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Has the Axis of Resistance finally found the ‘road to Jerusalem’?

January 7, 2024 at 4:05 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 22, 2023 [BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images]

Much attention has surrounded the ‘Axis of Resistance’ over the years, with many anticipating the actions of that loose coalition of movements, militias, and states united in their claimed opposition to the West and its allies in the Middle East. The Axis’s slogans have been grand, its parades and shows of force have been assertive, and its rhetoric has been some of the most effective in the history of the world’s contemporary anti-Western movements.

The actions of the Axis have hardly ever been as effective, however, making that coalition notorious for ‘talking the talk, but not walking the walk’. Iran and its proxy groups such as Hezbollah and those in Iraq do, after all, threaten the destruction of Israel or the pushing out of American forces from the region on an almost monthly basis.

When Palestinian resistance group Hamas – a movement on the periphery but not a direct part of the ‘Axis’ – launched its operation into Israeli territory surrounding the besieged Gaza Strip on 7 October, then, there were fears that both Iran and Hezbollah, or at least one, would take action to support Hamas against the predictable Israeli response of all-out bombardment.

Yet no such thing happened, and the only support that took place was the firing of a number of rockets into northern Israel by Hezbollah, and the striking of minor targets like a telecommunications tower and farmland.

That, and what we have seen since the beginning of Israel’s assault on Gaza, was far from the coordinated response and war against the Zionist state that many expected of the Axis.

Most recently, Israel’s assassination of Hamas deputy Saleh al-Arouri in a strike on southern Beirut earlier this month also failed to provoke a devastating response by Hezbollah, culminating only in a speech by the movement’s leader Hassan Nasrallah insisting that it is not afraid of war. He took care not to declare any direct confrontation against Israel, of course, like many of his usual and much-anticipated speeches.

It may also be connected to what some have pointed out to be somewhat of an understanding between Hezbollah and Israel: occupation forces apparently took care not to hit any Hezbollah targets during the strike, refraining from actively escalating enmities with the group.

That may simply be a perfectly innocent and logical effort by Hezbollah and its leadership to not become needlessly dragged into a conflict, but it further proves a lack of coordination and interoperability between the various forces that make up the Axis of Resistance, even for those within such close proximity to its claimed target of the Zionist state.

READ: On relations between the Palestinian resistance and Iran

Indeed, reports stated that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Hamas’s head Ismail Haniyeh at a meeting in Tehran in early November that Iran and its proxies would not enter the war to assist Hamas, due to the group’s lack of warning or mention to Tehran of the plans for the 7 October operation. Aside from moral and political support, there will apparently be no military support.

If such reports are true, then it rules out the likelihood of Iran and its direct regional proxies entering a regional war against Israel. Aside from the Iran-led bloc of the Axis of Resistance, the coalition’s other broad ‘factions’ – Russia and its proxies, as well as Venezuela – also do not militarily support Hamas or any other Palestinian resistance groups.

One may point out the fact that a multitude of groups and militias across the region are taking some action, especially against American military bases in Iraq and Syria. Yet those groups – although their establishment and prosperity has been supported by and linked to Tehran – are not entirely dependent on the Shia Islamic Republic.

Some militias under Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), for example, maintain a level of operational autonomy, causing Iran to claim that it is helpless in restraining their hands despite its great influence over them. Even those militias, though, have taken the same line of a sort of light-hearted resistance, intermittently launching a number of strikes on US military bases in Iraq and Syria, all of which have had minimal effect and caused no serious damage and casualties.

An exception to that pattern seems to have emerged in recent months, however, with the actions being carried out by Yemen’s Houthi militia – one of those backed but not directly controlled by Iran. The Houthis have taken it upon themselves to intercept and seize vessels allegedly linked to Israel that are passing by the Bab al-Mandeb strait into the Red Sea, in what the Houthi authorities say is a direct effort to impact trade to Israel and apply pressure on the occupation to cease its war on Gaza.

So far, those moves have made some considerable impact on the major trade route, forcing shipping firms to use the alternative, costlier, and far longer route around Africa and through the Mediterranean. It has sparked the creation of a ‘global’ naval coalition – or Operation Prosperity Guardian – aiming to stem the Houthi threat and protect the shipping lanes, culminating so far in the US military’s striking and sinking of Houthi boats that were attempting to attack some vessels.

There are now growing fears that the confrontations between the Houthis and foreign naval forces could spark the much-anticipated regional conflict that many have feared since the invasion of Gaza.

READ: The Suez Canal is being attacked by the Houthis by default

In the old days, naval powers could simply deploy a warship or fleet to the coast of a troubled area and bombard the coastal town or city into submission while imposing a blockade, as the Americans did along the North African coast during the Barbary wars or as the British did on the Somali and East African coastlines during the late 19th century. The dynamics are far different today, however, and such a strategy would fail to work against the Houthis who possess some missile technology, utilise drone warfare, control large strategic swathes of Yemeni territory, have the country’s vast interior to fall back on, and are backed by the regional force that is Iran.

If there was to be a concerted and serious naval operation against the Houthis and their maritime activities, it would seemingly have to be joined by a campaign of airstrikes on Houthi targets inland and the conducting of some ground operation – whether covert or overt. That in itself would drag Western nations and any state involved in the naval coalition into a direct war with the Iran-backed rebel group, and would also likely result in confrontations with other Iran-backed proxies in the wider region.

It is a potential disaster that no one looks forward to, especially amid the progress in diplomatic negotiations for prisoner exchanges and the potential steps toward a political solution to the Yemeni conflict throughout the past year. Yet limited strikes on Houthi boats and militiamen – as took place at the beginning of this month in the killing of ten Houthi fighters – is hardly a long-term strategy on the part of the US and its allies.

Regardless of how a confrontation between the coalition and the Houthis develops, it is clear that the Yemeni rebel group has been making enough of an impact and threat to global trade to warrant a serious – although so far underwhelming – international response. It remains practically the only front in the Axis that is currently putting up somewhat of a resistance against Israel, though, apart from Hamas, which itself not wholly part of the Iran-backed Axis but is largely affiliated with it out of necessity.

Despite the assertive moves taken by the Houthis, they mostly remain a disruptive force in the region, and without real coordinated action and interoperability between the Axis’s fronts, even the Houthis’ aggressiveness will have no great impact.

The truth of the matter is that the ‘Axis of Resistance’ is really still struggling to cement its claimed role as the patron of the Palestinian cause, and many still hold significant distrust towards it, aside from Shia-majority centres and diaspora, as well as far-left activists and newcomers to the Palestinian cause.

The ‘road to Jerusalem’ continues to be a long one for the Axis, and seems to pass through endless detours and diversions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Perhaps it has lost its way.

READ: The Houthis are turning the tables on everyone

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.