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The Axis of Destabilization of the Middle East

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks against America, U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage characterized Hizballah as the “A-team” of terrorism and stated that “if Hezbollah is the A-team, Iran is the team owner and Syria is the coach.” 
It seems now that his unusual remark at the height of al-Qaeda’s reputation as the worst terrorist organization in history comes finally true: the three old allies, joined by Hamas, the relatively newer member of this ‘axis of destabilization,’ are threatening to provoke a major deflagration in the Middle East, a war that will eventually involve Syria and Iran.

Throughout its twenty-five-years history, Hizballah has demonstrated that it is an ideologically driven movement with strong leaders, a clear vision of its strategic goals, and extensive experience in terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Its leadership, under the guidance of the charismatic Hassan Nasrallah, is convinced of the righteousness of the organization’s aspirations and terrorist methods. The perceived victories of the Islamist cause during these two-and-a-half decades – victories in which Hizballah was an active participant – only reinforced this conviction. In particular, the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 instilled the organization with an almost messianic assurance that it would achieve final victory over its enemies.

A year ago this author wrote in an article published by the Italian geopolitical journal Limes that if pressed to disarm, Hizballah’s strategy may be to try to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process and the withdrawal from Gaza by staging, under Palestinian cover, a major terrorist attack in Israel or to support a Syrian move, or even take the initiative, for internal destabilization of Lebanon through terrorism. He also evaluated that as the crisis concerning the nuclearization of Iran is approaching a critical moment and in case the negotiations between the US and Europe and Iran fail, Hizballah could be used to provoke a regional crisis at Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

Indeed, the last months a convergence of vital strategic and political factors is leading the region to a major crisis.

The Hamas leadership, and its three axis allies, were afraid that the Palestinian terrorist organization would be divested of its victory at the January 2006 elections or perhaps even constrained to change Hamas’ ideological doctrine and recognize Israel and the Oslo agreements by accepting the “the prisoners’ document”. It is significant that the Hamas guerrilla operation in Israeli territory with the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier (well prepared operationally according to a known Hizballah pattern), happened one day before the signing of this document by the chairman of the PA Abu Mazen and the internal Hamas leadership, and was orchestrated by the external Hamas leadership from Damascus, specifically the secretary-general Khaled Mashal, known as the direct coordinator with and the recipient of Tehran’s financial support to the organization.

At the same time the issue of Iran’s nuclearization reached its apex moment after president Bush made a significant compromise by his last proposals to Iran and the Iranian regime was pressed to give a clear answer that it accepts to stop its nuclear project close to the G8 meeting of July 15.

It is therefore not a coincidence that the Hizballah intervention in the conflict on July 12 came days before the G8 meeting and at the moment its ally Hamas seemed to be in a difficult military situation after the Israeli ground forces penetrated Gaza and threatened its control of the Palestinian Authority government.

It was very important for Hizballah to support militarily Hamas on the issue of Israeli prisoners, an issue on which it has its own stakes and a very aggressive strategy. Moreover, from Hizballah’s point of view, as often expressed by Hassan Nasrallah and the spiritual leader Sheikh Fadlallah, the organization “stands or falls on the Palestinian issue.” A victory of the moderates in the Palestinian camp and a peace agreement with Israel would destroy its hopes of radicalization and Islamization of Lebanon.

Hizballah was strengthened in its decision to stage the attacks on Israel by the feeling that the Western pressure on it diluted these last months and in spite of resolution 1559 Hizballah not only did not disarm but resulted strengthened after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the May 2005 Lebanese elections which permitted it to sit for the first time in the Lebanese government.

In this situation Syria has a pivotal role. Syria – not Iran – has been the most important source of support for Hizballah’s terrorist and guerrilla activity against Israel from the north. Without Syria’s help – in the form of an overall strategic umbrella; specific military and political coordination; and pressure on Beirut to give the organization free rein in southern Lebanon – Hizballah could not have achieved its current status. Indeed, Syrian aid in heavy weaponry beside the Iranian one has effectively transformed Hizballah into a strategic partner and operational arm of the Syrian army.

The Syrian president Bashar al-Asad also seemed more comfortable the last months as regards the pressure from the US and the West on his regime: the UN investigating commission diluted its former aggressive approach to Syria’s responsibility in the Hariri assassination; the US, French and Israeli establishments expressed growing concerns that a change of regime in Syria could bring the Muslim Brothers to power in Syria and Israeli leaders claimed publicly they would prefer a weak Bashar in power.

This explains the support Bashar gave Khaled Mashal to manage openly the Hamas aggressive strategy from Damascus. This also explains the continuing support to the Hizballah adventurous move. From the Syrian point of view the Hizballah military attacks, the impotence of the Lebanese government and the Israeli intervention in the heart of the Lebanese territory would help advance the Syrian argument that only Syria and Syrian occupation can guarantee the stability of Lebanon.

It is of note that in mid-June Syria and Iran signed a very extensive strategic military agreement by which, as reported by an Arab newspaper “Iran has agreed to finance Syrian military deals with Russia, China and Ukraine, to equip the Syrian army with cannon, warheads, army vehicles, and missiles manufactured by the Iranian Defense Industries, and to enable Syrian navy drills.” The Syrian defense minister stated that the two countries examined “ways of countering” American threats against Iran and Syria and “establishing a joint front against Israel’s threats… [since] Iran regards Syria’s security as its own.” On July 14 the Iranian president Ahmedinajad declared that any attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran and be responded with utmost force.

In retrospective, Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from South Lebanon and Gaza proved to be major strategic errors, because they were not implemented by agreements with moderate and strong partners which could ensure the stability of the peace process, and were seen by the members of the destabilization axis as Israeli military, political and psychological defeats. Moreover, Israel was deterred for years by Hizballah and did not challenge its continuous attacks on Israeli territory and sovereignty and more so did not challenge the significant intervention by this organization and Syria in the Palestinian terrorist activity. The present Israeli leaders, prime minister Ehud Olmert and defence minister Amir Peretz are probably perceived as “lame ducks” compared with the previous Israeli premiers with rich military backgrounds.

It can be therefore evaluated that the escalation on Israel’s borders, set off by elements supported by Iran – Hamas, Hizballah and Syria – is meant to take the pressure off Iran by triggering a major military clash in the Middle East, which will divert international attention from Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time it serves the major strategic interests of the other three actors.

Specifically, the Hizballah intervention in the conflict at this moment, prepared strategically by Iran during the last six years by arming it with long range artillery and rockets, is meant to give a clear signal to the US, the West and Israel what would happen if serious international sanctions would be decided against Iran or if Iran’s nuclear facilities would be destroyed by an U.S. or Israeli attack. 


The present crisis, which according to some scenarios could lead to an expanded war involving Syria, should give an idea of how the Middle East could look if Iran achieves a nuclear umbrella to cover its destabilizing “revolutionary” role in the Muslim world.

Three strategic goals should guide the international community:

1.To stop the Iranian nuclear project at all costs
2.To neutralize the very negative role of Syria in the region and to put maximum pressure on its regime, which should be the focal point at this stage due to its central position in the destabilization of the Palestinian and Lebanese arenas
3.Not permit the victory of Hizballah and Hamas on their respective arenas, with the risk of seeing this as a signal of weakness of the moderate forces in the region and a bust to all radical Islamist movements globally

For further reference please see “The Middle East Crisis – Local, Regional, and Global; Conventional and Nuclear”, Memri, July, 21, 2006