How Gaza Reunited the Middle East

A New Pan-Islamic Front May Be America’s Biggest Challenge

The war in the Gaza Strip is clearly no longer limited to Israel and Hamas. On December 25, an Israeli airstrike killed a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard official, Sayyed Razi Mousavi, in the Shiite-controlled Sayyida Zaynab neighborhood of Damascus. On January 2, Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of Hamas and a founder of its military wing, was assassinated in an Israeli drone attack in south Beirut, a stronghold of the militant Shiite group Hezbollah. Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged fire almost daily since October 7, and Israel has assassinated several senior Hezbollah figures. In the Red Sea, the Houthis, who are adherents of a variant of Shiism, have relentlessly attacked commercial shipping, provoking the United States and the United Kingdom to strike Houthi targets in Yemen. And after a drone strike by a new and shadowy Shiite umbrella group called the Islamic Resistance in Iraq killed three American service personnel at a military outpost in Jordan in late January, the United States responded with a series of strikes on dozens of targets in Iraq and Syria. There is a real danger that this back-and-forth could lead to a direct U.S. military conflict with Iran.

As many have observed, these flash points show the growing reach of the so-called axis of resistance, the loose group of Iranian-backed militias that is attacking Israeli and U.S. interests across the Middle East. Less noted, however, has been the extent to which this broader conflict has blurred the sectarian divisions that have often shaped the region. After all, the vicious civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have all had a Shiite-Sunni component; for years, Iran and Saudi Arabia have invoked sectarian loyalties in their long-running contest for regional dominance. Yet the war in Gaza has defied this tension: Palestinians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, and Hamas emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most important Sunni Islamist movement, with roots in Egypt. How is it that Hamas has found some of its strongest allies in Shiite-led groups and regimes in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen?

Beyond the axis of resistance, the explanation lies in the special place that Palestinian liberation has long held among ordinary Sunnis and Shiites and how the war has turned that sentiment into a powerful unifying force. Indeed, even when sectarian tensions have flared elsewhere, the plight of the Palestinians has long provided a common rallying point across the Muslim world. And over the past few years, as Sunni Arab leaders have pursued “normalization” deals with Israel and increasingly ignored the Palestinian issue, the Iranian government and its Shiite allies have become the primary backers of Palestinian armed resistance. In turn, regional shifts, including the March 2023 rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the ongoing Houthi-Saudi and intra-Yemeni peace talks, and the changing dynamics in Iraq and Lebanon, have made the sectarian divide much less salient.

Now, after nearly four months of catastrophic war, Israel’s assault on Gaza has awakened a pan-Islamic front encompassing Sunni Arab publics, who overwhelmingly oppose Arab normalization, and the militant Shiite groups that constitute the core of Iran’s resistance forces. For the United States and its partners, this development poses a strategic challenge that goes far beyond countering Iraqi militias and the Houthis with targeted strikes. By bringing together a long-divided region, the war in Gaza threatens to further undermine U.S. influence and, in the long run, could make numerous U.S. military missions untenable. This new unity also raises significant obstacles to any U.S.-led efforts to impose a top-down peace deal that excludes Palestinian Islamists.

Although sectarian divisions have long played a prominent part in Middle Eastern conflicts, the drivers are often misunderstood. Doctrinally, the Shiite-Sunni split concerns succession to the Prophet Muhammad, with Sunnis asserting that his successors, known as caliphs, were to be chosen from among the community of his closest early followers and Shiites setting down instead that his successors, whom they call imams, must descend directly from the Prophet Muhammad. Gradually, Sunnism and Shiism developed into Islam’s two main branches, with the majority of Muslims around the world adhering to the former. By contrast, Shiism was centered in Iran, following the Safavid dynasty’s conversion of Iranians to Twelver Shiism in the sixteenth century, and in Iraq, where Shiites constituted a majority; there were also significant Shiite communities in Lebanon, Yemen, the Gulf States, and South Asia. For centuries, however, the Palestinians were mostly unaffected by this split: as subjects of the Sunni Ottoman Empire and as Arabic-speaking Sunnis and Christians, they had little exposure to Shiism or the Shiite-Sunni divide.

It was only after World War I, as Western colonial powers sought to organize former Ottoman lands along ethnosectarian lines, that religious identities became more politically relevant and intertwined with the nation-state. In Lebanon and Syria, the French turned sectarian identity into the very basis of politics and law. (In Lebanon, the state was ruled largely by Christians and Sunnis, with Shiites given little authority.) In its own mandates in Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan, the British government also established Sunni-led administrations even where there were sizable numbers of Shiites; in Iraq, the British continued Ottoman policies and largely sidelined Shiite communities and Shiite clergy, whom they saw as too autonomous and resentful of British domination. The United Kingdom’s support for Jewish immigration to Palestine and its policy of ruling Arabs and Jews differently further strengthened ethnoreligious categories in the region, including among the Palestinians themselves. In other words, ethnosectarian divisions were fueled as much by colonial politics and the rise of modern nation-states as by deeper doctrinal or religious debates.

But the politics of nation building could push in multiple directions. After 1948, Israel’s repeated expulsions of Palestinians led to new connections and alliances. In Lebanon, an influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967 coincided with the political awakening of the country’s marginalized Shiite community, which was seeking its own liberation. Over the following decades, in addition to building ties with Lebanese Shiites, the Palestinians also mixed with some of the Iranian activists who later led the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a close ally of Israel and the United States. After his triumphal return to Iran in February 1979, the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini almost immediately welcomed the Palestine Liberation Organization to the holy city of Qom, where the PLO leader Yasser Arafat praised the revolution as a “major victory for Muslims as well as a day of victory for Palestine.” Two days later, the Israeli embassy in Tehran was handed over to the PLO. A Muslim Brotherhood delegation likewise visited, highlighting how in its early days the revolution was seen more in pan-Islamic than Shiite terms by Sunni audiences and political movements.

Still, most leaders in the Arab Middle East regarded the Islamic Republic of Iran and its support for revolutionary movements across the region as a major threat. These Sunni-led states feared that the Iranian Revolution would empower Shiite communities and Islamist movements in their own countries, challenge their central position in the Arab and Islamic world, and complicate their relations with the United States. And when Iraq’s Baathist regime invaded Iran in 1980, the PLO and other Palestinian groups sided with Baghdad, concluding that relations with Iraq and the Gulf states took precedence over Tehran.

After the 9/11 attacks, misguided U.S. interventions greatly intensified sectarian conflict across the Middle East, helping embolden many of the armed groups that the Biden administration is contending with today. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq brought to power the Shiite Islamist parties that had mostly been in exile in Iran and Syria since the Iranian Revolution. It also gave new fuel to Sunni extremists, such as al Qaeda, in Iraq, setting off the bloody Iraqi civil war that ultimately gave rise to both the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are today targeting U.S. forces in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria.

After two decades of violence between the Sunnis and the Shiites and the brutal efforts of ISIS to establish a caliphate, many in the West expected that a Sunni Islamist movement such as Hamas would command limited popular support in the greater Middle East. In countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), so the thinking went, the Muslim Brotherhood was now shunned as a matter of policy, and a new generation of Gulf Arab leaders seemed to care less about the Palestinian issue than about the advanced surveillance technology and business ties that Israel had to offer. And in countries such as Iran and Iraq, the populations were predominantly Shiite and presumably unlikely to be mobilized by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These misguided assumptions helped drive U.S. efforts to push the Gulf monarchies and other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, even in the absence of any viable plan for addressing the grievances of millions of Palestinians living under indefinite Israeli control and occupation, and as refugees around the region.

In fact, for nearly a century, support for the Palestinians has been something on which Sunni and Shiite Muslims around the world have largely agreed. In 1931, at a congress in Jerusalem to highlight Muslim solidarity against Zionism, Sunni participants suggested that a famous Iraqi Shiite cleric lead the Friday prayer in the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Seventy-five years later, when Hezbollah managed to survive its 2006 war with Israel (and indeed, already in 2000, when it was instrumental in pushing the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon), the group was praised by Sunnis and Shiites alike. Since the war in Gaza began, Hamas has drawn similar levels of cross-sectarian support.

This popular dynamic has brought growing pressure on Arab autocrats and given new clout in the Sunni world to Shiite groups that have actively supported Hamas. Alienated by their regimes’ support for the West and ties to Israel, many Sunni Arabs have watched in awe as militant Iran-allied movements from Beirut and Baghdad to the Red Sea have become the most visible channels of resistance to Israel’s war in Gaza. These are the groups that make up the axis of resistance, which under Iran’s leadership has now become a coordinated force across the greater region.

The growing strength of the resistance forces should not be understood merely or even primarily as an expression of religious fundamentalism or sectarian identification. It owes to several factors, including sustained levels of funding, a committed and disciplined organizational structure, a coherent ideology, and significant social backing for the groups in their respective communities. But it is also rooted in the unintended consequences of Western and Israeli military interventions and the policies of pro-Western Arab regimes. And crucially, it relates to the gradual coming together of Hamas, as the most powerful Palestinian Islamist movement, with Iran’s Shiite allies.

The axis of resistance took shape in the years after the 9/11 attacks. Regional media outlets coined the name as a pun on U.S. President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” which he invoked in his 2002 State of the Union address to link the unlikely trio of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. A few months later, Bush’s Undersecretary of State John Bolton added Cuba, Libya, and Syria to the list. For the United States to throw regional archenemies Iran and Iraq into one basket was confounding to the Iranians, who had just started a reset of relations with Washington and had even provided some assistance to the U.S. campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. To add Syria, another of Iraq’s chief adversaries, to the mix and threaten them all with punishment for 9/11—a terrorist attack perpetrated by Saudi, Emirati, Lebanese, and Egyptian members of al Qaeda, the Sunni extremist group—was even more of an affront. Fearing they might be the next target of U.S.-led regime change, Iran and Syria strengthened their alliances and ties with armed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories to deter American and Israeli hegemony. As the region descended into sectarian violence, Iran’s growing support for Palestinian Islamist movements also allowed it to retain some pan-Islamic legitimacy.

Still, Iran’s alliance with Hamas took years to build and was not always smooth. During the Syrian civil war, which pitted largely Sunni Islamist rebels against the Syrian regime, Hamas’s political leadership, which was based in Damascus at the time, had a significant falling out with Syria and Iran. After Palestinian refugee camps in Syria were caught up in the fighting and many Palestinians killed, Hamas’s leaders decamped to Qatar and Turkey—the states that were the chief backers of the Sunni rebel groups that were seeking to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As a result, Iran significantly scaled back its support for Hamas, although that created a public relations problem since Hamas had become Tehran’s best counter to claims that it was building a sectarian front and that it was exclusively supporting Shiite movements.

It was only in the late 2010s that Hamas fully returned to the Iranian fold. By that point, Iran was the only power in the region willing and able to supply arms to Hamas in a sustained manner and to fully back armed confrontations with Israel. (Qatar continued to provide political cover to Hamas and funding to Gaza, although much of it was through Israeli channels and with Israeli knowledge.) Iranian support proved especially important to the political leadership of Hamas inside Gaza and its military wing, the Qassam Brigades. Yahya Sinwar, who became Hamas’s leader in Gaza in 2017, tried to steer clear of the pitfalls of the rivalries among regional powers and was soon building direct connections with Iran. And in 2022, Hamas also finally reconciled with the Assad regime, thus cementing the group’s position within the axis of resistance and underscoring Iran’s—and Syria’s—crucial role in Palestinian armed struggle.

Despite this alliance, Hamas has remained somewhat peripheral to the axis’s core Shiite members, whose shared ideology leans heavily on the Shiite liberation theology associated with the Islamic Republic of Iran and a concept of martyrdom that likewise has strong Shiite connotations. Thus, Hezbollah’s ties to Iran are much more far-reaching than Hamas’s: although Hassan Nasrallah is Hezbollah’s longtime secretary-general and the group has a local decision-making body largely made up of Lebanese clerics, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei remains Hezbollah’s ultimate religious guide and features heavily in the movement’s propaganda. This is not the case with Hamas.

In 2022, Hamas reconciled with the Assad regime, cementing the group’s position within the axis of resistance.
This raises the question of just how far Iran’s coordination of the axis goes. For one thing, despite the newfound unity among these various groups, neither Nasrallah nor Khamenei—nor even Hamas’s own external political leaders—appears to have had foreknowledge of the details of Hamas’s October 7 attack, although they praised it. But there also is the matter of how far the other axis members are prepared to go in joining Hamas’s conflict with Israel. In recent years, axis leaders have started to emphasize a military doctrine they referred to as the “unity of arenas,” meaning that if one member was attacked, all the other “arenas”—including, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories—would join in its defense. Although there has been some military activity in each of these arenas since October 7, however, it is worth noting that Iran has not directly intervened and that Hezbollah has limited itself to regular rocket fire toward Israel from the Lebanese border rather than a ground invasion or a more massive missile assault.

As a result, close observers of the axis remain divided about whether the arenas doctrine is being carried out as envisioned and the war is still at an early stage in a possible wider escalation or if instead the core Shiite members of the axis, especially Iran and Hezbollah, are trying to show support for Hamas without getting dragged into an all-out war. Numerous speeches by Nasrallah point in the latter direction, as do signals from Iran—including since Washington’s early February strikes on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq—that it does not seek further escalation. There are also indications that Hamas’s leaders in Gaza were expecting a stronger response from the axis, especially from Hezbollah, given its long line of contact with Israel and its formidable arsenal of rockets.

The academic consensus has generally been that although the axis features an Iranian core and Iranian coordination, its members do not necessarily take orders from Iran. Those groups that have more distance from Iran geographically, ideologically, and doctrinally, such as Hamas and the Houthis, enjoy greater independence. By contrast, some of the Twelver Shiite militias, including Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Iraq, are directly tied to the Iranian state and its leadership not only on a political and military basis but also doctrinally. But those groups, too, have their own domestic interests and sources of funding, and many of the attacks on U.S. bases have been claimed by the relatively new Islamic Resistance in Iraq, likely an umbrella group that comprises older Shiite militias, leading to further ambiguity about the level of coordination with Tehran.

Although some in the Middle East have criticized Iran’s axis militias for widening the war, both opinion surveys and Arab social media show considerable Arab support for Hamas and its doctrine of armed resistance. The same surveys also show a dramatic falloff in support for the United States and the regimes closely associated with it, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020. In Saudi Arabia, polls now show that an overwhelming portion of the population, more than 90 percent, are against establishing ties with Israel. And in the January Arab Opinion Index, a Doha-based survey of 16 Arab countries, more than three-quarters of respondents agreed that their views of the United States had become more negative since the war began.

It is not difficult to understand how these perceptions have been shaped. While pro-Western Arab governments have very little to show for their efforts to stop the war, Iran and its axis forces have been able to portray themselves as regional leaders and the Palestinians’ primary supporters. Take the Houthis. Formerly a little-known rebel militia in northern Yemen, the group has been able to shut down commercial shipping through the Bab el Mandeb Strait, even in the face of sustained U.S. and British bombardment. The Houthis’ scrappy war has gained notoriety among Arab populations who have not previously supported them or the wider policies of the axis. In this sense, the war in Gaza has brought greater unity across the Islamic world than perhaps any other conflict in recent decades.

Paradoxically, the greatest opponents of the axis at this point appear to be Sunni extremist groups such as ISIS, the group to which some Israeli and American officials have likened Hamas itself. (Such comparisons have been provoked by the brutality of the October 7 attacks, although ISIS has repeatedly condemned Hamas for being too nationalist and not globalist enough.) Notably, in early January, ISIS claimed responsibility for a large-scale terrorist bombing of a memorial service in Iran in honor of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general and lead architect of the axis of resistance, in which 94 people were killed and 284 injured. ISIS argued that visitors to Soleimani’s tomb deserved to die because they were Shiites and that the bombing was a symbolic attack on Soleimani and what he stood for. In doing so, the Salafi jihadi group appeared to be making a desperate bid to regain regional relevance and rekindle Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence at a moment when the Sunnis and the Shiites are largely united.

Opinion surveys and Arab social media show considerable Arab support for Hamas and its doctrine of armed resistance.
Soleimani was assassinated by the Trump administration in 2020 for orchestrating attacks on U.S. interests in the region. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that between 2015 and 2017, Soleimani helped coordinate the largely Shiite Iraqi militias in the fight against ISIS alongside the U.S.-led coalition. Following Soleimani’s assassination, Iran suggested it would respond by stepping up its efforts to expel U.S. troops from the region. Paradoxically, current American actions in the war in Gaza, including unconditional U.S. support for Israel and military and diplomatic actions intended to buy Israel more time, may hasten that goal, since now there is growing regionwide support for resisting the West and Israel. Meanwhile, the many domestic critics of the axis forces stand no chance of gaining ground as long as this network—whether the Iranian and Syrian regimes, the Houthis, Hezbollah, or the various Shiite militias in Iraq—can portray themselves as the true supporters of the Palestinians at a moment of great hardship.

Simply by their support for Hamas and their willingness to mount armed resistance where Arab governments have largely remained bystanders, the members of the axis have thus gained much influence across the Middle East. Whatever happens next, Iran and its allies seem likely to enjoy even greater influence and leverage, not least as a result of past and present mistakes made by their adversaries in Israel and the West. As for the pro-Western Arab states, they will have to seek to close the yawning gap between their policies and the sympathies of their own citizens. After years of neglect, they will need to push urgently for a just solution to the Palestinian question, lest they find themselves confronted with a new wave of Arab uprisings.

For the United States, asserting its military power by launching precision strikes on militia targets may be a satisfying option. But it is increasingly clear that it will be impossible for Washington to stop the regional escalation unless it can secure a cease-fire in Gaza, end the occupation, and finally establish a viable Palestinian state. In the absence of such credible and concrete steps, regional powers will continue to use the Palestinian question for their own gain. Yet it is hard to imagine a Palestinian state being established, let alone succeeding, if it is not backed by the support of all Palestinian factions and all major regional powers, including Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states, but also Turkey, Iran, and the axis forces. Otherwise, the list of spoilers is potentially endless. The obstacles to such an approach are tremendous, especially given the Israeli government’s own stated position on the matter. But without such a broad-based and just solution to the Palestinian question, the Middle East will never achieve a durable peace or the kind of political and economic cooperation that many have long dreamed of. The alternative is a never-ending cycle of violence, a decline of Western influence and legitimacy, and the danger not only of wider war but also of a region that is integrating in a quite different way—one that is fundamentally hostile to the West itself.

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