How the War in Gaza Revived the Axis of Resistance

Iran and Its Allies Are Fighting With Missiles and Memes

On January 12, the United Kingdom and the United States launched military strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen. These attacks were a response to the group’s assaults on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, which have disrupted global trade. The Houthis’ actions briefly made them the most prominent members of a military coalition that has become increasingly active across the region following the assassination of Saleh al-Arouri and other Hamas leaders in Beirut on January 2. For following their deaths, Hezbollah’s commander, Hassan Nasrallah vowed retribution and declared that the fight against Israel required nothing less than an “axis of resistance.” In the hours that followed Nasrallah’s pledge, his words were spliced into slickly produced videos and spread widely. Then the axis attacked. Hezbollah pounded Israel’s Meron air surveillance base with 62 rockets; the Iraq-based Islamic Resistance group sent drones to attack U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq and targeted the Israeli city of Haifa with a long-range cruise missile; the Houthis struck in the Red Sea; and Iran captured an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman.

Although both Western and regional countries claim that they do not want the war in the Gaza Strip to become a regional conflagration, Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and other members of the axis are playing a very different game. They are patiently and methodically consolidating an alliance of forces across a regional battlefield. It started with Iran and Hezbollah, but it is rapidly evolving into something larger than its parts. Its other members include the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria. The formation of this axis presents a direct challenge to the regional order that the West has created and defended in the Middle East for decades. It also—as Iranian and Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea demonstrate—presents a threat to global trade and energy supplies.

Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 demonstrated the axis’s capabilities and influence, which extend beyond the Palestinian territories to encompass Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. The West sees Tehran as the mastermind behind this network, and there is no doubt that the axis of resistance reflects Iran’s strategic outlook. Indeed, its Revolutionary Guards have provided the axis’s members with lethal military capabilities and coordinating support. But Tehran is not the puppet master, and the axis’s coherence and regional role reflects far more than Iran’s dictates.

Instead, the axis is bound together by a shared hatred of U.S. and Israeli “colonialism.” Hezbollah believes that Washington and Tel Aviv are meddling in Lebanon, and Hamas, the Houthis, and Iraq’s Shia militias believe the same to be true in their territories. As Nasrallah has put it, the disparate groups are unified by the reality that, be they Lebanese, Palestinians, or Yemenis, they face the same issues and the same enemy. This means that what happens in one territory is directly relevant to the others. Rather than an instrument of Iran, the axis sees itself as an alliance built around common strategic goals with the spirit of “all for one and one for all.” The axis’s members believe that they are all fighting the same war against Israel and, indirectly, the United States. That means that neither U.S. warnings nor U.S. attacks will force the axis to stand down. Unless the guns in Gaza fall silent, the pressure on its population is relieved, and a credible path to Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination is plotted, the United States will not be able to extricate itself from a dangerous escalatory spiral.

TEHRAN’S GRAND DESIGN
The axis of resistance did not spring to life on October 7. Rather, it was forged in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Its founder, the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and its former commander, Qasem Soleimani, built the network on the back of Iran’s close ties with Hezbollah, drawing on both Iran’s and Hezbollah’s experiences of fighting Iraq and Israel in the 1980s. From the outset, Soleimani sought to create a flexible network in which each constituent part of the axis was self-sufficient. Although the training and munitions might come from Iran, each unit was expected to master and deploy tactics, technology, and weaponry.

In its early days, the fledgling axis had the primary aim of defeating U.S. plans for the occupation of Iraq. To that end, Tehran and Hezbollah successfully created local militias that fought U.S. troops. Then, after the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took control of large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, similar militias were established to fight these militantly sectarian forces that threatened both the Assad regime in Syria and Shia control of Iraq. The Syrian civil war became a turning point for the axis as Iran, Hezbollah, and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria fought against their common enemy. In doing so, these countries and groups deepened their military and intelligence capabilities and honed the strategic logic of their alliance. It was during this time that Iran strengthened its ties with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, folding them into the now burgeoning alliance, and adopting the banner of the axis of resistance.

Over the past decade, Iran and Hezbollah have deployed advanced missiles, drones, and rockets in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. They have also trained Hamas and the Houthis to build their own weaponry. The success of this approach is shown by Hamas’s and the Houthis’ adept development and use of missiles. Axis members have also been trained in media communications, assisted in setting up financial channels, and taught how to support civil resistance, especially in the West Bank. Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, built on this legacy and further decentralized the axis, increasingly delegating tactical and operational decision-making to local units and their commanders.

Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and others are consolidating an alliance of forces across a regional battlefield.
The resulting network has helped Tehran further its enduring objective of driving the United States out of the Middle East. Since the 1979 revolution, Tehran has been focused on protecting the country from Washington, which Iranian leaders are convinced is determined to destroy the Islamic Republic. To that end, Iran has sought to flout U.S. attempts to contain it economically and militarily. It has sought to dislodge the U.S. military from countries bordering Iran and the Persian Gulf, and to compel the United States to leave the region. The axis has been valuable, then, for Tehran, for it has distracted U.S. forces away from Iran’s borders.

The strategic value of the axis to Tehran has grown over the past eight years because of Washington’s increasing belligerence. In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and imposed maximum sanctions on the country, and in 2020 he ordered the killing of Soleimani. These actions convinced Tehran of the need for a more powerful and coherent axis of allies, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, that could increase the pressure on Washington. In this context, Iran’s nuclear program became important not only as a bargaining chip to negotiate sanctions removal but also as a deterrent that could protect the axis from U.S. attack.

The other members of the axis of resistance are aligned with Tehran’s aims across the region, which also reflect their own local interests. Hezbollah, for example, is driven by the desire to protect southern Lebanon from what it believes is Israel’s expansionist ambitions, which supposedly also extend to include territories in Syria and Jordan. Shia militias in Iraq are focused on getting U.S. forces out of the country, as well as on triumphing in what they believe is an unfinished civil war with the country’s Sunnis. The Houthis want to gain power over the whole of Yemen, and they resent the efforts of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to get in their way.

ALL FOR ONE
Still, the axis of resistance is ultimately a military alliance, and so its members are stronger together. Although Hamas planned and executed the October 7 attack, Iran and Hezbollah were largely responsible for upgrading Hamas’s capabilities. Indeed, as a host of meetings in Beirut attended by senior leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Revolutionary Guards, and the Houthi and Iraqi militias before the attack shows, the axis’s members likely knew of Hamas’s plans and supported them. For Hamas, the attack’s main aim was to disrupt the status quo that was slowly but surely extinguishing the Palestinian cause, and to return their struggle to the forefront of Arab politics.

For Iran and Hezbollah, too, returning the Palestinian issue to center stage had the advantage of putting Israel on the back foot, thereby reducing the likelihood of further normalization of ties between Israel and Arab states. They are also intrigued by the possibility of miring Israel in a multifront war that would consume its resources. Either way, the conflict achieves a long-standing Iranian objective: Tehran has long believed that if Israel is not preoccupied with its own affairs, it will be preoccupied with Iran’s.

But the outcome of Hamas’s attack, the scale and ferocity of Israel’s response, the humanitarian catastrophe that has ensued, and the extent of world attention were unexpected. Hamas and its axis allies did not anticipate that the attack on October 7 would be so successful, instead likely envisaging a swift foray into Israel that would end quickly and with limited casualties and hostages. Israel would then have attacked Gaza but not with the abandon and destructive ferocity that it has unleashed. The success of Hamas’s attack and the scale of Israel’s reaction stunned the axis, which has, as a result, recalibrated its aims and strategy. Although neither Iran nor Hezbollah wants a wider regional war, they have nevertheless targeted both Israeli and U.S. forces with drones and missiles. The Houthis have joined the fray by disrupting shipping in the Red Sea. They have done this to show support for Palestinians but also to deter the United States and Israel from expanding the war into Lebanon by showing the axis members’ willingness to fight. They hope that this resolve will deter Israel from expanding the conflict and deny Tel Aviv the ability to expand the war on a front of its own choosing, without facing a conflict on all the axis’s fronts.

All members of the axis have taken part in the war in Gaza, and all are, consequently, implicated in the eyes of Israel and the United States. This has further strengthened bonds within the axis. Now, they all depend on one another, and on preventing a clear Israeli victory in Gaza. For if Israel triumphs, it will likely turn its attention to other members of the axis, starting with Hezbollah and ending with Iran.

THE MEDIA WARS
Cameras were just as important to Hamas’s attacks on October 7 as lethal weapons. Using GoPro cameras strapped onto militants and drones to record breaches of the Israeli security wall, Hamas started releasing social-media-ready videos within hours of the attack, seizing control of the narrative from the outset. Hamas has been equally media-savvy since then. For example, during the temporary cease-fire and exchange of hostages in November 2023, the group released its Israeli captives in the middle of Gaza City, with cameras at the ready to capture their smiles, handshakes and high-fives with their captors. This was designed to counter Israeli politicians’ narratives of “savage,” “human animal” terrorists. Public opinion across the Middle East, the global South, and even the West increasingly regards the conflict as the consequence of a decades-long occupation rather than as a response to Islamic terrorism. This implicitly validates the axis’s anticolonialist worldview, and it helps make the axis more popular across the region.

The axis hopes that its global popularity will increase, too. For the first time in many decades, the Palestinian cause is internationally prominent, which the axis’s leaders see as a boon. The rise of the Palestinian issue isolates Israel and the United States and increases global critiques of settler colonialism, occupation, and apartheid. Axis leaders welcome confrontation with the West at a time when these anti-Western ideas are gaining newfound attention. To that end, the axis’s leaders have put these concepts at the center of their messaging. Gone is the obscure religious terminology that was for so long a staple of Iran and Hezbollah’s narrative; in its place are words and phrases familiar from human rights literature and international law. An instructive example occurred recently, when the Houthis released an English-language video across social media platforms announcing a blockade of the Red Sea to all commercial vessels linked to Israel or destined for Israeli ports. The video stated that these military operations “adhere to the provisions of Article 1 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This article mandates that all parties to the convention are under obligation to prevent the occurrence of genocide and to punish those responsible for its commission.” The video ends with the message: “The Blockade Stops When the Genocide Stops.” On February 11, the United Kingdom and the United States bombed Yemen, on the same day that South Africa made its genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. Once again, across social media platforms, the message was spread that South Africa and Yemen were taking actions to stop genocide, whereas London and Washington were once again bombing the region to uphold oppression. Throughout the past three months, the Houthis, in particular, have gained a global fandom among sectors of Gen Z, with their videos going viral on TikTok.

During the 20 years of the “war on terror,” the axis of resistance’s members were either internationally unknown or simply considered to be terrorists motivated by hatred of the West. Since October 7, the axis has been able to define itself on its own terms and successfully link its actions with global anticolonialist movements. It has already experienced previously unthinkable success: protesters in London this month chanted “Yemen, Yemen, make us proud, turn another ship around.”

Cameras were just as important to Hamas’s attacks on October 7 as lethal weapons.
The axis, then, is now fighting Israel and the United States not only on battlefields in the Middle East but also across social media—on platforms including Instagram, Telegram, TikTok, and X—for world public opinion. Indeed, Nasrallah’s and Khamenei’s statements indicate that the axis’s leaders regard international public opinion as the more important strategic long-term prize. They know that they cannot defeat the United States militarily and so they hope to create sufficient public pressure to force Washington to retreat from the Middle East and respect the sovereignty of Palestinians. It is for this reason that Nasrallah has celebrated the fact that “Israel is now seen as a child murdering terrorist state, thanks to social media.” Because of social media, Nasrallah went on, there is a global perception of Israel as a “killer of children and women, [that] displaces people, and is responsible for the largest genocide in the current century.” Nasrallah has also celebrated social media’s ability to spread the view that the United States bears responsibility. “The war on Gaza is an American one, the bombs are American, the decision is American,” he said. “The world knows this today.”

For the axis, this media campaign comes just in time. Iran and Hezbollah have long been aware of the importance of soft power but have been historically unsuccessful at influencing it. But they recognized this shortcoming, and they have spent the past decade building a strong and nimble media infrastructure—now operational in multiple languages—for exactly this kind of moment. Today, the axis of resistance puts out daily videos of battlefield operations, complete with slo-mo effects to highlight direct hits on Israeli soldiers and military installations. It posts on TikTok videos of Houthis dancing aboard ships seized in the Red Sea, and it produces memes meant to generate global fandom for key axis figures, including the Hamas spokesperson Abu Obeida. Content is also produced to celebrate Nasrallah, contrasting the Hezbollah leader with Arab heads of state who are accused of doing little for the Palestinians. This output complements content generated abroad in support of Palestine, expanding the axis’s reach in unprecedented ways.

The military and soft power campaigns that the axis has masterminded present unprecedented regional challenges for the West, and for Washington in particular. If the war does not end soon, and no clear path to a just settlement for the Palestinians is established, the United States will face a region whose politics will be shaped increasingly by the rage that has gripped the Gaza Strip. An expansion of the conflict beyond Gaza, by Israel in Lebanon or by the United States and its allies in Yemen will only feed this rage and further inflame public opinion, entrenching the axis’ influence. Washington can only reverse this trend by negotiating a cease-fire in Gaza and then shaping a credible peace process leading to a final settlement.

The axis of resistance has been long in the making. The war in Gaza has given the network its greatest opportunity so far to unleash a military and communications assault on the West. Already, it has asserted itself in the region through its arms and soldiers, and globally through its message and mission. The Israel-Hamas war has changed the Middle East: immense public anger has been stirred up, and animus toward the West could spark fresh extremism and political instability. For the region’s rulers, even those whom Washington counts as allies, the war has changed fundamental assumptions about their own security and their relations with the West. The United States can neither easily dismantle the axis nor defeat the ideas that spawned it. The only way to take the wind out of the axis’s sails is to end the war in Gaza and negotiate a real and just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Unless this is done, the axis will be a regional reality that the United States will have to contend with for many years to come.

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