The recent wave of Arab uprisings delivered a powerful blow against the status quo in the Middle East. Old authoritarian regimes were brought down, putting internal and international pressure upon the “old guards” and the region’s preexisting political alliances, with potentially dramatic long-term consequences.
The uprisings particularly impact the so-called “Radical Axis”: a geostrategic political alliance led by Iran that also encompasses the Assad regime in Syria as well as powerful nonstate groups like Hezbollah and to a lesser degree Hamas. In recent years, this alliance has been under intense regional and international scrutiny, specifically because of its role in boosting the influence of Iran. Indeed, the axis has provided members like Iran with a better mechanism for coping with their isolation as they face internal threats and external pressures. The political coalition has also increased the influence of axis members in the region and boosted their role in shaping the Arab-Israeli conflict.
United by a common project—fighting Israel and reducing the U.S. role and status in the region—this coalition operates more on the basis of shared political interests and cost-benefit calculations than simply as a byproduct of their ideology of resistance. As a result, the internal strength and cohesion of the axis is not fixed, and it responds to shifts in the security and political environment.
The Arab Spring, by shaking up the political arena in the Middle East, has also undermined the effectiveness and unity of the Radical Axis.
The axis alliance is suffering from prolonged internal strife within Syria. The Alawite-minority regime has traditionally served as the connecting link between different members of the axis, so a destabilized Syria is bad news for all the parties of the coalition. In the event of prolonged and dire strife there—eventually escalating to a full civil war—it is questionable whether Syria would be able to continue performing some of its axis functions, including protecting Hamas’s political bureau, backing Hezbollah and its political allies, and guaranteeing a free flow of Syrian and Iranian weapons to its Lebanese protégé.
Both Hezbollah and Iran fear the potential spillover of internal violence within Syria. The Lebanese Shiite group is witnessing an escalation of its political opposition, headed by the Sunni community and the “Future Movement” party. Iran, on the other hand, is worried about Hezbollah’s domestic challenges and fears that the Syrian upheaval will rekindle the anti-regime “Green Movement.” And a post-Assad government could very well lead Syria out of the axis altogether, shifting closer to the Sunni camp and its current leader Saudi Arabia.
The violence in Syria also has tarnished the axis’s overall cohesion. The current posture of Hamas is the most prominent example of this interesting byproduct of the Arab Spring. Since the beginning of the civil strife in Syria, Hamas has been careful to refrain from both publicly endorsing or openly criticizing the Assad regime. This uncommitted approach, however, together with the recurrent (and quickly denied) reports that Hamas’s political bureau is looking for an alternative country for its headquarters, led to criticism from within the axis.
The Syrian regime reacted to the lack of support from Hamas by expressing displeasure with the group. Iranians are also critical of Hamas’s lack of “camaraderie,” with news reports suggesting that Tehran recently threatened to withdraw some of its cash and weapons transfers to the group if Hamas did not redress its lack of solidarity with the Assad regime.
It’s hard to estimate the extent of these tensions, but it appears that the ongoing turmoil in Syria has been undermining the unity of the axis alliance. What’s more, even loyal allies of the Alawite regime such as Hezbollah and Iran have been alternating statements of unequivocal support for the regime with recognition of the importance of reforms. They have been trying to prepare for a post-Assad Syria by moderating their criticism of the political opposition. (Iranian diplomats, for example, have reportedly met with the anti-Assad opposition in Damascus.) Although these attempts have been mostly cosmetic measures to soften their unconditional support of Assad, and despite opposition groups remaining skeptical about the axis, it is significant that both Hezbollah and Iran have been preparing for the potential collapse of their local ally.
Iran itself has become weaker. In the first stages of the Arab Spring, Iran portrayed the riots as an achievement of the Islamic Revolution, interpreting the unrest as a golden opportunity to weaken the "Moderate-Sunni Front." But in reality, the upheaval has the potential to enhance the rift between the Iranian regime and civil society, exposing the regime's central weakness. This fear of future internal crisis could in turn lead Iran to devote more energy to domestic problems, potentially damaging Iran’s effectiveness and reliability in the eyes of its axis allies. The regime, increasingly focused on internal legitimacy and stability, may find that public support is waning for continued aid to Hezbollah and Syria.
The Arab Spring will continue to impact preexisting geostrategic regional alliances, like the Radical Axis, by undermining overall strength and internal cohesion. In the short term, the upheaval in Syria will enhance this trend, spelling more troubles for the axis. If Syria continues to weaken, Iran's ability to project its power will also decline—though Iran still may try to play a role in post-U.S. Iraq to compensate for the perceived loss of Syria. But in the longer term, the possibility of a regime change in Syria could jeopardize the viability of the axis as we know it.
Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the coauthor of Hamas and Hezbollah: a Comparative Study (John Hopkins University Press, 2012). Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former member of Israel's National Security Council.