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Source: The Intercept

Nov 22, 2023


Israel’s war on Gaza unites Hezbollah, Hamas, the Syrian government, the Houthis in Yemen, and armed groups in Iraq and Syria.

By Simona Foltyn

ON THE DAY meant to honor Hezbollah’s own martyrs, the group’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, dedicated a considerable portion of his speech to fighters elsewhere in the region. In a televised address on November 11, Nasrallah praised not just Hezbollah’s strikes on Israel launched from southern Lebanon, but also “supporting fronts” in Iraq and Syria, where armed groups have carried out more than 60 attacks on American troops in the past month.

“These actions reflect great courage because it is the Americans they are fighting, the Americans whose fleets, aircraft carriers, and bases fill the region,” Nasrallah said of his Iraqi allies.

“If you Americans want these operations on the supporting fronts to stop, if you don’t want regional war, you must stop the aggression and war on Gaza.”

Nasrallah’s words indicate growing unity among the so-called axis of resistance, a network of Iran-backed actors in the Mideast that includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian government, the Houthis in Yemen, and armed groups in Iraq and Syria. Though this unity and the violence it threatens to unleash has not yet translated into major military action, it marks the most significant backlash to the U.S. presence in the region in recent years.

The resistance narrative has found appeal beyond members of the axis, many of whom the U.S. considers terror organizations. Even in more moderate circles, America’s unfettered support for Israel, in the wake of the Hamas attack on October 7, has fueled anti-American sentiment in a region where many people see Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza as an extension of decades of unjust U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Gut-wrenching images of bombing victims in Gaza have brought back memories of bloody conflicts the U.S. has waged or supported in places like Iraq and Yemen, with Western reluctance to condemn Israel for massive Palestinian casualties reminding Arabs and Muslims how little their lives seem to factor into Western policymaking.

The lackluster response of Arab nations has allowed militant groups to capitalize on popular outrage and bolster their resistance credentials by positioning themselves as the only ones willing to stand up to Israel and its backers. 

In Iraq, Israel’s war on Palestine has regalvanized armed factions that formed in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion, an anti-occupation cause they see as directly linked to the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

In his Baghdad office, Kataib Hezbollah military spokesperson Jaafar al-Husseini arrived for our meeting at the end of October in an upbeat mood that seemed at odds with the bloodshed that engulfed the region since October 7. “To the contrary, this is the easiest of times,” he explained. “This is a straightforward battle. Palestine is the fundamental issue.”

Kataib Hezbollah is the most secretive and most powerful of the Iraqi resistance groups. Although they’ve been partly incorporated into the government security apparatus as part of what Iraqi officials describe as a gradual demobilization — critics call it state capture at the hands of Iranian proxies — they relapse into violence during times of perceived Western meddling. The Pentagon’s recent decision to deploy aircraft carriers and personnel to the Middle East was taken as evidence of direct U.S. involvement in the Israel–Palestine conflict.

“America is a partner in this battle and in killing Palestinians, and therefore, they must pay the price,” al-Husseini said. “What is happening now in terms of targeting American bases is a natural response of the resistance fighters.”

Iraq’s “resistance” factions have momentarily put aside rivalries to jointly claim responsibility, via a newly established Telegram channel, for dozens of rocket and drone attacks on American troops stationed in Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State, which the Pentagon says have resulted in several light injuries.

These ripple effects were part of Hamas’s calculus to help shatter what the Palestinian group regarded as an untenable status quo in the occupied territories. The prospect of a political solution had faded in recent years amid increased violence and expulsions by Israelis, especially in the West Bank, under the watch of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

“The U.S. administration provided full cover for the Netanyahu government to work on the judaization of Jerusalem and attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, to expand settlements, to continue the siege on Gaza and to end the Palestinian cause,” Osama Hamdan, a member of the Hamas political bureau, told The Intercept in an interview in Beirut last week.

With its surprise attack in October and Israel’s predictable retaliation, Hamas has succeeded in putting the Palestinian issue back on the geopolitical table while generating greater unity between allies in a region polarized by decades of conflict and ethnic and sectarian strife. “There is no doubt that there’s an evolution in relations amid this confrontation,” Hamdan said, adding that it has helped bridge the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites.

While the U.S. portrays the “resistance” as Iranian proxies acting at Tehran’s behest, decisions in the alliance aren’t centrally imposed, Hamdan and other resistance officials said; instead, each actor is balancing regional and domestic issues. “We don’t ask for specific actions because we recognize that the environment varies from country to country, and conditions vary from country to country,” said Hamdan. “But we demand efforts to support the Palestinian cause.”

Hezbollah is the most potent non-state actor in the “axis of resistance.” It was formed in 1982 with help from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to resist Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon at that time. Hezbollah fought a second war against Israel in 2006 and is now engaged in a limited exchange of fire across Lebanon’s southern border, with carefully calibrated strikes aiming to divert Israeli military resources while avoiding a full-scale war.

Nasrallah’s depiction of a united front has been accompanied by some level of operational coordination in Lebanon’s south, with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad being allowed to use Hezbollah’s areas of control to attack Israel amid reports that an operations room has been set up for this purpose.

“This is part of Hezbollah’s battle tactic. It is delivering messages to Israel that the opening of the front is possible at any moment. The presence of non-Shiite groups is part of this message, meaning that the battle will be widespread,” said Azzam al-Ayoubi, the former secretary general of Lebanese Sunni Islamist party al-Jama’ah al-Islamiya, whose previously dormant military wing has also joined the fray, claiming responsibility for several attacks on Israel.  

Relations between Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni groups like al-Jama’ah al-Islamiya and Hamas frayed during the Syrian war, with Hezbollah seen as complicit in the mass killings of Sunnis because it fought alongside President Bashar al-Assad, Ayoubi said. Those differences have been at least temporarily set aside in what some interpret as a sign of sectarian rapprochement. “It is possible that we are now at least somewhat on the side of Hezbollah,” Ayoubi acknowledged. “It is Hezbollah who is facing Israel, and we also have this principle.”

THE LATEST EVENTS have ended a period of relative quiet during which the U.S. had hoped to redirect its attention and resources to other parts of the world, especially China. The new tumult risks undermining years of diplomatic efforts to repair strained relations with Arab countries like Iraq and has put on hold a U.S. push to normalize ties between Israel and Arab nations. It has also renewed calls for the withdrawal of American troops stationed in the region.

The operations in Iraq mark the end of a unilateral truce during which the factions ceased attacking American troops in Iraq to let the government, which their political affiliates brought to power, manage the relationship through diplomacy. As part of this latest setback in U.S.–Iraq relations, there have been renewed demands to implement a January 2020 parliamentary vote to oust foreign troops. “These operations will not stop until the last American soldier is removed,” al-Husseini said.

American troops returned to Iraq in 2014 to help the government fight ISIS; the U.S. has since tried to shed its legacy as an occupying force and portray itself as a strategic partner. Those efforts were derailed when a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020, an act Iraq viewed as a violation of its sovereignty. Since then, a series of bilateral negotiations has aimed to smooth tensions and ensure continuity of U.S. troop presence in spite of the parliament decision to expel them.

Although Iraqi factions have threatened further escalation, they, like Lebanese Hezbollah, are constrained by domestic interests and do not want a wider war. “They don’t want to get involved in this conflict,” said an Iraqi security official who asked not to be named to speak openly about a sensitive matter. “They have too much to lose,” he added, alluding to political and economic interests that have served to moderate the conduct of some armed groups in recent years.

In an apparent attempt to avoid a repeat of the 2020 unraveling that followed Soleimani’s and Muhandis’s assassination, the Biden administration at first avoided hitting back at factions inside Iraq, only carrying out limited strikes inside Syria, where Iraqi resistance groups also operate. That changed on Tuesday, when an American strike killed one Kataib Hezbollah operative in Baghdad shortly after he carried out another attack on the Ain al-Assad base in Western Iraq.

In a statement, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the strikes were “separate and distinct from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas” and urged “all state and non-state entities not to take action that would escalate into a broader regional conflict.” Such remarks fuel the perception among the “resistance” that the U.S. is refusing to acknowledge and fix the root cause of the crisis, instead further inflaming grievances by trying to suppress what these groups, and many Muslims, regard as a legitimate struggle.

Last week’s decision to impose fresh sanctions against seven members of Kataib Hezbollah, including al-Husseini, as well as another group, has been met with defiance and mockery. Nasrallah has also dismissed U.S. appeals to governments in Iraq and Lebanon to rein in the paramilitaries.

“This intimidation did not stop the operations of the Iraqi resistance, did not stop the operations of the Yemeni brothers, did not stop or stop the resistance operations in Lebanon,” the Hezbollah leader said. “The one who can stop the aggression is the one who leads it, and that is America.”

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