdullah and Saudi government officials. While Larijani and Saudi officials were discussing declarations calling for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories,[8] Hassan Nasrallah and others in the Hizbullah leadership in Beirut repeated their adamant refusal to consider an unconditional release of the captured soldiers and that they were ready for open warfare if imposed on them by Israel. Nasrallah also stressed what he has maintained all along: that Hizbullah alone — not Iran or Syria — is responsible for its action.

 

Of course, we do not have to take Nasrallah at his word. We can also ignore the significance of Larijani’s consultations with the Saudi government, and if we do, we may as well dismiss the Saudi condemnation of Hizbullah as also of little consequence, on the ground that public pronouncements by government officials say little about their actual policies. Be that as it may, there are other considerations that may make the Iranian government worry more about internal conditions in Iran than about the fortunes of Hamas and Hizbullah in distant Gaza and southern Lebanon.

 

Perhaps the most revealing measure of internal demobilization in Iran is the steady decline of voter turnout in recent years. From the Iranian government’s own figures, whereas 60 percent of the electorate voted in the municipal elections of 1999, the number decreased to 29 percent in 2003. The decline in large urban areas was far more significant: In Tehran, only 12 percent bothered to vote in 2003, giving all fifteen of the available city council seats to the “conservatives,” whereas in 1999 the “reformists” had won twelve of fifteen possible seats. Iranians suffer under an economy whose stunted growth cannot keep up with the country’s fast-growing working-age population. From the Iranian government’s own estimates in 2003, some 900,000 new jobs are needed annually to prevent an increase in unemployment (officially around 16 percent, unofficially over 20 percent in 2003), whereas only about 500,000 are created every year.[9] Leaving aside skewed interpretations of its significance and what it portends for the future, the Western media has regularly reported on the internal grumbling in Iran resulting from a badly performing economy.[10]

 

To what extent dissatisfaction is the result of unfulfilled political reforms, or internal repressions, or reduced economy opportunities, is a moot question. What stands out is that Iranian internal dissatisfaction is in sharp contrast to the popularity of Hamas and Hizbullah among their respective constituencies, and for good reason.

 

HAMAS AND HIZBULLAH IN A STRATEGIC ALLIANCE

 

The parallels in the separate histories of Hamas and Hizbullah are many and go back to the time they first emerged in the 1980’s. Now they have converged and the two are locked together in a deadly battle for survival with the Israeli military, touted as the third or fourth combat power in the world, a battle on which depends the fate of the entire region.

 

The Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 was the decisive event in the fateful sequence leading to the Israeli assault on Gaza on June 28, 2006, which was then followed by the assault on Lebanon on July 12. In the five months preceding the assault on Gaza, the US and Israel, with the silence or complicity of European countries, used every possible means to undermine the new Hamas government.

 

Hamas had to be destroyed because it is prepared to counter Israel’s unilateral policies of encirclement and dispossession. Hizbullah had to be destroyed because it is the main force preventing Lebanon from joining the fold of the New Middle East vaunted by officials of the Bush administration.

 

A little retrospective shows that both Hamas and Hizbullah, now among the worst villains in the eyes of the US and its allies, were largely byproducts of Israeli interference in the internal affairs of Palestinians and Lebanese. Hamas started as the military wing of the Palestinian branch of the Moslem Brotherhood in 1987, shortly before the first Intifada, encouraged by Israel as a counterweight to the secular Palestinian nationalism of the PLO. The gradual submission of the PLO to successive Israeli dictates, as well as its ineffectual and notoriously corrupt government, led to its own demise and the eventual victory of Hamas.

 

Hizbullah was created in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which killed an estimated 17,000-20,000 people and caused immense destruction. By the time Israeli forces stopped their bloody rampage, they had occupied the southern part of the country, established a brutal auxiliary force (the South Lebanon Army) and opened a detention and torture center in the town of Khiam — exactly the conditions to bolster a resistance movement, help it recruit new members, and turn the local population against the occupying army.

 

At the end, the resilience of Hamas, Hizbollah and other similar groups does not rest on their ability to organize powerful military wings. Tiny as they are compared to the Israeli armed forces, they cannot prevent an occupation of their own lands, but only make the price of an occupation prohibitively high. Their power rests on their ability to draw the sympathy of the surrounding populations, sustained by their vast networks of social services and charity, especially among the poor, which the Palestinian Authority (in the case of Hamas) and the Lebanese government (in the case of Hizbullah) have not been able to provide.

 

Long-time observers of Hamas and Hizbullah have dismissed attempts to portray them as proxies of Iranian or Syrian policy. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a Beirut-based political scientist who has studied Hizbullah and other Shiite movements, often quite critically. She has noted that even though “historically there has been an overlap of interests between Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, […] the nature of that relationship has changed much over the years.” According to Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbullah “has never allowed any foreign power to dictate its military strategy.”[11]

 

Dilip Hiro, a political analyst specializing in countries of the Middle East and Central Asia, has written that “despite repeated Israeli and American claims that Iran and Syria are behind Hizbullah’s moves, no solid evidence has emerged.” Moreover, “the alliance between Hizbullah and Iran and Syria is informal, not institutional.”[12]

 

Behind the fog of propaganda, government officials with a better grasp of conditions on the ground will occasionally confirm this assessment. The State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism recently said, “Syria can stop the flow of weapons, materiel and people into Lebanon. Yes, they can take a lot of action that they haven’t. In terms of them controlling Hizbollah, no, they cannot put Hizbollah out of business.” He estimated that Iran wielded more influence over Hizbollah, but “even there, Iran does not completely own Hizbollah.”[13]

 

AFTER HAMAS AND HIZBULLAH

 

Before July 12, 2006, Hamas was facing alone the might of the Israeli military, in a hopeless struggle that elicited no more than lip-service support from Arab governments and no support from Western governments. Gradually starved of external aid, the Hamas government seemed destined to a violent end.

 

Before July 12, Hizbullah was just one of several players in the internal politics of Lebanon. It had its supporters, mainly among the Shiite community, just as it had its opponents across the entire confessional spectrum, including a sizable segment of the Shiite community.

 

As of this writing, three weeks into the war on Lebanon, the Middle East configuration has totally changed: “the tide of public opinion across the Arab world is surging behind [Hizbullah], transforming the Shiite group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, into a folk hero and forcing a change in official statements.”[14] Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other pro-American Arab states, which were initially critical of Hamas and Hizbullah, are now scrambling to distance themselves from the policies of the Bush administration.

 

The policy of smashing popular movements in order to turn the surrounding populations against them has backfired. Blaming the destruction of Gaza on Hamas not on invading Israeli tanks, just as blaming the destruction of southern Lebanon on Hizbullah not on Israeli laser-guided bombs, was doomed to fail. And it has already. Increased sectarian tensions in Lebanon — Christians, Sunnis and Druze against the Shiites — did not materialize. Instead, according to opinion polls released the week of July 24, 87 percent of all Lebanese support Hizbullah’s resistance against Israel, including 80 percent of Christian respondents, 80 percent of Druze respondents, and 89 percent of Sunni respondents.[15]

 

The tragedy now is that Israel, with unconditional backing from President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, is still intent on eradicating Hamas and Hizbullah. The policy is delusional, and will only bring more grief to all in the Middle East. Even if the protagonists are brought together to negotiate, the continuing tragedy will be that they do not talk the same language. When US diplomats speak of resolving “root causes,” they refer to all parties standing in the way of a Middle East under US hegemony, where Israel is the unchallenged nuclear-armed regional superpower keeping in check subservient Arab regimes and a humbled Iran. For Palestinians, Lebanese and other Arabs, “root causes” mean recognition of the Palestinians’ right to meaningful self-determination as well as resolution of several contending issues between Israel and Lebanon (evacuation of the Shebaa Farms, release of Lebanese detainees, handing maps showing locations of landmines left in southern Lebanon after the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000, and an end to regular incursions into Lebanese airspace and territorial waters by the Israeli air force and navy).

 

Notes

 

[1] Interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, 16 July 2006.

 

[2] Jim Wolf, “US Weapons, Know-How Fuel Israel’s Military,” Reuters, 19 July 2006. David S. Cloud and Helene Cooper, “US Speeds Up Bomb Delivery for the Israelis,” The New York Times, 22 July 2006.

 

[3] Fawaz Gerges, America and Political Islam, Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? Cambridge University Press 1999.

 

[4] Olivier Carré and Gérard Michaud. Les Frères Musulmans: Egypte et Syrie (1928-1982). Gallimard, Paris 1983.

 

[5] Rory McCarthy, “We would share power, says exiled leader of Syrian Islamist group,” The Guardian, London, 26 January 2006.

 

[6] Iranian Dissident Akbar Ganji, “Dangers of a US Invasion of Iran,” Democracy Now, 25 July 2006.

 

[7] Ori Nir, “Bush Urged to Give Israel More Time for Attacks,” Forward, 21 July 2006.

 

[8] Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), “Iranian President’s Message Handed Over to Saudi King,” 15 July 2006.

 

[9] The data is reproduced in the International Crisis Group report, “Iran: Discontent and Disarray,” Middle East Briefing No. 11, 15 October 2003.

 

[10] See for example Michael Slackman, “In the Streets, Aid to Hezbollah Stirs Iranian Fear and Resentment,” New York Times, 23 July 2006.

 

[11] Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, “The Framing of Hizbullah,” The Guardian, London, 15 July 2006.

 

[12] Dilip Hiro, “Hostages and History,” The Guardian, London, 18 July 2006.

 

[13] Caroline Drees, “Syria, Iran Lack Full Hizbollah Control,” from Reuters, Washington Post, 25 July 2006.

 

[14] Neil McFarquhar, “Tide of Arab Opinion Turns to Support for Hezbollah,” New York Times, 28 July 2006.

 

[15] Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, “As Fighting Continues, Lebanese Author Says New Poll Shows Overwhelming Support For Hezbollah,” Democracy Now, 27 July 2006.

 

 

Assaf Kfoury is professor of computer science at Boston University. He returned from a three-week trip to Lebanon in May 2006.

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