The mythology of a Mideast ‘Axis of Resistance’

Axis of Resistance

First published at Their Anti-imperialism and Ours.

Following the Israeli bombing of Iran’s Syrian consulate in April, Iran responded with a drone and missile attack on Israel with 72 hours notice, to ensure Israel and its allies were in place to shoot them all down. This highly choreographed response aimed to show the regime was both able and willing to stand up to Israel, but also able to act responsibly to avoid escalation. Iran’s UN mission then announced: 

“Conducted on the strength of Article 51 of the UN Charter pertaining to legitimate defense, Iran’s military action was in response to the Zionist regime’s aggression against our diplomatic premises in Damascus; the matter can be deemed concluded.”

This was a clear message to the US and Israel that Iran has no interest in escalation. What was missed in most commentary was that it was also a clear message to Palestine: that despite decades of bluster about “destroying Israel,” in reality Iran acts to look after itself. Indeed, over the weekend that these theatrical fireworks were taking place, the death toll from Israel’s Gaza massacre increased by 160, but was barely news, while Zionist gangs launched one of their largest attacks on the West Bank for years.

Israel’s counter-strike was insignificant enough to allow Iran to see it as minor and thus end the cycle, while also acting as a warning of what could be in store if “matters” continued, with the strike close to Iran’s nuclear facilities. This all suggested that for Israel, too, matters were “concluded.”

But while for Israel and Iran that matter was “concluded,” in contrast “matters” have recently escalated on the Lebanese border, with Israel – or at least the Netanyahu regime – apparently gunning for escalation. While heads cooler than the bluster may well prevail on both sides, Israel’s aim would not appear to be to throw itself into a two-front war, but rather to try to draw the US into the conflict on its side, to enable it to complete its Gaza genocide under the cover of a much larger global crisis, something the Biden administration does not appear to be keen on happening. 

Regardless, the somewhat different trajectories of the Iran incident and the south Lebanon situation both point to the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’, which has for decades been purported to exist around Iran’s theocratic dictatorship. These Muslim or Arab states and movements allegedly were more ‘resistant’ to Israel and US imperialism than ‘non-resistant’ (or ‘accommodationist’) states. Who are members of this alleged ‘Axis’, what have they done in relation to the Gaza genocide, are they in fact more resistant, and if not, what is behind the rhetoric?

Introductory Section

Who are alleged members of the ‘Axis of Resistance’?     

The ‘Axis of Resistance’ usually refers to:

  • the Shiite-theocratic dictatorship in Iran
  • the Hezbollah militia based among southern Lebanon’s Shiite population
  • Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias operating in Iraq and Syria
  • the Zaydi-Shiite Houthis in Yemen

In a looser sense, the ‘Axis’ is sometimes said to also include:

  • the Shiite-dominated Iraqi regime – the umbrella grouping of Iraqi Shiite militia, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), is officially part of the Iraqi armed forces, reducing the ‘space’ between regime and militia; yet the regime remains a US-Iran joint-venture (itself a challenge to the existence of any real ‘camps’), an official out-of-area ‘NATO-partner’ 
  • the Iran-backed, Alawi-led (but secular) Assad dictatorship in Syria, which however has a markedly non-‘resistant’ history, has slaughtered its own Palestinians, has strong relations with various ‘non-resistant’ Arab regimes, and the backing of Russia, which has strong relations with Israel and is anything but ‘resistant’ on Palestine
  • more shakily the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, despite the mutual hostility between Hamas and the Assad regime; and despite the fact that Hamas is the only alleged ‘Axis’ member with a Sunni-Islamist identity, with strong ties to a different group of states (Turkey and Qatar) and the regional (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood (MB); Palestine being under occupation, Hamas is the only alleged ‘Axis’ member that actually “resists” Israel by definition (regardless of one’s views of Hamas and its actions).

Being capitalist regimes which suppress their working people as violently as do their ‘non-resistant’ neighbours, obvious questions arising are “why would they be more resistant to Zionism and US imperialism, or interested in the liberation of Palestine, or of anyone?;” “are they in fact more resistant, or is it just bluster?,” leading to, “then why the bluster?”

Test for the ‘Axis’: Israel’s Gaza genocide

These questions have always been entirely theoretical. Every Israeli war against the Palestinians since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, through all the Gaza massacre operations, has been confronted by a solid wall of Arab and Muslim regimes doing nothing, regardless of differences in rhetoric, or membership of whatever ‘resistance’ or ‘rejection’ front existed.

But even if we ignore this history, Israel’s openly declared, “textbook” case of genocide against the Palestinian people today, is an undeniable ‘test’ of the reality of an ‘Axis of Resistance’. 

So how has the ‘Resistance Axis’ reacted to the Gaza genocide? If we mean the kind of action required to help the Palestinians resist genocide, the answer is nothing. This is not meant as a demagogic critique: there are real restraints (for both ‘Axis’ and ‘non-Axis’) to doing anything major, real reasons why ‘escalation’ is not in anyone’s interests, especially if it brought the US into the war on Israel’s side. However, these dangers are not new, so the purpose of decades of ‘resistance’ bluster, now exposed as hollow, needs to be understood.

However, if we mean any action, then the record is mixed.

To summarise:

  • the states not in the ‘Axis of Resistance’, eg Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Jordan etc, including the more ‘resistant’ non-Axis states Turkey and Qatar, have done nothing to aid the Palestinians.

Reactions of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ can be differentiated thus: 

  • first, the repressive states Iran, Iraq and Syria have also done nothing, ie they have acted no differently to their ‘non-Axis’ neighbours and friends (indeed, the Assad regime reserves its attacks for the people in northwest Syria, the Golan ‘border’ quiet, while Iran has attacked targets in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan!) 
  • secondly, the Iraqi Shiite militia intensified their low-level attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria, a tit-for-tat ‘sideways’ conflict already existing independently of Gaza with different causes; and this ended in early 2024 under Iranian pressure; 
  • third, actual fronts, at a low yet significant level, have opened on the Israel-Lebanon border by Hezbollah and allies, and by Yemen’s Houthis in the Red Sea.

Any detailed discussion of what occurred on October 7 and the role of Hamas in it is outside the scope of this essay. But however one assesses that day, clearly a gruesome massacre of hundreds (itself a symptom of decades of Israeli massacre, occupation and dispossession of vastly greater numbers of Palestinians, a mass prison break in which the brutalised turned brutaliser), cannot justify an exponentially greater massacre of tens of thousands of Palestinians, a full-scale genocide. Therefore, any concrete aid, no matter how ugly some of the forces supplying it may be, would be welcome. Neither the Hezbollah nor Houthi actions have had any impact on Israel’s ability to carry out genocide, indeed are largely of a nuisance value; nevertheless the symbolic solidarity is probably appreciated by many Palestinians in contrast with the moribund passivity of all states in the region, ‘resistant’ or otherwise. 

The failure of the ‘Axis’ to act in response to genocide raises the question of whether Hamas based its decision to launch the October 7 counter-offensive, provoking Israel into this new Nakbah, on the assumption that the ‘Axis’ would join it in real action against Israel. Hamas’ military commander Mohammed Deif’s October 7 call to “Our brothers in the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, Iran, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, this is the day when your resistance unites with your people in Palestine,” suggests this. If so – and this remains unclear – such illusions were inconceivably misplaced and catastrophic for the Palestinian people.

Does any coherent ‘Axis’ alliance exist at all?

Before moving onto the main thesis explaining the ‘Axis’ mythology, a digression will be taken into the question of whether the ‘Axis’ exists as a coherent formation at all.

Iran’s Shiite fundamentalist theocracy is no more progressive than the Sunni fundamentalist theocracy partnering with the Saudi monarchy; they share, for example, top spots among the world’s leading executioners. And following decades of geopolitical-sectarian rivalry, the two recently restored diplomatic relations via Chinese mediation and have since maintained strong relations; both Iran and Saudi Arabia, alongside Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which both have relations with Israel, recently joined the BRICS alliance of imperial and sub-imperial regimes headed by Russia and China. Unclear what ‘blocs’ or ‘camps’ or ‘axes’ have to do with anything in this paragraph!

Likewise, Assad’s secular tyranny in Syria is fundamentally similar to (though vastly more repressive than) its fellow secular tyrants in Egypt and the UAE, which share not only strong friendship with the Syrian regime but also the same anti-Islamist, ‘anti-terrorist’ justification for repression; Egypt and the UAE have supplied military support or intelligence training to Assad’s regime. Yet ‘campist’ thinking would decide Syria is ‘Russia-camp’ and Egypt/UAE ‘US camp’, despite Russia’s very strong relations with both.

Syria’s Assad regime and Hamas have hated each other since Hamas supported the uprising against Assad in 2012. Hamas forces in Syria fought alongside the rebels, Hamas condemned Assad’s chemical attacks and it called Assad’s destruction of Aleppo ‘genocide’. The mutual contempt continues despite Iran pressuring them to restore relations in 2022; in August 2023, Assad accused Hamas of “treachery and hypocrisy”, falsely asserting that Hamas “waved the flag of the French occupation of Syria” (Assad meant the flag of the Syrian revolution, Syria’s independence flag). Assad’s alliance with Egypt’s al-Sisi and the UAE’s MBZ is partially built on common hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which includes Hamas and sections of the anti-Assad rebellion. The Egypt-UAE alliance with Israel has the same basis; the fact that the UAE and Bahrain restored relations with Israel and Assad in the same period further problematises ‘Axis’ mythology. Who is ‘allied’ to whom, in which ‘axis’? 

Just after October 7, Assad’s regime expelled the Houthis from Yemen’s embassy, restoring the internationally-recognised (Saudi-backed) Yemeni government, a blow to the Houthis as Syria had been the only government in the world – other than Iran – to recognise them as the Yemeni government. By contrast, Hamas in 2015 expressed support to the Saudi-backed Yemeni government against the Houthi coup, essentially supporting Saudi intervention; even the small more overtly Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) rejected Iran’s diktat to support the Houthis. Later, PIJ capitulated, while Hamas position evolved into “non-interference in the internal affairs of countries.”

To further complicate ‘campist’ interpretations, Egypt – the most ‘non-resistant’ regional state given its decades-long relations with Israel – initially adopted a pro-Houthi line, the Houthis even receiving military supplies from Cairo; the Saudis temporarily cut off oil supplies to Egypt. This is despite the Saudi and UAE role in al-Sisi’s 2013 coup against Morsi’s MB Egyptian government – Egypt’s reasoning was precisely that Islah, the Yemeni MB, is a major part of the southern anti-Houthi resistance; Egypt sees the MB as a worse enemy than Iran-backed forces. As does the UAE; indeed, despite joining the Saudi war on the Houthis in 2015, just previously the UAE had aided the Houthi takeover of Sanaa; and despite being ‘on the same side’ as Islah after the intervention, UAE operatives carried out 160 assassinations in Yemen mostly against Islah cadre! 

All these friendships, rapprochements, conflicts and contradictions listed here not only demonstrate the futility on ‘campist’ thinking generally, but also call into question whether the alleged ‘Axis’ constitutes a coherent group in any sense.

The other ‘resistant axis’? – Emerging united fronts for Palestine

Moreover, Erdogan’s Sunni-Islamist regime in Turkey, where many Hamas leaders live, is as prolific as Iran’s in terms of rhetoric, Erdogan telling a gigantic state-organised march that Hamas is a “national liberation movement”, calling for a genocide trial for Netanyahu, claiming there is “no difference between Netanyahu and Hitler” (despite maintaining significant trade with Israel!). Its ally Qatar is where the Hamas headquarters are located. Are Turkey, Qatar and the regional MB another ‘resistance axis’?

Let’s summarise some of the role of components of this ‘other axis’:

  • The population under the anti-Assad Syrian rebels in northwest Syria (which include MB-backed forces, though not only) have been constantly demonstrating in support of Gaza (much more than those under Assad’s decrepit regime);
  • An MB-aligned Sunni militia in Lebanon (Jamaa al-Islamiya) has joined its Hezbollah opponents in south Lebanon in militarily confronting Israel;
  • Jordan’s MB (Islamic Action Front Party) leads opposition mobilisations against Jordanian trucks trading with Israel and other forms of collaboration by the regime;
  • The Yemeni MB (Islah), on the frontlines resisting the Houthi siege of Taiz, is energetically pro-Gaza.

These facts demonstrate the centrality of Palestine to Mideast politics; while also making further nonsense of “Resistance Axis” and campist mythology. They also highlight the fact that different levels of action or inaction by ‘Axis’ members are connected with specific local realities in each case, rather than Iran pulling strings.


To explain the different levels of action, inaction or ‘sideways’ action within the ‘Axis’, a common theme, both in western imperialist/Zionist discourse, and pro-‘Axis’ discourse, is that Iran pulls the strings, pushing Hezbollah, the Houthis and others into action as ‘proxies’. The western/Zionist discourse casts Iran as a villain in order to delegitimise Palestinian resistance, placing a big evil state behind it; the pro-Axis discourse casts Iran as anti-imperialist liberator, rationalising its inaction by casting it as the backbone of others’ actions.

Here a different thesis will be offered.

  1. Far from pulling strings, Iran’s main role since October has been attempting to hold back the more active ‘Axis’ components to prevent ‘escalation’.
  • Each case of action (Lebanon, Yemen), inaction (Syria, Iran) or ‘sideways action’ (Iraqi militia) has been rooted in the concrete realities of each country, region and state/movement, rather than by membership of any ‘Axis’, still less due to being ‘proxies’ of Iran. For example, the back and forth relationship of Iraqi Shiite militia with the US military presence in Iraq; the existence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in southern Lebanon, and the still not fully demarcated Israel-Lebanon border, after decades of Israeli occupation; and the Houthi movement’s desperate need for legitimacy, being globally and regionally unrecognised.  
  • While all other cases of brutal repression in the region – often carried out by these allegedly ‘resistant’ forces – are of equal moral importance to Palestine, the Palestinian question maintains a certain centrality, due to the longevity of the crime against Palestine, but also because Israel, a western-established colonial-settler First World economy, is a continuation of direct colonialism in the region.
  • The connection between points 2 and 3: even enemies of ‘Axis of Resistance’ have joined the front in support of Palestine in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan etc; and their relationship to Palestine and Palestinians has been a factor in cases of both action and inaction of ‘Axis’ members, in combination with other local realities, in each case.
  • One might say: OK, but though Iran is (sensibly) restrained itself, it arms forces like Hezbollah and the Houthis who have taken some action. However, Iran, like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey etc, is a sub-imperialist power trying to cut out its ‘sphere of influence’ in the region; therefore it has supported and armed movements or states to build its sphere, regardless of their actions in relation to the US, Israel or Palestine. For example, the Assad regime and Iraqi Shiite forces have slaughtered Palestinians; the Yemen conflict where Iran armed the Houthis was unrelated to Palestine until now; Iran now arms Sudan which has recognised Israel as part of the Abraham Accords; Iran has a close relationship with Oman, a country that Netanyahu can openly visit; Iran itself invaded Iraq for six years while Israel was arming Iran! The only case that gave Iran some ‘resistance’ credentials was arming Hezbollah, which however was simply resisting actual Israeli occupation southern Lebanon, where Shiites happen to predominate.
  • What then is the purpose of the rhetoric? First, playing harder ‘anti-Zionist’ has helped Persian, Shiite Iran ideologically compete with its sub-imperial rivals in the largely Sunni Arab world; geographic distance has kept harsh rhetoric ‘safe’.
  • But just as importantly, ‘anti-imperialist’ bluster plays a homogenising role as the capitalist classes in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon mobilise certain plebeian elements to crush any genuine popular, democratic or anti-sectarian uprisings (ie, disembowelled ‘anti-imperialism’ plays a similar role to ‘socialism’ in Nazi ‘national socialism’). The decisive role played by the Iran-backed Shiite militia in crushing Iraq’s ant-sectarian uprising of 2019; of Hezbollah in crushing Lebanon’s similar anti-sectarian movement that year; of Iraqi militia, Hezbollah, Iranian ‘revolutionary’ guard and even Afghan Shiite sectarian forces in crushing Syria’s glorious uprising; of the Houthis in plunging the Yemeni Spring into civil war and Saudi intervention; alongside Iran’s crushing of its own ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ movement; have all made the region safer for Israel’s own racist, sectarian project; the victory of democratic, non-sectarian forces in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Iran etc would be a far worse threat to Israel than harsh but hollow words from ugly regimes, which only facilitate Zionist siege ideology. Not surprisingly, Israel has always preferred Arab dictators to democracy in the region.  
  • The existence of Israel in its current apartheid form is itself a factor in the continued existence of the region’s dictatorial regimes; their mutual existence if symbiotic. Not coincidentally, the Middle East contains the largest number of dictatorships since the Cold War ended, when most African, Asian and Latin American capitalist dictatorships transitioned to imperfect parliamentary systems. A victory for a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy in Palestine, the PLO program, would be anathema to the region’s dictatorships; Israel’s horrific oppression of the Arab and mostly Muslim people of Palestine provides a foreign ‘enemy’ that is useful for the region’s dictators to rationalise their repressive rule.

The essay will be divided into two sections. First, we will review what the components of the ‘Axis’ have or have not done in relation to Gaza. Following this there will be an extended analysis of each specific region/Axis component attempting to explain their actions, inaction, sideways action or rhetoric.

Section 2: Who’s doing what?

Syria’s Assad Regime: Continuity of decades of doing nothing

We might begin our review of action and inaction with Syria’s Assad regime, the most misplaced member of the ‘Axis of Resistance’.

In the first days after Israel launched its war on Gaza, “a number of mortars were launched toward northern Israel from Syria, falling in an open area” (“northern Israel” here refers to Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan region). Israel retaliated with artillery strikes. According to the Washington Post, such attacks “are widely viewed as symbolic, rarely cause damage,” and “mostly fall in open fields.” This and similar incidents later in October were attributed either to a Palestinian faction, or to Hezbollah or Iranian-backed forces, not regime forces.

Following these first rumblings, the Golan demarcation line “remains conspicuously calm compared to the Israel-Lebanon front,” according to Syria-watcher Arun Lund. The Syrian regime, according to the Lebanese al-Modon, instructed its forces in the Golan “not to engage in any hostilities, including firing bullets or shells toward Israel.” Following this, Orient Net noted “a concerted effort”  by Iranian militias, Hezbollah and allied Palestinian factions “to reduce their military presence in … the southern Syrian regions”, transferring personnel and equipment to “other fronts in the eastern region and the Badia”

In late October, the London-based Al-Quds al-Araby claimed the regime “conveyed its commitment not to expand the ongoing conflict in Gaza beyond its borders” to Russia, Iran, the UAE, Egypt and Hezbollah. Assad’s security advisor Ali Mamlouk “communicated the necessity of halting attacks” to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. On November 8, pro-opposition Syria TV reported the regime had arrested three Palestinians in Yalda, south of Damascus, for organising a protest in solidarity with Gaza by some 100 Palestinians.

In early November Russian patrols returned to the Golan. Russian troops had arrived there to enforce Assad’s victory over the southern rebels and protect Israeli occupation in 2018, a deal involving Trump, Putin, Netanyahu and Assad, whereby both Syrian rebels and Iranian-backed factions would be distanced. They had recently left due to demands of the Ukraine war; the Syrian opposition site Enab Baladi notes “Russia’s abandonment of its positions in the region left a security vacuum that Iran later exploited.” Their return aims to reinvigorate the deal and keep pro-Iranian forces away, pushed by the UAE which has close relations with Israel and Assad. According to Syria TV, “Russia perceives the regional escalation as an opportunity to reclaim its role as a guarantor of Israel’s security,” partly to maintain Israel’s neutrality on Ukraine, where it has refused to follow US pressure to arm Ukraine.

According to Syrian analyst Ibrahim Hamidi, “the Syrian regime did not publicly endorse Hamas … did not host any public meetings with representatives from the movement. Damascus has ensured that regime-held areas have remained neutral in the escalating conflict between Iran-backed Iraqi militia and US forces in Syria … there haven’t been huge demonstrations in support of Palestine and Gaza in Damascus or other government-controlled areas, in stark contrast to other Arab capitals.” This also contrasts with widespread demonstrations in support of Gaza throughout opposition-held parts of Syria, where Netanyahu’s terror in Gaza is identified with Assad’s similar destruction of Syria. Assad’s thinly veiled “resistance” rhetoric has been used as cover to step up the slaughter of opposition-controlled Idlib in the northwest, even as Idlib demonstrates for Gaza, a stunning example of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ lacking a compass. The later section of this essay will provide an analysis of the Syrian position.

Iran: Chasm between bluster and passivity bigger than ever

Now let’s look at Iran, which, like Syria, is a state which has done nothing, but as the alleged centre of the ‘Axis’, may have gained some credibility for the actions of alleged junior members in Lebanon and Yemen.

From the start, Iran has denied prior knowledge of Hamas’ October 7 action; in his first speech, Khamenei “denied Iran’s involvement three times within 90 seconds.” Both the US and Israel claim to have no knowledge of any Iranian role, US intelligence assessing that Iran was “caught by surprise.”

The International Crisis Group assesses, “neither side, the U.S. and Israel, on one hand, and Iran and the groups it supports, on the other, appears to want a major regional escalation.” Analyst Samuel Ramani cites former foreign ministry official, Qasem Mohebali, claiming escalation would “endanger the security and national interests of Iran.”

Despite Iranian leaders initially promising to back Palestinian resistance “until the liberation of Palestine and Al-Quds,” Ramani claims “the chasm between Iran’s bellicose rhetoric and relatively restrained actions,” which mirrors its past responses, “is even sharper in the current Gaza war.” In October, deputy head of the IRGC, Ali Fadavi, laughably claimed Iran would launch a missile at Haifa “without hesitation,” even fantasising that “the resistance front’s shocks against the Zionist regime will continue until this ‘cancerous tumor’ is eradicated from the world map.” Iran initially warned that an Israeli ground invasion would be a red line for ‘Axis’ responses; Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf claimed this would “open that gates of hell.” The ground invasion started late October, with no changes whatsoever from Iran or the ‘Axis’. On October 15, Iran’s UN mission more coolly admitted Iranian armed forces wouldn’t intervene unless Israel attacked Iranian interests or citizens.

[Israeli regime circles do now appear to be pushing for escalation; they believe provoking Iran into a military response might draw the US in against Iran. This is not because Israel fears Iran – the laughable Iran bogey merely homogenising propaganda for the Zionist regime – but because a region-wide conflagration would provide cover for Israel to complete its genocidal aims in Gaza and the West Bank. More cautious Israeli circles are on the same page as the US and Iran on this question, but some extremely provocative Israeli actions – eg the April attack on Iran’s consulate in Syria – indicate the option remains on the table.]

Iran has sought to use the October 7 atrocities and Hamas’ lack of warning to justify inaction in the face of genocide following decades of “destroy Israel” bluster. Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian implicitly criticised Hamas, stating “Iran has never approved the killing of civilians” despite “our political support” for Palestinian liberation. A manifesto by Iranian religious scholars in October condemned killing of civilians by both Hamas and Israel. In November, Iranian leader Ali Khameini told Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh that, since Hamas “gave us no warning, we will not enter the war on your behalf,” allegedly demanding Haniyeh silence Palestinian voices calling on Iran or Hezbollah to join the battle.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with Iran dissociating itself from atrocities against civilians (despite the stunning hypocrisy coming from the girl-killing and Assad-aiding mullahs), or from denying any role in October 7, which is undoubtedly true – just that these are mere excuses for inaction. But nor should we demagogically critique Iran’s lack of ‘escalatory’ action, which would be dangerous; but since such danger has always existed, the fact that Iran acts no differently to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria etc in the face of genocide demonstrates that decades of ‘resistance’ discourse was only ever homogenising bluster.

Moreover, it is not merely inaction: Iran has continually tried to restrain its more active allies. For example, in October, a commander of the Iraqi Shiite militia front, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), claimed Iran does not want any armed factions involved in anti-Israel action as “the damage resulting … would be far greater than its benefit.” Following a series of suspiciously precise Israeli strikes killing a dozen leading Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria in December and January, Iran’s response was to pull back the Guards from Syria to avoid getting pulled into the conflict.

Following its January attack killing 3 US troops in Jordan, the pro-Iran Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah declared it would cease targeting US forces, noting pressure from both the Iraqi regime, and from Iran,and wasn’t happy about it.” KH stated that Iran “often objects to the pressure and escalation” against US forces in Iraq and Syria. Iran had sent direct messages to KH to desist; the (likely accidental) killing of US troops was a line too far – the tit-for-tat attacks were supposed to be theatre. When the US responded by launching 85 strikes against Iraqi militia or Iranian Revolutionary Guard facilities and command centres in early February (“without aiming to decapitate the force’s leadership” by “telegraphing of the hit” in advance), Iran described this as a “strategic mistake” which will “increase tensions” in the region, “a threat to regional and international peace and security” which doesn’t address “the roots of the tension.” Not much room for “death to America” here!

Iranian pressure worked; there have been no further attacks by Iran-backed Iraqi militia on US forces since early February.

Reports likewise suggest that Iran has counselled restraint on Hezbollah. According to the Washington Post, one Hezbollah member summarised Tehran’s message as “we are not keen on giving … Netanyahu any reason to launch a wider war on Lebanon or anywhere else.” When the idea arose in January that the Hezbollah-Israel confrontations might lead to border demarcation talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian responded that “it is a domestic thing for Lebanese. We are not going to have any kind of interference.” There is also evidence that Iran is apprehensive about the scope of Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, in particular given its impacts on two key allies and trading partners, India and China, not to mention the fact that Houthi strikes even hit a ship bringing food to Iran.

Just pragmatism? Fine, but Iran and its allies had no such qualms for a decade slaughtering Syrian civilians for Assad’s genocide-regime. The contrast with its total inaction regarding its “great enemy” Israel during the current genocide is stunning. Meanwhile, we get an idea of these uses of “resistance” bluster as the Iranian regime used the cover of Gaza to execute 176 prisoners in just the two months following October 7. Moreover, Iran has shown that it can be very non-pragmatic regarding attacking virtually any country other than Israel.

‘Resistance’: Iran uses wonky compass to attack Iraq, Syria and Pakistan!

Somewhat comically, Iran’s statement on the January US attacks on Iraqi militia called them a “violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria,” despite having just launched attacks on three of its neighbours, none with any relation to Israel or Gaza.

On January 15-16, Iran attacked sites in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. In Syria, it claimed it hit ‘ISIS’ in Idlib, in response to the ISIS terrorist attack killing 100 Iranians on January 3; in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, it claimed it hit a ‘Mossad base’; and in Pakistan a site controlled by a Baloch militant organisation, Jaish al-Adl, which has carried out attacks in Iran’s oppressed Baloch region.

The reality was all quite different. The Syria attack – the first time Iran had attacked Syria with long-range missiles from its own territory – had nothing to do with ‘ISIS’. According to Enab Baladi, the Iranian missiles “fell in the village of Taltita in the northern countryside of Idlib, resulting in the destruction of a building formerly used as a medical point.” Here is a video of the site. According to the White Helmets, the building had been out of service for some time, and the attack only caused minor injuries to two civilians. The last militia in control of the area was the Turkistan Islamic Party (which had long abandoned it), which has nothing to do with ISIS; there has been no ISIS in opposition-controlled Idlib since the Syrian rebels drove ISIS out of Idlib, and all of western Syria, in early 2014 (during which time the Assad regime bombed the rebels, not ISIS). Naturally the Assad regime did not object to Iran’s attack, but regime air defences were triggered, indicating Iran did not even inform it.

The attack on Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, was on the personal property of Iraqi Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dizayee, not a ‘Mossad base’. The strike killed Dizayee, his baby daughter, a visitor, and a housekeeper. Both Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdish authority rejected the assertion a Mossad base was there. The Iraqi regime – dominated by pro-Iran Shiite parties – condemned the attack, withdrew its ambassador from Iran, and filed a complaint with the UN Security Council. The Arab League also condemned the attack, supporting Iraq’s “legitimate right to affirm respect for its security and sovereignty.”

The attack on Pakistan may have hit Jaish al-Adl; Pakistan claims it killed two children, injured three others, and struck a mosque; Pakistan responded with a mirror-image attack on Iran targeting another Baloch militant organisation, the Baloch Liberation Army, which operates inside Pakistan’s oppressed Baloch region! Iran claimed the Pakistani strike also killed civilians. Iranian and Pakistani leaders then kissed and made up, stressed “brotherly relations,” and promised to better coordinate with each other to keep the oppressed Baloch people under their jackboot.

The point here is that, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Iran is a sub-imperial capitalist power trying to cut out its own area of regional dominance, prepared to use violence against its neighbours, while protesting when they or their allies cop the same, just not much interested in using violence against the Zionist regime. Decades of ‘anti-Zionist’ bluster however can be useful in justifying attacks on its weaker neighbours.

Iran-backed Iraqi militia: ‘Sideways’ tit-for-tat with US bases escalates, and ends

The array of Iranian-backed Iraqi-Shiite armed militia, operating in Iraq and Syria, mostly arose following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (though some descended from long-term Iranian-backed groups opposing to Saddam Hussein); initially many were in league with the US-installed occupation authorities.

These militia later fought a brutal sectarian war against the Iraqi Sunni population, which was part responsible for the rise of ISIS from al-Qaida in Iraq, which also carried out numerous crimes against the Shiite population. When US troops returned to fight ISIS in mid-2014, they were once again allied with these Iran-backed militia. Meanwhile, as thousands of Iraqi Shiite militia poured into Syria to support to Assad’s dictatorship, the US began bombing ISIS there too in 2014, but in Syria the main US ally was the Kurdish-led, leftist Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But once ISIS was defeated, the US-Iran arrangement turned into rivalry, leading to low-level attacks and counter-attacks between US forces and Iraqi Shiite militia in Iraq and eastern Syria.

The Iraqi militia justified the significant upturn in the number of attacks on US bases in late 2023 as punishment for US support to Israel’s Gaza genocide, but the tit-for-tat game already existing was unelated to Palestine previously. This helps explain why, until the probably mistaken killing of 3 US troops in Jordan in early February, these strikes and counterstrikes had remained non-lethal and well-calibrated on both sides, the US responding “with relative restraint, launching a handful of punitive airstrikes, without apparent effect.”

Interviews with various militia leaders by al-Monitor in late October revealed “anger with Hamas over starting a unilateral conflict” – similar to the annoyance expressed by Iranian leaders. At this stage, these forces were “split in the decision to target US military bases,” only three factions joining an operations room set up by the powerful Kataib Hezbollah. According to one commander, “Hamas sought to drag all factions of the resistance axis into the battle and embarrass them, but all are aware of this and they are not ready for this.” Claiming an Israeli ground invasion would be a red line (which made little difference when it came), he said that even then “we will be at the command of Hezbollah, not Hamas.” 

Kata’ib Hizbullah’s immediate announcement following the killing of three US troops – before US retaliation – that it was pausing its attacks on US forces further suggests this was unintended; yes, it was pressured by Iran and Iraq, but the particular action also crossed a line aimed at avoiding escalation. The major US reaction, attacking 86 Iraqi militia command control centres in Iraq and Syria, was considered inevitable. Factions such as Harakat al-Nujaba, which had rejected Kataib Hezbollah’s pause before the US retaliation, responded by joining the ceasefire.

Since then, all attacks have ceased; this alleged “front” is no longer. The fact that the only attack on a US base following US retaliation killed six Kurdish SDF fighters rather than US troops, further highlights that this “resistance” has little to do with Gaza, as will be discussed in the analysis section.

Hezbollah: Limited, but significant, action on Israel-Lebanon border

“Hezbollah too, was taken by surprise by Hamas’ devastating assault … its fighters were not even on alert in villages near the border … and had to be rapidly called up.” As one Hezbollah commander stated, “we woke up to a war.”

Nevertheless, unlike the Syrian and Iranian dictatorships, or the Iraqi militia’s ‘sideways’ battle, Hezbollah did begin small-scale attacks across the Israeli border from October 8, Israel initially responding at a similar level. Hezbollah “has calibrated its attacks in a way that has kept the violence largely contained to a narrow strip of territory at the border.” Andrea Tenenti, from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), said both Israel and Hezbollah “unfailingly accepted messages passed through UNIFIL in procedures designed to deescalate potentially dangerous misunderstandings.”

However, although the US has tried to persuade Israel to avoid escalation on its northern border, Israel’s responses became far bloodier: by March 2024, some 20 Israeli troops and civilians had been killed, compared to 240 Hezbollah cadre and 40 Lebanese civilians, while Israel has also devastated much agricultural land and displaced 90,000 Lebanese.

Like Iran and Iraqi militia, Hezbollah’s initial red line for more serious action was an Israeli ground invasion; yet even before that came and went, Hezbollah had swapped this to Hamas being “on its last legs.” This gave Hezbollah lots of wiggle room; a former Israeli general assessed that Israel’s alleged aim of “destroying Hamas” could take 6-8 months, and given Israel’s real aim is the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, most analysts believing “destroying Hamas” to be meaningless, this could mean forever. Randa Slim at the Middle East Institute claims “as long as Hezbollah assesses that Hamas will be able to survive Israel’s onslaught,” it will avoid opening a serious front, but “it’s not clear if this Israeli objective is achievable.”

Despite the limits of conflict, it has forced Israel to keep some of its armed forces on the northern border (though it’s unlikely some troops wouldn’t have always remained there), and Israeli civilians have had to be temporarily relocated (to hotels with swimming pools).

Hamas leader Khaled Meshal’s October 16 statement thanking Hezbollah but noting “the battle requires more” indicated frustration that Hamas’ October 7 call for “resistance” on all Israel’s borders was being ignored. According to some sources “Hamas wanted Hezbollah to strike deeper into Israel with its massive arsenal of rockets.”  

One early enigma was the absence of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Expectations were high when he finally spoke on November 3, which however merely produced a series of platitudes and “80 minutes of excuses.” Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defence minister, boasted that “no one has come to [Hamas’s] aid – neither the Iranians nor Hizbullah.”

Nasrallah also noted that Hamas had kept its October 7 attack a secret; more diplomatic than Iran or Iraqi factions, Nasrallah claimed this had ensured its success, but the statement nevertheless served the same purpose, an excuse for not using its rockets to aid Gaza.  

Hezbollah’s January attack on Israeli army headquarters in Safed in northern Israel was specific, in response to Israel’s targeted assassination first of Hamas deputy Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, and then of Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil a few days later. Israel’s targeted assassinations of Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders, many inside Syria, appear aimed either at provoking a harsh response to create escalation, or simply demonstrating the emptiness of their rhetoric.

Following this brief flare-up, things returned to normal – except for another Nasrallah speech implying an Israel-Lebanon border deal may be in the offing, indicating other possible Hezbollah objectives, as will be discussed in the analysis section below.

Then in June another more serious flare-up occurred, again provoked by Israel’s assassination of top Hezbollah commander Taleb Abdallah, the highest level Hezbollah cadre killed since the conflict began, forcing Hezbollah to respond with the largest number of rockets fired in a single day since October, and then Israeli threats to launch a full-scale invasion.

Yemen’s Houthis: Major front opens in the Red Sea

Hezbollah’s significant but restrained activity was unexpectedly overshadowed by the Houthi quasi-authorities in north Yemen, who on December 9 announced they would target commercial ships in the Red Sea bound for Israel with drone and missile strikes (though ships not connected to Israel have also been hit). As of March, some 50 ships had been attacked.

As 10 percent of world trade passes through the Suez Canal, these attacks were highly significant. Israeli shipping costs increased by 250 percent, some insurers refusing to insure their vessels; revenues of Israel’s Eilat port were cut by 85 percent. Actually, Eilat only handles some 10 percent of Israel’s foreign trade, but imports of Chinese manufactured cars, accounting for 70 percent of Israel’s EV sales, go through Eilat.

This last point makes it ironic that the Houthis announced that Russian and Chinese ships would be spared, despite their strong trade relations with Israel. Russian trade with Israel does not go through the Red Sea, so this is not an issue. Russian ships use the Red Sea to trade with Asia, and reportedly shield ships of their ally India, despite India’s strong relations with Israel. China is much more affected; until January 7 Chinese ships were still going to Eilat, but then suspended trade through the Sea; major Chinese shipping lines such as COSCO are instead sending their ships around Africa to Europe, like countless other countries. Both Russia and China have called for an end to attacks on shipping, China also calling on Iran to pressure the Houthis to stop.

Trade through the Red Sea is down 40 percent, hence the biggest impact is not on Israel directly but on the profits of global shipping, oil and other companies. The route around Africa to Europe is adding 10,000 miles onto trips, to avoid not only attack but also galloping insurance costs. Following BP’s mid-December decision to re-route around Africa, four of the five biggest shipping companies followed suit, representing 53 percent of global container trade. Here is a list of companies avoiding the Red Sea. This is also causing hold-ups in supply chains, European car companies suspending production due to shortages of parts.

While none of this is having any impact on Israel’s genocidal resolve, their significance can hardly be doubted, especially in the face of a region otherwise doing nothing.

The US, UK and several other countries assembled a fleet to protect ships from these attacks; notably, many European countries did not take part (not even Germany), nor did any Gulf states except Bahrain. The US and UK launched dozens of attacks on Houthi bases in January, and many more since, but the Houthis have continued to strike vessels, expanding their targets to US and British vessels as a result. The Houthis say they will stop their attacks when Israel ends its genocidal campaign.

Section 3: Analysis: Motivations of action, inaction or bluster from ‘Resistance Axis’ members

The following sections will provide some analysis of these differing levels of action or inaction among purported members of the ‘Resistance Axis’. Too often, this alleged ‘Axis’ is treated by mainstream and campist-left media as inherently more ‘resistant’ to Israel and US interests. Iran is either the “head of the snake” according to neocon US and Israeli analysts – motivated by the need for a large ‘enemy’ state to justify imperial warmongering – or the head of “resistance” according to left campists. These discourses treat the lesser forces as Iranian proxies; therefore, even if Iran does nothing, the actions of Hezbollah or the Houthis are Iran-directed, meaning that Iran is engaged in ‘resistance’ to Israel’s genocidal war via its various tentacles. A different analysis will be offered below, based on the motivations of different forces in relation to their specific contexts in each case.

Syria: Analysis

This analysis will again begin with the least likely ‘Axis’ member, Assad’s Syrian Baathist dictatorship. When Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in 1970, deposing a more left-wing version of the bourgeois-nationalist Baath Party, he immediately pulled back Syrian support from the Palestinian resistance in Jordan, giving them up to King Hussein’s Black September slaughter. The regime then joined Jordan and Egypt recognising UN Resolution 242, which rightly demanded Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 – West Bank, Gaza, the Syrian Golan and the Egyptian Sinai, but treated Palestinians as a mere refugee problem, with no reference to self-determination, and was therefore rejected by the Fatah leadership of the PLO (and by the previous Syrian leadership and a ‘rejection front’ of ‘radical’ Arab states). Assad’s Syria began as a member of the ‘accommodationist’ Arab front, not the alleged ‘resistant’ wing.

Of course, the ‘accommodationist’ Arab regimes wanted their own territory back, even attempting reconquest of their occupied territories in 1973. Israel defeated them, so they then focused on trying to recover their territory diplomatically. Henry Kissinger played a major role in encouraging Assad in this, with the unilateral Israel-Syria disengagement agreement of May 1974. By invading Lebanon in 1976 in support of the Phalangist rightwing in the Lebanese civil war, against the Palestinian-Muslim-leftist coalition, the Assad regime – backed by the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel – aimed to show its usefulness to regional counterrevolution. The Syrian regime’s role in the huge massacre of Palestinians at Tel al-Zataar demonstrated its total lack of any pro-Palestinian character.

In 1979 Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt, while Egypt recognised Israel and abandoned Palestine at the Camp David Accords; but having secured its southern border, Israel felt no pressure to do the same deal with Syria over the Golan; on the contrary, after these services rendered by Assad, Israel formally annexed the Golan in 1981, forcing the Syrian regime into an unfamiliar ‘resistance’ persona.

To understand the actions of the Assad dynasty (father and son), this inherent contradiction has always existed: on one hand, rightly wanting to regain its occupied territory, therefore lending its name to various ‘resistance’ blocs and allying with Iran’s mullahs; on the other, continually showing Israel and the West that it meant business and would happily betray the Earth for a Sadat moment if the Golan were returned.

The 1980s saw continual Syrian aggression against the PLO and Palestinians in Lebanon, as in its joint siege (along with Israel) of the PLO in Tripoli in 1983, and its decisive backing of the Lebanese Shiite ‘Amal’ militia which launched its year-long war in 1985-86 against the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut; followed by Syria’s participation in the US war against Iraq in 1991, in exchange for US-backed Saudi partnership in co-running Lebanon (the Taif agreement); Assad’s participation in the US “war on terror” torture “renditions” of Islamist suspects in the 2000s; and negotiations with the US and Israel over the Golan in 1999-2000 and 2009-2011. Only Israeli intransigence has kept the vile regime posing as ‘resistant’.

Following the onset of the Syrian uprising against Assad since 2011, Israel continually stated its preference for Assad to prevail against his opponents; Israeli leaders expressed appreciation of the Assad dynasty maintaining quiet on the Golan for 40 years; the Syrian opposition (which is also dedicated to recovering the Golan) never asked for Israeli support and Israel never offered it; and in 2018, Israel actively facilitated Assad’s reconquest of the south, alongside Trump and in coordination with Putin. Israel later stepped up attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah forces, which had helped rescue Assad, after Assad had reconquered much of the country, making their aid less essential, but Israel welcomed the onset of Russian terror bombing to save the regime, hoping for a Russian-dominated rather than Iranian-dominated regime. Putin and Netanyahu then met more than any other two leaders over the next half-decade, Russian-controlled air defences in Syria allowing these Israeli attacks.

When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain restored relations with the Assad regime and Israel concurrently (while Israel’s Egyptian ally had already turned pro-Assad following al-Sisi’s 2013 coup against the post-April Spring MB government), the question arose of Syria joining its allies in recognising Israel. Assad’s response noted only the Golan, avoiding mention of ‘resistance’ or Palestine: “Our position has been very clear since the beginning of the peace talks in the 1990s … We can establish normal relations with Israel only when we regain our land … Therefore, it is possible when Israel is ready, but it is not and it was never ready …  Therefore, theoretically yes, but practically, so far the answer is no.”

This history and limited motivation explains the regime’s stance now. But is there any possibility of Assad’s passivity being rewarded? Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi asks whether Assad is about to have his ‘Sadat moment’, not referring to Camp David, but to Sadat’s 1972 expulsion of Soviet troops to pave the way for his American alliance. In this case, Hamidi is referring to the Iranian forces in Syria. 

Hamidi’s speculation draws from the strong relations Syria has with various Arab states (Egypt, UAE etc) which expanded to Saudi Arabia in 2023, followed by Assad’s invitation to the Arab League conference in April, the implication being these states could replace Iran in Syrian regime ‘security’. These states are also close to Russia, Assad’s main patron. The idea involves “al-Assad preventing Tehran from using Damascus Airport for the transport of Iranian arms and dismantling Iranian military depots situated alongside the facility. In exchange, Israel would stop targeting the airport.”

Hamidi notes that “relations between the Syrian and Iranian militaries have been strained after Israel’s targeted assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders in Damascus,” including five guards on January 20. “Iranian “experts” and former officials [claim] that these assassinations could only have succeeded if Israel had infiltrated Syria’s security apparatus.” A February 1 Reuters report claims Guard leaders “had raised concerns with Syrian authorities that information leaks from within the Syrian security forces played a part in the recent lethal strikes,” suggesting an “intelligence breach.” Som alleged the breach came from Assad’s top security chief and liaison with regional Arab states, Ali Mamlouk.

However, a ‘Sadat moment’ is unlikely at present. Firstly, this would require Israel to return the Golan, but in its current triumphalist state, it does not feel pressured into returning anything, the “gift” of Assad’s passivity notwithstanding. Second, even if it were offered, the context of Israel’s Gaza genocide would not be conducive to anyone dealing with Israel at present. As such, the regime maintains its contradictory stance: keeping Iran and its allies as an implied pressure on Israel regarding its occupied territory, while ensuring they do nothing near the Golan, while strengthening its Saudi-UAE-Egyptian and Russian ties to balance Iran.

And the more support from regional reaction of all stripes the better, as reconquest of Syria’s northwest and northeast from anti-Assad forces is far more Assad’s immediate aim than the Golan. Therefore, the regime’s major ‘response’ to Gaza has been to use it as cover to turn its guns the opposite direction and intensify the ongoing massacre in the rebel-held northwest.

Iran: Analysis

What then of Iran: like Syria, its response has been to do nothing, while attempting to hold back its allies to avoid ‘escalation’. Nevertheless, even its cultivation of these forces, and its louder “anti-Zionist” rhetoric than neighbouring reactionary regimes, deserves some analysis.

In the 1979 Iranian revolution the US-backed dictatorship of the Shah was overthrown and the mullahs, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, elevated to power. Popular hatred of the US for backing the Shah’s tyranny was overwhelming; and reflecting the popular rejection of the Shah’s pro-Israel policy, the new regime handed Israel’s embassy to the PLO.

One interpretation of Iranian policy is that anti-American and anti-Zionist mass wave still impacts the reactionary regime, that “the revolution still lives” at base, keeping the ruling class in line. However, such a time has long ago passed; if anything, today the situation is reversed, popular rejection of the regime often leading to mistaken pro-Israeli views among sections of the population; state-sponsored demonstrations in support of Gaza have been modest in size (unlike the enormous gatherings of the 1980s); in one incident, Iranian football fans booed during a minute’s silence for Gaza. While Palestine may have corresponded to the feelings of the revolutionary masses, who remained in a mobilizational state for several years after 1979, the Islamist regime crushed the revolutionary masses in rivers of blood in the 1980s, so a different explanation is needed. This explanation is two-fold.

First, while the symbolism of Palestine was associated with revolution it was also used by clerical counterrevolution. Smashing the Iranian workers, women, leftists, liberals, Kurds and other oppressed nations required the mullahs using the mobilised ‘Islamist’ petty-bourgeoisie as a fascist-like weapon against the revolutionary masses; as with European fascism, to mobilise plebeian layers to do their dirty work of the bourgeoisie requires some populist ideological ‘glue’, with symbolic concessions to the masses. The ‘socialist’ element in ‘National-Socialism’ (Naziism) was entirely bogus, but by identifying ‘the Jews’ with rich capitalists stealing from ‘good German workers’ the Nazis shielded big German capital (overwhelmingly non-Jewish) while giving confused, disoriented German petty-bourgeoisie, battered by the Great Depression, the illusion they were fighting the rich and powerful while slaughtering workers and the left in street battles. For Khomeiniism, ‘anti-imperialism’ (the US as ‘Great Satan’) and the harmless quest for distant Jerusalem replace the Nazis’ ‘socialism’ as this populist glue.

The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 demonstrated how meaningless this was. Saddam Hussein’s Baathist tyranny (another anti-Israel ‘resistant’ regime) started this war by invading Iran, but from 1982 to 1988 the war became an attempted Iranian invasion of Iraq, Hussein suing for peace on the border in mid-1982. The mullahs’ six-year war, aimed at seizing the Iraqi port Basra, killing hundreds of thousands of Iranian and Iraqi workers, was pushed as a war against the US ‘Great Satan’ to ‘liberate Jerusalem’. Yet Israel was so unconcerned that it provided arms to Iran throughout the war – arms sent in trucks across Assad’s Syria and NATO-member Turkey – and openly advocated Iranian victory; the US armed both sides (US arms to Iran in the Iran-Contra Affair facilitated by Israel), wishing, according to Kissinger, for both sides to “lose.” Although the ability to mobilise vast reactionary forces has diminished, to maintain even the core of this ‘mobilised’ support still requires the bluster.    

Secondly, the virulent ‘destroy Israel’ rhetoric also became useful to the new strategy of Iran – a sub-imperial capitalism emerging from its shell – competing with regional sub-imperial rivals like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Shah regime’s point of distinction with right-wing Arab regimes was its alliance with Israel, which made it the key ally of US imperialism. But while arms and money flowed as a result, this put it at odds with the Arab world, and the potential economic inroads in the region; the new Iranian regime reversed this by becoming rhetorically “the most” anti-Israel, competing with powerful Arab regimes for regional hegemony by trying to expose their timidity (a somewhat similar process began two decades later in Turkey with Erdogan and the ‘pro-Palestinian’ AKP). Meanwhile, the fiery rhetoric could remain safe and untested due to Iran’s geographic distance from Israel.

Iran’s need for some special quality is further heightened because the dominant nation in Iran is Persian, rather than Arab, and are mostly Shiite Muslim, while the vast majority in the Arab world are Sunni. While this cannot explain everything, capitalist ruling classes base their rule on the ‘nation’ (or religious community), for ideological and economic cohesion. It was not difficult for Iran to exploit sectarian Shiite identity in the Arab world, especially given the oppression Iraq’s Shiite majority faced under Hussein and the marginalisation of the Shiite plurality in Lebanon’s sectarian system, for example. But such a limited base of support within the vast Arab world would not satisfy Iran’s expansionist capitalism; expressing a vocally radical ‘support’ for the largely Sunni Palestinians, to rhetorically outdo Sunni-majority Arab regimes, was one ‘way in’.

Israel’s virulent anti-Iranian stance can be explained in similar terms. The fact that it armed Iran while ‘revolutionary’ firebrand Khomeini was in power yet has upped ‘Iranian threat’ rhetoric as more pragmatic Iranian leaders arose since the 1990s, suggests Israel does not actually feel ‘threatened’ by Iranian bluster. Rather, the Zionist project, based on the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people, finds the presence of a powerful ‘enemy’ state, a ‘Fourth Reich’, an ‘existential threat’, a useful tool for ideological homogenisation of the Israeli working class, in the same way as Iran’s theocratic project uses ‘liberate Jerusalem’ rhetoric. In the 1980s, this was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, explaining Israel’s support to Iran, as Ariel Sharon declared; but following the US destruction of Iraq in 1991, Israel adopted Iran as its necessary demon. Once again, geographic distance means the rhetoric goes untested. Obama’s attempt to remove Iran from ‘enemy’ status via the JCPOA (Iran nuclear accord), while entirely rational from the perspective of US ruling class interests – the region’s biggest population, a great market for western capital, a regime playing its role in regional counterrevolution – was anathema to Israel’s need for a Fourth Reich.

Trump’s irrational decision to scrap the JCPOA was not motivated by US capitalist interests (except perhaps arms companies who profit from having a regional ‘enemy’) but by ideological interests similar to Israel’s – US imperialism’s use for a mythical ‘enemy’. Iran had served that purpose well since the 1979 starting point, and this corresponded to the views of Israel’s far-right Netanyahu regime which Trump was tightly allied to. But this move, leading to the reimposition of sanctions, froze Iran out of what it considered its rightful place as a major regional capitalist power, reincentivising ‘resistance’ rhetoric.

This double edge – fiery anti-Zionist rhetoric and safe geographic distance – is key to understanding Iran’s alleged ‘resistance’ role till today. But distance is an insufficient excuse when the Zionist regime conducts genocide; the question arises of what decades of fiery rhetoric were actually about. Hence both continual attempts to ‘avoid escalation’ while basking in credit by association for the actions of others – which, however, are rooted in their local realities. This puts a capitalist state – which has no interest in confronting imperialism, which rather wants its “rightful” place in the regional capitalist order recognised, but which does not wish to see its ‘credibility’ vanish – in quite a contradictory position.              

Within this general scenario, there are also some specific factors in the current period which have encouraged Iran’s do-nothing approach.

First, while Biden’s attempts to restore the JCPOA were half-hearted, the US imperial interest in restoring some kind of working relationship with Iran in the interests of capitalist business and ‘stability’ remained. Over the year before October, the US and Iran had engaged in quiet negotiations for an ‘Iran deal lite’. In early August, they reached a deal for the US to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues (which the US had been preventing international banks from transferring to Iran) in exchange for Iran freeing five detained Americans.

According to the New York Times, “attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria diminished significantly” following the deal. The Economist reported that, in the half-year before October 7th, Iran “cut by two-thirds production of uranium enriched to 60% u-235,” stopped “harassing American shipping in the Strait of Hormuz” and “discourage[d] proxy attacks on American targets.” The US “turned a blind eye to trade in Iranian oil, which it subjects to sanctions,” Iranian oil exports soaring “from 300,000 barrels a day (b/d) in 2022 to more than 1.2m b/d today.”

However, following October 7, the US has withheld the $6 billion it agreed for Iran to access, implying Iran was responsible for Hamas’ action; despite since claiming to have no evidence of Iranian involvement, the funds have not been released. On the other hand, in November the US allowed Iraq to transfer $10 billion it owed Iran in electricity payments in another sanctions waiver. According to The Economist, this was a reward to Iran for holding back its proxies after Hamas’s attack. Clearly, Iran has an interest in continuing along this track.

Secondly, in the year preceding October 7, Iran had re-established ties with long-term regional rival Saudi Arabia, under Chinese auspices. Both remain committed to détente, the first meeting of the Saudi-Chinese-Iranian Tripartite Joint Committee taking place in Beijing in December at which both delegations “pledg[ed] their commitment to implementing the Beijing Agreement.” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s first visit to Riyadh was in November. Iran therefore has less incentive to ‘expose’ Saudi Arabia on Palestine, indeed, escalation may threaten relations, especially if it impacts their new arrangements in Yemen (ceasefire), Syria (Saudi recognition of Assad), Lebanon or Iraq.

The Gaza genocide also means the rhetorical Saudi position is ‘harder’ on Israel. While western leaders entertain the idea of Saudi Arabia replicating its Iran détente with Israel, Saudi leaders emphasise this can only happen if a sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital is established; the Saudis forcefully re-stated this in February following US hinting they would settle for less. So rhetorically the two regimes are closer. While Saudi Arabia has done nothing to aid Gaza, it refused to join the US-led, anti-Houthi naval force; in response to US-UK strikes on the Houthis, it called for ‘de-escalation’; and it refused to allow the US-led coalition to use its airspace to attack the Houthis.

This Saudi-Iranian détente reflects mutual exhaustion in their regional rivalry. On Syria, Saudi Arabia long ago gave up its attempt to influence the anti-Assad uprising, soon after launching its intervention in Yemen in 2015, and the Russian intervention to save Assad the same year, which Saudi leader MBS silently supported (motivated more by rivalry with Qatar, Turkey and the MB than genuine opposition to Assad, the Saudis cautiously drew behind the Egypt-UAE pro-Assad/Putin position to ‘share’ Syria with Iran). Meanwhile, by 2022, both the 7-year Houthi attempt to conquer southern and eastern Yemen, and the Saudi attempt to reconquer north Yemen from the Houthis, had come to nothing, leading to ceasefire; the different governing bodies held on where they had their base of support.

This Saudi-Iran détente may involve other areas of convergence, given the rise of new sub-imperial rivals such as the Saudis’ erstwhile UAE ‘allies’ who back south Yemen secession against the Saudi-backed government! Iran has begun supplying arms to the repressive Sudanese military regime, engulfed in horrific conflict with its former ally, the paramilitary RSF, engaged in the genocidal subjugation of Darfur. While the UAE has been arming the RSF, its erstwhile Saudi and Egyptian allies support the regime. Now Iranian planes bringing arms to Sudan fly through Saudi airspace!

The Iranian-Saudi aim of mutually recognising separate spheres of influence (and some areas of shared influence) reduces Iran’s incentive to use ‘resistance’ rhetoric to compete with the Saudis; it may even incentivise pacifying the region so that as a respectable capitalist power it can properly dominate business in its sphere. The Economist, in an unauthored article likely representing editorial opinion in this flagship of British capitalism, suggests:

“Over time, some analysts hope, the regional restraint the country has shown since October 7th might become the norm. Iran might begin to prefer maintenance of the status quo to revolutionary chaos. Its regional satellites already have dominant roles in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen; it might seek to consolidate rather than expand further.”

Such stabilisation would aid its vision of an ‘Iranian Silk Road’ from Iran to Lebanon, involving a railway connecting ports in southwestern Iran to Mediterranean Sea ports in Syria and Lebanon. This is “a strategic avenue for Iran to broaden and solidify its influence along the transportation route, essentially reshaping its political axis with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon into a cohesive ‘geographical axis’,” according to Syria TV.

So much for Iran; what of the actions of its Shiite-based quasi-state allies in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen? As shown above, Iran has tended to hold them back from the danger of “going rogue” by taking on Israel or the US “in ways that could severely damage the deterrent architecture” that Iran needs from them – while accepting the credit for them actually doing something. Those who see them as Iran’s “proxies” therefore believe Iran is fomenting at least limited action against Israel. But rather than “proxies,” as Sara Harmouch and Nakissa Jahanbani explain, “Iran provides resources and coordination, but each group maintains its own agenda and local support base, functioning more as partners than proxies,” and its relationship each member “is unique.”

Iraqi Shiite militia in Iraq and Syria: Analysis

The array of Iranian-backed Iraqi-Shiite militia operating in Iraq and Syria must be understood in the context of the devastating 2003 US invasion of Iraq, replacing Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship with a US-controlled colonial regime. Naturally, this created an enormous armed resistance to US occupation; as US armed forces are still present in Iraq, it is hardly surprising that they come under attack, independent of anything happening in Gaza.

However, the relationship between resistance to US occupation and the Iranian-backed forces is not as straightforward as this introduction suggests.

These militia arose following the US invasion, though some descended from Iranian-backed paramilitary groups long opposed to Hussein. Initially many were in league with the US-installed occupation authorities, which reflected Iran’s position: while not thrilled at the US presence on its border, it was thrilled that the US had ousted its arch-enemy. This gave space for Iran to influence Iraq’s political regime, since Shiites are the majority in Iraq but had been frozen from power by Hussein’s dictatorship, based among a section of the Sunni minority. The most pro-Iranian forces – eg the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) – were then the most supportive of US occupation authorities; while “moderate” opposition leader, Ahmed Chalabi, who the US had groomed for power, was exposed to be concurrently an Iranian asset. The US-Iran joint-venture regime in Iraq was established, a mind-boggling problem for ‘Resistance Axis’ discourse.

Overwhelmingly, the anti-US resistance was led by Sunni-based forces, the Sunni now feeling frozen from power by the Iranian-backed Shiite authorities; but a more nationalist wing of the Shia, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, feeling the occupation jackboot, also began fighting the occupation from Basra, even carrying out joint actions with Sunni resistance, but al-Sadr’s ‘Mahdi’ movement was also the most independent of Iran.

Shiite-led collaboration with the US occupation led the Iraqi resistance into an increasingly Sunni-sectarian dead-end; amidst this chaos, al-Qaida in Iraq arose, and its horrendous crimes (eg bombings of Shiite mosques) helped lead to sectarian civil war by 2006, Iranian-led factions carrying out horrific crimes against the Sunni population.

Due to this sectarianisation, the Shiite leadership’s collaboration with US occupation, and Hussein’s symbolic support for the PLO, Hussein’s fall led to a surge in violent attacks against the 34,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq by Shiite militia, reducing their numbers to a few thousand. This raises questions about today’s weaponisation of Palestine by these forces while carrying out an unrelated battle.

In 2008, the US signed a strategic agreement with pro-Iranian Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; in 2010 both the US and Iran backed Maliki against a non-sectarian challenger. Maliki’s repression against an April Spring-influenced civil Sunni-based democracy movement was the context of the rise of the Sunni extremist ISIS. When the US returned to fight ISIS in 2014, it again found itself in league with these Iran-backed Shiite militia, who organised themselves into a coalition called the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU).

Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqi Shiite militia poured into Syria to engage in the slaughter as part of Iran’s support to Assad’s genocidal dictatorship. While the US sided neither with Assad nor the rebels, it began bombing ISIS in Syria in September 2014, but here its main ally was not Iran but the leftist, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who were also essentially neutral in the conflict between the regime and the rebels. So while the US was not specifically allied to the Iranian militia in Syria, once the Assad regime and its allies finally entered the war against ISIS in 2017-18 (after the US and SDF had done the hard work), they were again loosely allied, sometimes fighting in the same battles.

Later, following the 2018-19 defeat of the Syrian rebels (by Assad/Russia), and of ISIS (by the US/SDF in Syria, and US/Iran in Iraq), the arrangement between the US and Iran-backed forces exploded into rivalry over the turf. Thus, while it is true that these attacks on US bases greatly intensified after the Gaza war began, and the militia have linked this to Gaza, at base, this conflict is not about Palestine, but is a ‘sideways’ conflict with its own logic.

In Syria, the conflict today partly stems from Iranian support to Assad’s aim of retaking the northeast from the SDF, especially as this region contains Syria’s main oil fields. This puts Assad, Iran and Turkey in league against the US in the northeast (despite Turkey’s backing of anti-Assad rebels in the northwest).

In October 2023, the SDF-aligned North Press reported that the Iranian-backed Usud al-Uqaydat militia had crossed the Euphrates River “with other militants to fight the SDF.” SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi claimed the Iranian-backed militias “are not only attacking US bases” noting that “an Iranian kamikaze drone attacked an SDF ammunition depot in Deir Ezzor,” causing injuries and significant damage.

In Iraq, the US-Iran understanding died with Trump’s cancelation of the JCPOA and imposition of harsh anti-Iran sanctions to please Netanyahu, followed by his 2020 assassination of IGRC head Soleimani when he was on his way to negotiate détente with the Saudis. Thus begun the tit-for-tat strikes between US forces and these Iraqi Shiite militia.

Yet the Iraqi regime remains a fulcrum containing US-Iran conflict within their joint-venture. Following the assassination of Soleimani (and deputy PMU commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), the Iraqi parliament voted for US troops to leave Iraq; but the vote was non-binding and the government never enforced it. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani, in January 2023, stated that Iraq still needs US troops. To complicate matters further, in 2017 the PMU became part of the Iraqi armed forces, meaning US troops are in Iraq at the behest of a government whose army includes militia attacking US bases! This in turn places limits on the actions these militia will take; hence the largely theatrical nature of the conflict.

Notably, following US retaliatory strikes on 86 Iraqi militia bases in mid-January for the Jordan mishap, all attacks ceased; this alleged “theatre” of “resistance” to Gaza genocide is no longer. But US assassination of militia leaders in Baghdad is an affront to sovereignty, leading the Iraqi government to renewed discussion of plans for US withdrawal.  Interestingly, this corresponds to indications of US plans to withdraw from Iraq and Syria, for its own reasons, further highlighting the theatrical nature of the conflict, while suggesting another reason the attacks have stopped (aside from pressure from Iraq and Iran); the nationalist goal of removing US troops is more fundamental to this conflict than Gaza.

Before ceasing attacks, the main response to the US strikes was an attack in Syria killing six Kurdish SDF fighters but no US troops, further underlining how little this “resistance” is related to Gaza. They hit the US al-Omar base, where SDF commando units are trained. This Iran-backed attack on the SDF coincides with a larger-scale Turkish offensive against the SDF in northeast Syria – just as Assad spouts “anti-Zionist” rhetoric while using Gaza as cover to heavily bomb Idlib, Erdogan spouts louder “anti-Zionist” rhetoric to use Gaza as cover to heavily bomb the Kurds.

In similar vein, whatever the ‘anti-imperialist’ bluster spouted by Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite parties and militias, they played the decisive role in brutally crushing the anti-sectarian 2019 Iraq uprising, urged on by Khameini who reminded his Iraqi (and Lebanese) allies how Iran had crushed its own recent uprising; we need to understand that those who recently played tit-for-tat ‘pro-Gaza’ theatre with US troops are the murderers of the Iraqi people..

‘Anti-Zionist’ bluster, from Iran, Iraq, Turkey alike, can be useful for non-anti-Zionist purposes; counterrevolution, oppression and genocidal bombing ‘bounce off’ each other.

Hezbollah & southern Lebanon: Analysis

We now come to the Lebanese border and Yemen, where components of the alleged “Resistance Axis” have actually done something, in contrast to the passivity of repressive states and the Iraqi militia’s ‘sideways conflict’.

To understand both why Hezbollah has actually acted, and the limited, calibrated nature of it, we need to consider context: southern Lebanon was under Israeli occupation from 1978 until 2000; the south is mostly Shiite-populated, i.e. Hezbollah’s natural base. The Shia were not traditionally pro-Palestinian – in Israel’s 1982 invasion many welcomed the invaders to free themselves from alleged ‘PLO oppression’; in June 1982, Amal – the major Shiite communalist militia – “watched the Israeli tanks and troops roll up the coast.” Regardless of colourful discourse, the PLO was then heavily entrenched among the Sunni population, while the Shia were the most marginalised in Lebanon’s sectarian system. Many marginalised Shiites may have also experienced the large Palestinian refugee population as competition for informal sector jobs; and their presence invited Israeli bombing.

However, the brutal reality of Israel’s larger occupation after 1982 changed the minds of the Shia; together with Sunni pockets in the south, they launched a resistance war against the occupation, led by two Communist Parties, Nasserite Sunni militia, the PLO, Amal, and the new Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah. Having driven Israel from substantial parts of the south by 1985, however, the disparate forces had space to turn on each other. Above all, Amal, still mobilising the anti-Palestinian Shiite viewpoint despite also resisting Israel, launched a year-long murderous attack, backed by Syria’s Assad regime, against Palestinian camps in Beirut. At this point, the Iranian regime seized the opportunity to bypass Assad and Amal to promote Hezbollah as pro-Palestinian; Hezbollah did not fight Amal, but condemned its aggression. Combined with violence by both Amal and Hezbollah against the Lebanese left, Hezbollah eventually emerged as the leading force in the resistance to Israeli occupation.

This benefited Iran’s “resistance” credentials; even while using Israeli arms to invade Iraq using “resistance to Zionism” bluster, now a genuine resistance against actual Israeli occupation existed in a Shiite-dominated region; almost by luck, Iran was positioned to gain from resistance led by its new Lebanese ally.

However, in 2000 Hezbollah won; Israel quit Lebanon. But in 1990, the US-backed Taif Accord had subjected Lebanon to a Saudi-Syrian condominium that forced all militia which had engaged in the 1975-1990 civil war to join the Lebanese army; only Hezbollah could keep its own militia due to its resistance role. Now that the job was done, why should it have rights not available to others, which effectively allowed Iran to control a militia in Lebanon?

Therefore, the myth arose that a “Resistance Axis” between Iran and Hezbollah, running through Iraq and Syria, was necessary to “resist” Israeli occupation, but with Israel gone, what defined this “resistance”? Few take seriously the pathological Zionist and Iranian discourse, that Iran builds Hezbollah so as to one day invade Israel to “liberate Jerusalem.” Leaving aside the question of whether these forces would “liberate” anything, and the sheer impossibility of such a fantasy, the obvious question, in class politics, is “why would they want to do that?” Either an oppressive Iranian regime, anathema to liberation everywhere, just happens to be truly dedicated to liberating Palestinians; or Iranian imperialism is so irrational that it imagines it can add Palestine to its empire. Perhaps better to accept the third option: that this is just homogenising ideological nonsense on both sides, with no reality to it.

So again, what now does “resistance” mean? And since Iran has no intention of “liberating Jerusalem,” what are its aims in bolstering Hezbollah? And to what extent does Hezbollah have its own aims, independent of Tehran?

Until October 8, the answer to the first question was nothing. In 2006, Hezbollah killed some Israeli border troops, allegedly aiming at ‘unfinished business’, namely a tiny piece of land, the Shebaa farms, which Israel still occupied. Israel laid waste to Lebanon, killed 1300 civilians, injured a million, destroyed years of post-war construction. Even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that if he’d known Israel would react this way, he would not have undertaken the operation. It was a disaster for Hezbollah, until Israel saved it by launching a ground invasion, enabling Hezbollah to impose a defeat upon the invader, momentarily rescuing its “resistance” credentials. 

But this meant that Hezbollah could never do this again; Lebanese society does not accept having their children killed for Hezbollah games. From 2006 until 2023, the Israeli-Lebanese border remained stone quiet, yet Iran built Hezbollah into a force with some 150,000 missiles. But with the absence of any practical mission, the existential crisis remained.

In 2013, Hezbollah, at Iran’s behest, sent troops into Syria to help Assad crush the Syrian uprising. For years, Hezbollah, alongside Iraqi-Shiite and Iranian forces, aided Assad’s butchery, sometimes playing a decisive role, e.g. in the starvation siege of the liberated southern town Madaya in 2015-16. Thousands of Hezbollah cadre returned dead. This did significant damage to Hezbollah’s image: doing nothing to fight for Palestine while killing fellow Muslims on behalf of a tyrannical regime. Nasrallah told Russian minister Mikhail Bogdanov to “tell the Israelis that Lebanon’s southern borders are the safest place in the world because all of our attention is focused on” Syria, as Hezbollah “does not harbor any intention of taking any action against Israel.”

In 2019, Hezbollah’s counterrevolutionary role was exposed in Lebanon itself; the Lebanese people had risen up against all sectarian warlords – Christian, Sunni, Shiite – and the system itself, and Hezbollah (and Amal) thugs attacked the protest camps. Meanwhile, the recent precipitous collapse of the Lebanese economy adds another reason for Lebanese people to not want war; even if one had illusions that Hezbollah aimed to “liberate Jerusalem,” the Lebanese reality makes any such adventure even more impossible than previously.

Why then does Iran build Hezbollah and keep it independent of the Lebanese armed forces? There are two main aspects.

The first is that Iran wants a Hezbollah with rockets that can hit Israel as an insurance policy against Israel’s forever threat to attack Iranian nuclear assets, a kind of ‘forward defence’; it is imperative that “Hezbollah’s capacity to launch a retaliatory or pre-emptive attack on Israel” is assured. If that happened, Israel would also visit horrific destruction on Hezbollah’s missile sites, while Hezbollah wasted these missiles on Israel. Therefore, Hezbollah’s role in the ‘Axis’ “is to preserve its deterrent capacity by avoiding an all-out war with Israel,” as Iran will not want “to sacrifice Hezbollah on the altar of Hamas.” Former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin claims Nasrallah’s behaviour suggests “he still cares more about Lebanon and the need to protect Iran — and deter Israel from attacking its nuclear program — than he does about saving Hamas.” He will not “sacrifice Lebanon and destroy Beirut for the sake of Sunni Palestinians that started this war without consulting him.”

The second is broader, related to the Iran analysis above. We need to recall the reasons behind Iran’s rhetoric; the desire of a sub-imperialist regional power to cut out its own sphere of influence, where its leading role is recognised. Lebanon is access to the Mediterranean Sea; it is not difficult to understand why Iran would want a piece of Lebanon’s sectarian system as ‘its own’.

But now we must also consider is Hezbollah’s own objectives, separate to the Iran factor, related to Lebanon’s reality. Whatever it once was, Hezbollah has long ago become the main leadership of the Lebanese Shiite bourgeoisie, aiming to consolidate its place in Lebanon’s sectarian system. This position, combined with geographic and demographic factors, leads to specific kinds of action and inaction. Once again, there is more than one aspect.

Firstly, while 2006 demonstrated that full-scale war with Israel is not a good way to finalise the border issues with Israel, this unfinished business nevertheless remains. It is not only a Hezbollah issue, but Hezbollah dominates the south bordering Israel due to demography. In 2022 the US-negotiated Israel-Lebanon maritime agreement – with a Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah, led by Hezbollah-allied president Aoun – enabled demarcation of drilling rights in the Mediterranean Sea gas fields. It was welcomed by Iran, some analysts claiming it was essentially an Iranian deal with Israel. It led to a significant decline in Israeli attacks on pro-Iranian targets in Syria for some months. Could the calibrated conflict today result in a deal on the land border as well?

Following a brief January flare-up when Israel assassinated two leaders in Lebanon, Nasrallah’s speech added little, but hinted at negotiations on demarcating the border. Amos Hochstein, Biden’s energy adviser, had already been exploring border demarcation with Israel and Lebanon. Nasrallah’s language – “We are now faced with a historic opportunity to completely liberate every inch of our Lebanese land” – had a militant tone, but indicated the possibility of a deal focused on specifically Lebanese issues, that Hezbollah would be able to claim resulted from its “resistance.” Iran also stressed that this “is a domestic thing for the Lebanese.”

The second aspect specific to Lebanon’s reality is the presence of up to half a million Palestinian refugees, especially throughout southern Lebanon. If there was once a somewhat conflictual relationship between impoverished Shiites and Palestinians, and this turned to cooperation against occupation, this ongoing complexity remains a reality either way. Hezbollah kept the border quiet throughout 2006-2023, but the elephant in the room remains the large presence of Palestinians who aim to return to Palestine, who at times attempt attacks on Israel regardless of Hezbollah.  

For example, following the Israeli attack on the Al-Aqsa mosque in April 2023, Hamas militants in Lebanon launched rockets on northern Israel. Hezbollah allegedly “passed messages to Israel through several international mediators that it wasn’t part of the attack and didn’t know about it,” which was accepted by Israeli intelligence. Israel responded with attacks on the Palestinians, not touching Hezbollah. Clearly, the Palestinian issue will not leave southern Lebanon as long as an enormous refugee population remains; they would not have remained quiet after October 7. In this situation, Hezbollah’s “resistance” credentials would have looked hollow if it did not take some initiative.

A final point is that resistance to Israel’s vastly disproportionate counter-attacks on Lebanon and solidarity with Palestinians has its own Lebanese logic. Alongside Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance forces, the resistance has been joined  by the Al-Fajr Forces of the Sunni organization Jamaa al-Islamiyah (Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood). Based in Sunni pockets in the mostly Shiite south, Al-Fajr has also been firing rockets across the border. Al-Fajr is not an ally of Hezbollah in the Lebanese context, indeed it is aligned to Islamist forces in Syria’s anti-Assad uprising, but is closely connected to Hamas. According to Ali Abou Yassine from Jamaa al-Islamiya, this “does not mean that it is aligning itself with a foreign axis;” rather, as secretary-general Sheikh Mohammed Takkoush explains, they joined the battle “as a national, religious and moral duty … to defend our land and villages” and also “in support of our brothers in Gaza.” Their operations are “in coordination with Hamas, which coordinates with Hezbollah,” but direct cooperation with Hezbollah “is on the rise.” When Israel assassinated Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut on January 2, it also killed several Jamaa al-Islamiyah cadre, and more have been killed since.

This highlights the problem of seeing south Lebanon as an “Resistance Axis” issue. In its monstrous role in Syria Hezbollah acted as a tool of Iran’s counterrevolutionary regional role, but its current action (and its limitations) on the Israeli border cannot be adequately explained as acting as Iran’s pawn. When we take into account the border issue, the long history of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, and the huge Palestinian presence, Hezbollah becomes a more contradictory formation than the Iranian regime.

In any case, Israel’s current threats to escalate into a more full-scale war – which could well be rhetoric given the stakes involved on both sides – may have more to do with both the crisis the Netanyahu clique is in – the need for ongoing war to protect his power given the legal trouble he is otherwise in – as well as the desire in some Israeli circles to escalate as a means of bringing in the US, as discussed above.

Yemen: Analysis

While the actions of Yemen’s Houthi movement have been the most dramatic in this conflict, there is massive confusion about who the Houthis are, their relationship to Iran, whether they are synonymous with ‘Yemen’ – and we can add, why such a reactionary movement ends up showing the most active solidarity with Palestine.

Their actual name is AnsarAllah, a Zaydi Shiite communalist movement founded in the 1990s. The Zaydi account for about one third of Yemenis, most of who are Sunni Muslims; their main concentration is in the old republic of North Yemen, their main base around the city of Saada in the far north. The Houthis are a Zaydi family that founded and leads AnsarAllah. They claim descent from Mohammed, and AnsarAllah’s political ideology claims that only blood descendants of Mohammed (‘Sayyids’) can rule. This connects the Houthis to the ideology of the old Zaydi Imamate, which ruled Yemen as a religious monarchy for 1000 years until overthrown in the 1962 revolution in North Yemen, which established a civil republic. The Houthi family belongs to the same caste as the old Imams, also alleged Sayyids. AnsarAllah’s founder, Hussein al-Houthi, penned the Malazim, a 2000-page “blueprint for religious dictatorship – an updated version of the Imamate.”

The Houthi rulers celebrate September 21, the date of their 2014 coup that overthrew the Yemeni Spring government, as a public holiday “exceeding the festive displays on the anniversary of the September 26 republican revolution.” This connection between the two reactionary theocratic regimes separated by 52 years was highlighted by the Houthis’ attack and mass arrests on the September 26 celebrations in 2023.

Yet the militia which spearheaded the counterrevolution against the Yemeni Spring, ideologically descended from the monarchy overthrown by the 1962 revolution, is in the forefront of solidarity with Palestine.

The 1962 revolution was followed by a 5-year civil war in North Yemen between the Shiite Imamate (backed, ironically, by Saudi Arabia) and the republicans, backed by Egyptian nationalist leader Nasser. Concurrently, British ruled South Yemen, centred on the port of Aden, was undergoing an anti-colonial revolution; when the British quit in 1967, the Marxist Peoples Democratic Republic emerged, led by the Yemeni Socialist Party. So even though revolutionary republicans defeated the reactionary Imamate in North Yemen in 1968, they emerged as the more right-wing Yemen regime compared to Marxist South Yemen.

Republican North Yemen centre of power shifted to secular Zaydi and Sunni elites based in the capital, Sanaa; “the northern Sayyids were scorned as relics of a benighted theocratic era, and many fell into poverty,” their Saada base in the far north an economic backwater. Under growing Saudi influence, the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh used Sunni Salafism as a weapon against ‘communism’ in the Cold War, and against militant Shiism following the Iranian revolution, despite Saleh himself being Zaydi; Salafists came to control North Yemen’s education system even in Zaydi regions. Thus when the Houthis arose in the early 1990s, despite their reactionary heritage, they were the voice of a now marginalised population.

In 1990 the two states merged, the North Yemeni elite dominating the old south and Saleh continuing to rule. From 2004, the Houthis fought six wars against Saleh’s regime, aimed at autonomy for the far north. Saleh responded with indiscriminate and brutal air and artillery strikes, allowing the Houthis to recruit from northern tribes beyond their base; his murder of their leader Hussein al-Houthi alienated many Zaydi beyond their ranks.

In 2011, Saleh was overthrown in the Yemeni Spring uprising. The coalition which overthrew him included the Houthis, the civil democratic movement, a reform wing of Saleh’s party (the General National Congress Party, GNCP), the Muslim Brotherhood (Islah), the Nasserites, the Yemeni Socialist Party, and the southern movement (Hirak), which wanted autonomy for the south. To curb the revolutionary dynamics, the Saudis and Gulf states pressured Saleh to hand power to his deputy, Mansour Hadi, while preserving the old state apparatus, the famous ‘Yemeni solution’.

While little changed at the top, the overthrow of dictatorship opened up politics for the masses, leading to struggle against Hadi’s unpopular IMF-imposed abolition of subsidies in 2014, bringing together most forces involved in the 2011 uprising. Some progressive changes ensued, for example, in 2013, women obtained 30 percent of the seats in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), tasked with drafting a new constitution; they won agreement for a 30 percent quota in new government bodies or institutions.

The Houthis, however, had other ideas, as did Saleh. Despite being granted immunity for his 2011 killings of protestors and asylum in Saudi Arabia, Saleh aimed to regain power. Despite their past conflict, Saleh and the Houthis formed an alliance to overthrow Hadi’s government. In September 2014, the Houthi militia marched into Sanaa and seized power, enabled by the officer corp of the armed forces, still loyal to Saleh, who ordered them to stand aside. In February 2015, they ejected Hadi and formed a 10-person Supreme Political Council (5 appointed by the Houthis, 5 by Saleh). A large-scale crackdown on opposition ensued, with jailings, torture, disappearances and executions.

The alliance with Saleh gave the Houthis control over “entire brigade sets of tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft weapons,” ballistic missiles, launchers, and national intelligence agencies. This enabled the Houthi-Saleh alliance to push south into Sunni territory where they had no base. The entire south and east (ie old South Yemen) and southern parts of old North Yemen (especially Taiz) rejected the coup and continued to support Hadi, as did most major parties, eg the Nasserite Unionist People’s Organisation, Islah (Muslim Brotherhood), Yemeni Socialist Party etc; Hadi took up residence in Aden, South Yemen’s old capital. The Houthi-Saleh invasion of the south faced large-scale resistance from the population, organised into Popular Resistance Committees (PRC’s).

As the Houthis besieged Taiz and Aden, and Saleh’s airforce bombed the city, Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened in March 2015, with devastating bombing throughout Yemen, killing tens of thousands of civilians and massively destroying vital infrastructure. Despite the initial impetus of rescuing Aden and the south, where the intervention then had popular support, Saudi war aims involved the reconquest of the north from the Houthis. The devastating bombing of Sanaa drove its population – no fans of Houthi oppression – into nationalist rejection of the Saudis; the most heavily bombed part of Yemen was the Houthis’ natural base in Saada further north, distant from the southern frontlines; in May the Saudis declared the entire city of Saada a military target.

Two reactionary forces confronted each other – the sectarian Houthis trying to subjugate the non-Zaydi and non-sectarian populations of the south, aligned with the overthrown ancien regime, and the reactionary Saudi and UAE monarchies, stung by Saleh-Houthi messing up their ‘Yemeni Solution’, and fearful of Iranian influence. While the Houthis had every right to defend their homeland from Saudi terror-bombing – which they increasingly did with rockets targeting Saudi Arabia – the peoples of Taiz, Aden, Marib, the south and east also had every right to resist being subjugated by repressive Houthi-Saleh rule (whose rockets also slaughtered civilians). Aden was liberated, and Taiz soon after, but the Houthis have since maintained a blockade on roads leading into Taiz, an 8-year starvation siege, while the Saudis impose a starvation blockade on Yemen via the Red Sea, causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

Later, a third reactionary force emerged as the UAE armed the southern secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), undermining the government they officially supported. Despite support among many southerners for South Yemen’s restoration, this implied abandoning parts of ‘North Yemen’ resisting the Houthis, eg Taiz and Marib; given the strength of Islah in that resistance, this suited the anti-MB UAE. This idea of leaving the north to the Houthis meant the UAE had little invested in the war, which it quit in 2019. While ending its role in the bombing was positive, the UAE’s aims were far from pacifist. UAE-backed forces waged a large-scale assassination campaign against political opponents in Yemen – overwhelmingly Islah cadre, supposed allies against the Houthis! Once the UAE had cut out a section of the coast near Aden and the island of Socotra, it had achieved its goal of extending its coastal empire, reaching from Yemen into Ethiopia and further in Africa. Meanwhile, other southern autonomists opposed to the UAE exploiting their cause formed the Southern National Salvation Council in 2019.

By 2022, the war was clearly stalemated; the Houthis could not conquer the south and east, and the Saudis could not drive the Houthis from the north; their bases held solid. A ceasefire has held since early 2022, and no-one wants renewal of war. In December 2023, amidst the Red Sea crisis, both sides re-stated their commitment to ceasefire and to a UN-led peace process. This ceasefire corresponds to the 2023 Saudi-Iranian detente; the two re-stated their commitment in December.

The point is that Yemenis are not facing the Gaza genocide at war with themselves, but in the midst of a strongly supported ceasefire. The Saudis may be nervous about Houthi actions, but they have not joined the US/UK-led anti-Houthi armada and have rejected allowing US-led attacks on the Houthis from Saudi airspace.

This is very important, because while the Houthis have initiated the strikes on ships, powerful solidarity with Palestine is a Yemen-wide cause with a long tradition which the Houthis are acting on. According to one Yemeni journalist, “Yemenis have put aside thinking and talking about their woes” to unite around Gaza. In October, the Foreign Ministry of the recognised (Saudi-backed) government condemned “the war crimes and genocide committed by the Israeli occupation against civilians in the Gaza Strip,” slamming the bombing of the Al Ahli Hospital as “a crime against humanity.” The journalist notes that “the Palestinian flag has been ubiquitous in multiple Yemeni cities over the past ten days. It can be seen over houses, government buildings, shops and cars.”

The oft-heard claim that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy is wide of the mark. Iran-Houthi links before 2014 had not been decisive; as we saw, it was the alliance with Saleh’s army that allowed the conquest of Sanaa, not small-scale Iranian arms. Iran advised the Houthis against seizing Sanaa in 2014-15 but they defied it. In early 2016, Houthi commander Youssef al-Fishi lashed out demanding Iranian officials “remain silent” and “stop exploiting” Yemen’s war for their own interests, following a prisoner exchange with Saudi Arabia and an Iranian leader’s claim that Iran is ready to help Yemen “in any possible level.” Iranian support for the Houthis did increase markedly after the Saudi intervention for geopolitical reasons, yet even now, US intelligence assesses that Iran is not directing the Houthis and played no role in their decision to attack shipping. Houthi leaders scoff at the idea they are acting at Iran’s behest, claiming to be acting on behalf of Yemen; they even scoff at Iran, Houthi spokesperson Abdelmalek al-Ejri telling The Atlantic that “our stance on Gaza is more advanced than anyone, even Iran. Iran was shocked that Ansar Allah had the guts to do what we did.”

Regarding Yemen’s long tradition of support for Palestine, we might say that about any Arab country, but Yemen’s anti-colonial war against British imperialism in the 1960s is only comparable to Algeria’s anti-colonial war against France; most Arab states didn’t go through such prolonged independence wars, which gave these peoples a special identification with Palestine regardless of political stance.

Left-wing South Yemen (ie, centre of anti-Houthi resistance today) developed a strong alliance with the PLO; but rightist North Yemen was also strongly pro-Palestine. In MERIP Report, Stacey Philbrick Yadav writes: “In 1971 … South Yemen allowed a Palestinian militant organization to attack an Israeli ship from its territory. During the 1973 October War, it closed the Bab al-Mandab strait to fuel bound for Israel. After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the two Yemens hosted more than one thousand displaced Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters and established military camps for them in Sana’a and Aden.” When Yemen united in 1990 under Saleh’s rightist North Yemen leadership, Yemen (alongside only Cuba) voted in the UN Security Council against the US-led war on Iraq, leading to hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers being driven out of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (alongside Palestinian workers).

To South Yemeni leftists, North Yemeni right republicans and the Houthis, we can add Islah (Muslim Brotherhood). Despite being the main ongoing victim of Houthi aggression with the blockade of Taiz, their major base, Islah’s website is covered with pro-Palestine articles. For example, in an article comparing the Houthis to Israel, Ali Al-Jaradi writes that “Gaza and Palestine are a sacred issue for every Muslim and Arab,” while condemning the Houthis for mobilising fighters “in the name of Al-Aqsa Flood” in order to send them “to the fronts of the Coast, Al-Dhalea, Taiz, Marib and Shabwa” to fight Yemenis. Islah member Mukhtar Al-Rahbi, advisor to the Information Minister in Yemen’s recognised government, condemns “any Yemeni who stands with America, Britain, and the countries of the coalition to protect Zionist ships,” who “must review his Yemeniness and Arabism” as “these countries protect and support the terrorist Zionist entity.” While “we disagree internally on many issues” with the Houthis, “Palestine is our first issue and will remain so.”

While pro-Gaza demonstrations have been by far the biggest in the capital Sanaa, cities all over Yemen, in Houthi- and government-controlled regions, including Taiz, Aden, Hadramout, Marib, Saada, Ibb, Al-Hudaydah, and Almahra have seen massive protests against the bombing of Gaza. Regarding the gigantic Sanaa demonstrations, a great many will be Houthi supporters, but it is mistaken to assume the Sanaa population as a whole is pro-Houthi; after the Houthis seized Sanaa, there was a widespread crackdown on the civil movement; it is unlikely that the people who overthrew Saleh (and whom he massacred) were thrilled when he re-took power alongside a hard-line theocratic militia.

The Houthis’ Red Sea attacks help renew the compliance of Sanaa’s (and north Yemen’s) population, which was wearing thin during the two-year ceasefire. The Saudi bombing had given the Houthis some legitimacy to those under their rule as Yemeni fighters against the daily devastation meted out by hated Saudi Arabia, who thereby grudgingly tolerated their ghastly and well-documented repression. Amnesty International has “documented the cases of at least 75 journalists, human rights defenders, academics and others perceived as opponents or critics subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance, and unfair trials with recourse to the death penalty” since 2015. Well-known human rights defender, Fatima al-Arwali, was sentenced to death in December; she had no legal representation. In January 2024, Houthi courts condemned nine men to execution (by stoning or crucifixion), for homosexuality. Women’s rights are systematically violated. Thousands of child soldiers have been pressed into war. 

Two years of ceasefire was not favorable for the Houthis; the malevolence of their rule stood naked, allowing opposition to raise its head. On September 26, thousands of Yemenis celebrated in the streets of Sanaa and other cities on the anniversary of the 1962 revolution, chanting pro-revolution slogans. The Houthis attacked them, confiscated flags and arrested hundreds. So the Red Sea attacks may have come just in time to save Houthi legitimacy; the US-UK strikes further boosted the Houthis with a new foreign enemy bombing them.

The Red Sea attacks also bring the Houthis widespread popularity throughout the region, a stark contrast to regional Arab and Muslim regimes. The logical counterpoint – “then why don’t others do something for Gaza to boost their credibility?” – has validity, but misses the issue that no government in the region (or the world) except Iran recognise the Houthis as the Yemeni government, despite ruling two thirds of the population (but less than one third of the area), so they are in dire need of a legitimacy-boost. As one imperialist analyst put it, the Houthis grabbed the opportunity of Gaza to make “a quite effective rebranding exercise,” transforming themfrom a “terror group destroying Yemen into an effective military outfit inflicting pain on the US in support of the Palestinians.” 

This increased regional credibility also increases the Houthis bargaining power with the Saudis in peace talks, improving their “position in regional and domestic negotiations over the future of Yemen.” Houthi spokesperson Abdelmalek al-Ejri told The Atlantic, to the question of sharing power with the opposition, that “Abdulmalik al-Houthi will remain the supreme political authority in Yemen under any future government.” Whatever happens, it will be far more difficult for the Saudis to resume their bombing campaign.


At present, only the ongoing, almost super-human, Palestinian resistance is preventing the completion of Israel’s full genocidal new Nakbah. While any small-scale support, such as on the Lebanese border or in the Red Sea is welcome, it largely has a nuisance effect on Israel; its ability to wage genocide has been untouched. The conclusion that none of the regional repressive capitalist regimes, whether they fancy themselves as part of an ‘Axis of Resistance’ or otherwise, has anything to offer the Palestinian struggle, is both self-evident yet also wanting: given this reality, who can the Palestinians hope for as allies?

Obviously Palestinians have no illusions in the US, which, despite occasional hand-wringing, has demonstrated total commitment to Israel with endless billions in weaponry; Biden’s talk of ‘two-state solution’ in opposition to Netanyahu’s vision of an emptied Gaza means several non-sovereign bits of land, about half the 22 percent of Palestine that the internationally accepted two-state formula the state, not including the Palestinian capital Jerusalem (the illegal recognition of which as Israel’s “capital” by Trump has not been reversed by Biden), divided between massive chunks of territory colonised by murderous ‘settlers’ – a version of the Oslo fiasco that makes Oslo look good, a ‘Palestinian state’ where “carpet bombing is replaced by a matrix of surveillance, separation and control.” While beyond the scope of this piece, neither Russia nor China have anything to offer the Palestinians either.

The global pro-Palestine movement is the largest the world has seen ever, signalling a change in consciousness, especially among youth. The struggle to break US and western support for Israel, via this movement, via BDS and so on is crucial; however, this takes time, and many of the gains from such a movement will be in the future, while Gaza’s needs are immediate. 

If a combination of the impacts of the global solidarity movement, Palestinian resistance in Gaza and small-scale actions from forces in the region manages to prevent the completion of the current Nakbah, that at least offers hope. Discussion of Palestinian “victory” and Israeli “defeat” in the context of the world’s worst genocide, already worse than that of 1948, is delusional; however, that does not in any way reduce the necessity of limiting Israel’s current victory as much as possible; a continuing Palestinian presence at any level among the smoking ruins still offers the potential to struggle for better.

However, there is a big difference between the military prevention of total Israeli victory and Palestinian liberation. There is good reason to see the vision of Palestine with equal rights for all people and the return of refugees as further away than ever since October 7. These assessments will be made in the coming period, no doubt with much debate.

The presence of a large number of brutally repressive capitalist regimes, including a number of sub-imperialist rivals, is not an environment conducive to liberation of Palestine, or of anywhere. Palestine’s fate is bound up with the fate of the region, and only a return of popular democratic revolution against these regimes offers hope for emancipation. The crushing of the April Spring revolution was much more fatal to Palestine than is widely appreciated; and key ‘Axis’ components played the decisive role in crushing it in Syria, and in the 2019 ‘second wave’ in Iraq and Lebanon (while Saudis/UAE the decisive role in Egypt and Bahrain, both ‘Axis’ and non-Axis did so in Yemen, and many are responsible for the chaos in Sudan and Libya). But change can be as rapid as it is at times slow; today’s popular upsurge in Jordan against the monarchy’s collaboration with Israel is an example of something that has the potential to change the equation. That may not seem immediately obvious, but Palestinian liberation cannot be achieved by military means alone, where the oppressor always has military superiority; while military resistance is essential, and even help from the devil may be necessary at times, there is no simple military strategy for full liberation, which requires political, emancipatory, revolutionary change in the region.