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Syria crisis causes Iran-led 'axis of resistance' to fray

The Syria crisis is complicated by the regional cold war that has simmered for years between resistance powers like Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, and Western allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia.

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More broadly, the Syria crisis has engendered “a return of a global competition," says Mr. Khouri. Indeed, Russia and China – feeling burned by voting for a Libya resolution last year that turned into de facto regime change – have vetoed two United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria, thwarting American and European attempts to take action against the Assad regime. Since then, Syrian forces have launched brutal assaults on key rebel strongholds, including Homs, Idlib, and Deraa.

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  • Syria

    Graphic Syria
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

"It was the Russian and Chinese veto that really gave the Syrians a special boost,” says Khouri. “The Russians are clearly pushing back against what they see as an American-dominated drive in the region, and Russians don’t want the Americans to go around changing regimes at will.”

High stakes 

Kofi Annan, envoy for the United Nations and Arab League, is due to brief the UN Security Council today about his fruitless efforts so far to bring a cease-fire. His efforts have been vastly complicated by the regional gamesmanship.

“What has happened in the big picture is that the Syrian crisis has been caught in a regional cold war,” says Fawaz Gerges, head of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

The regional battle lines were clearly drawn in the aftermath of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, when the Shiite Hezbollah militia leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah declared a “divine victory” after a 33-day fight. Iran helped Hezbollah in that battle, channeling thousands of rockets and cash, in a war that both Tehran and Washington portrayed as a regional face-off.

“This whole resistance axis, it’s like a virtual front,” says Khouri. “It always had a certain shelf life; each party drew from it certain things that they benefited from.”

The stakes now for regional players like Iran are high. Gen. James Mattis, head of US Central Command, testified to Congress earlier this month that Iran was flying weapons and experts into Syria in "a full-throated effort ... to keep Assad there and oppressing his own people." When Assad falls, he said, "it'll be the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 20 years."

“For sure the Iranians will help the Syrian regime stay in power, because the Syrian connection is one of their few foreign policy successes in the Arab world; the other is Hezbollah,” says Khouri.

The stakes are also high for Russia, which has $5 billion in weapons contracts with the Syrian regime and has taken an international stand against intervention – a stance informed in part with its own turbulent history of revolutions.

At an Arab League meeting in Cairo last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the Syrian regime, and cast Russia’s support as protecting “international law.”


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