Since the first stages of European colonisation of the Middle East, as with other imperial powers elsewhere, there has been resistance in one form or another. This has been the case right up to and including the stifling US military presence in the region, particularly since 9/11 and the subsequent toppling of Saddam Hussein, when Iraqi insurgents and extremist groups actively opposed America with armed struggle.
Now, however, a variety of state actors and their proxy groups have snatched the “resistance” banner for themselves. This “Axis of Resistance” consists of Iran, Syria, Russia (to some extent) and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the plethora of Shia militias in Iraq. Some South American actors such as Venezuela have even aligned themselves with this axis by exchanging moral and diplomatic support.
Claiming that it is primarily against Western and foreign imperialism, axis members overtly fight against any scent of revolution — or sometimes counter-revolution — that comes their way. The slightest threat to its members’ power is, in their eyes, simply the result of foreign interference in their countries and a violation of their sovereignty. Any public uprising against forced disappearances, widespread torture, the killing of their own civilians and the rape of their women is, in the eyes of the Axis of Resistance, simply the doing of terrorist groups rather than the legitimate concerns of the ordinary people.
There is, of course, a degree of truth to such claims that designated terrorist groups are present in Syria’s opposition-held areas; groups such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham are widely believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and Daesh previously ruled large swathes of territory, though it is now reduced to a few pockets. There is also truth in the claim that imperialism – or a subtle form of it – is taking place. Numerous foreign states have overtly or covertly had a military presence in Syria during the nine-year conflict; the US, for example, has built military bases and its forces have even taken control of the oil fields in the eastern province of Deir Ez-Zor.
There are two primary issues with the worldview of the axis, though, which renders it more or less impotent. The first is that it is stuck rather pitifully in the past over the issue of imperialism. While the US and Western powers — among others — do have a military presence in the region, it can hardly be compared to direct colonial rule as was seen in the 19th and 20th centuries, until Middle Eastern states started to gain independence.
It is, of course, naive to suggest that there are no covert Western attempts to change the regional status quo, but to compare this era of the nation-state with that of British protectorates or French mandates is equally naive. Much like the contemporary political left which refuses to acknowledge that we no longer live in a time when factory workers lack basic rights, or black US citizens lack full civil rights, the worldview of the Axis of Resistance is trapped in a past where the charismatic Arab demagogues overthrew archaic monarchies to nationalise their industries.
The second issue is the inherently contradictory nature of the axis, in which it seems to oppose revolutions and rebellions against “sovereign states” such as Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria and Iran’s own government, while labelling any dissidents and opposition figures as terrorists planted by foreign powers. Yet when it comes to other internationally-recognised foreign states in the region, it disregards those same principles and backs opposition and separatist movements within those countries; we have only to look at Yemen and the Houthis to see an example of this.
If there was to be a revolution in currently-stable countries such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia, it would be more than likely that Iran would back the opposition movements, if it was not actually behind them in the first place. Signs of this can already be seen in Iran’s likely involvement in the drone attack on the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia last year, as well as Iranian support for the Shia populations in the Gulf States, who have caused unrest in eastern Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain over recent years.
The axis opposition to revolution is only reserved for the “right” regimes and dictators, whereas those it deems to be enemies of the “resistance” are the “wrong” types and thus liable to be overthrown. This represents nothing more than a foreign policy based on national interest on Iran’s part and a common interest among the axis states as a whole, with the principle of respecting sovereign states to be used interchangeably depending on who is deemed to be an ally and who is a rival.
Such a dichotomy is, essentially, political realism in its rawest form. It should also come as no surprise, as the very constitution of Iran cites in Article 2 that the Republic’s role is to focus on “ensuring the continuity of Islamic revolution” both at home and abroad. This ideology of global revolution is expanded on in Article 154: “Whilst scrupulously refraining from all forms of interference in the internal affairs of other nations, it supports the struggle of the mustad‘afín [the helpless/oppressed] against the mustakbirín [the arrogant/oppressors] for their rights in every corner of the globe”.
The loose coalition of state actors and proxies known as the “Axis of Resistance” – as well as their sympathetic activists in the West – has until now proven to be the flag-bearer of a mindset not yet mature enough to detach itself from the political climate of the mid-20th century. Despite its recognition of foreign interference in the region, it has proven to be hypocritical in its opposition to imperialism and colonialism. Indeed, if it were truly “anti-imperialist”, its member states might care to consider demolishing their own borders created by the European imperialists themselves.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.