Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” after Soleimani
Feb 3, 2020 | Seth Frantzman
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has increased his stature in the region following the deaths of Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraq’s Kata’eb Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. He is so sure of himself he has begun commenting about the internal affairs of Iraq, whose Iranian-backed groups appear to have a slight power vacuum at the moment.
On Jan. 12 Nasrallah said that in the coming days and weeks the United States must “leave this region.” He has threatened the US that its troops must leave either peacefully or in coffins. The “resistance axis” will begin to move against the US.
This “axis” includes the IRGC, Hezbollah and allies in Yemen and Iraq. A key part of that alliance was Kata’eb Hezbollah in Iraq. Led by Muhandis for years, it was linked closely to the IRGC.
Muhandis earned his spurs in the 1980s alongside the IRGC. He had fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to live in Iran. He was involved in IRGC terrorist operations in Kuwait at the time. During this time he became acquainted with Iran’s growing role in the region, including Iran’s work with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Fast-forward 30 years, and we got to the point where men like Soleimani, Muhandis and Nasrallah believed they were the up-and-coming leaders of an Iranian-dominated region.
Among their cohorts was also Hadi al-Amiri, the powerful leader of the Badr Organisation in Iraq and a key ally of the IRGC, as well as leader of the second-largest political party in Iraq. Now Amiri and Nasrallah have lost two of their four-member squad. Nasrallah has stepped up, seeking to play a larger role in Iran’s leadership in the region.
In his Jan. 12 speech, Nasrallah said that the killing of Soleimani by the US was a crime. It is Iraq that is the first country that should respond, he said. He also said Muhandis was a great Iraqi commander.
Oddly, Nasrallah then turned to attack the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, slamming Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. He said Barzani should thank Soleimani for aiding the Kurds in the fight against Islamic State in 2014. Nasrallah accused Barzani of “shaking from fear”.
Nasrallah now positions himself as leading a resistance against the US in the region, taking the mantle of Muhandis and Soleimani.
He openly says that Hezbollah is accused of being a “proxy” of Iran, but says this is incorrect. Hezbollah is not a tool of Iran, but a friend.
This makes sense. Nasrallah cannot see himself as a tool, but, rather, wants to be a leader beyond Lebanon’s borders. He has shown this appetite in the past, not only in Hezbollah’s global operations, which span Europe, Africa and America, but also in past comments about Yemen and in work with Iraqi militias.
Hezbollah has been linked to these Iranian-backed groups for decades. Men like Qais Khazali of Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq have close relations to both the IRGC and Hezbollah.
Nasrallah’s comments on Iraq are raising eyebrows. The Kurdistan Region has responded to Nasrallah’s criticism of Barzani, condemning it and noting that Nasrallah has been hiding in a bunker for years.
“You forgot that for years you haven’t seen the sunlight,” the Kurdistan Region spokesman Jutiar Adel said.
But Nasrallah’s comments appear to foreshadow a larger plan. He has commented about expelling US troops from Iraq. At the same time, Iraq’s Moqtada al-Sadr has spoken about a larger alliance of Iranian-backed groups in the region.
Nasrallah says that the recent rocket attacks in Iraq against US bases are just the “start” of a phase to push the US out.
According to Middle East Eye, Iran is now looking to Nasrallah to help lead a “united resistance” against the US. This will include backing Amiri as head of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) in Iraq.
Muhandis was deputy head of the PMU, a group of mostly Shi’ite militias that includes Kata’eb Hezbollah, Badr and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
According to Middle East Eye, the agreement to put Nasrallah in a larger role was signed in Beirut on Jan. 9. Three days later, Nasrallah gave his major speech on the one-week anniversary of the death of Soleimani.
Media in the region are taking notice of Nasrallah’s increased role.
The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar has described his comments this week as representing the “axis of resistance” and Iran’s plans.
Hezbollah could play a greater role, as it already has in Syria, together with Iraqi-based militias, as the IRGC decides how to respond. This would make Lebanon less secure and more of a potential battlefield. Already, Iranian bases in Syria have suffered a pounding by Israel over previous years, with more than 1,000 admitted airstrikes. Israel struck more than 50 targets in 2019 and has struck more than 250 overall.
What does this new “resistance” mean?
We know that Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, another Iraqi-based militia that is linked to the IRGC, PMU and Hezbollah, has vowed to begin the resistance. It has already been sanctioned by the US as a terrorist group. Sadr met with Kata’eb Hezbollah and Nujaba on Jan. 13, according to Al-Mayadeen media.
This sketches out for us a nexus of potential planning for operations that includes Nujaba, Kata’eb Hezbollah in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But central figures are missing. Muhandis and Soleimani are dead. The IRGC has a new man to replace Soleimani, but he must get his feet wet. Muhandis had almost 40 years of experience behind him; now Kata’eb Hezbollah is weakened.
Sadr is not in a position to lead a clandestine resistance linked to the IRGC and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Nasrallah doesn’t seem capable of travelling outside of Lebanon. How can he lead any sort of resistance stuck in Beirut?
This means the rhetorical flourishes of Nasrallah and his attempt to position himself as a commentator on Iraqi politics may not go far.
Iraqis don’t care about Nasrallah, and he won’t influence votes in Baghdad. He doesn’t understand Iraq’s politics and isn’t on the ground.
Men like Muhandis and Soleimani gained respect through operations at the front during the war on ISIS. Nasrallah hasn’t seen a front line in decades. He’s not a commander.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous, but it means that whatever regional role he is casting for must be carefully staged to meet his actual abilities and those of Hezbollah.