Bassem Mroue

BEIRUT: When the Hamas rulers of Gaza recently gave a hero’s welcome to the ruler of Qatar, an arch foe of the Syrian regime, it sent a strong message reverberating across the capitals in Tehran, Damascus and Beirut.

The powerful, anti-American alliance of Iran, Syria and militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, once dubbed the “Axis of Resistance,” is fraying.

Iran’s economy is showing signs of distress from nuclear sanctions, Syria’s president is fighting for his survival and Hezbollah in Lebanon is under fire by opponents who blame it for the assassination of an anti-Syrian intelligence official. Hamas — the Palestinian arm — has bolted.

“We’re seeing basically the resistance axis becoming much more vulnerable and under duress. So even if it survives, it’s really under tremendous pressure,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

“The Hamas shift to the Saudi-Qatari-Turkish orbit represents a major nail in the coffin of the resistance axis,” he said. “Now you are talking about Iran and Syria and to a lesser extent Iraq and this undermines the social element because Hamas added the very important Sunni dimension.”

The axis is one of two powerful camps that divide the Middle East into spheres of competing influence. It faces off against the wealthy, powerful monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar allied loosely with most of the other Arab countries and neighboring Turkey, which like Iran is Muslim but not Arab.

The fault line is sharply sectarian — Iran and Hezbollah are Shiite and Assad’s regime is dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Hamas, which is Sunni, had been the exception before it strayed. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim-led Arab countries in the Gulf have been trying to stem the regional influence of Iran.

Also, the Sunni countries, along with Turkey, support the Sunni-dominated opposition waging the civil war against Assad’s rule in Syria.

The axis had been gaining power over the decade before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 and formed a powerful front against Israel and the key U.S. allies in the Middle East such as the oil-rich Gulf states. Iran has long supported Hezbollah and Hamas as proxies in its battle against Israel. And Tehran also troubled the west with its dogged pursuit of uranium enrichment, a program the U.S. and its allies suspect is aimed at producing nuclear weapons but which Iran says is for peaceful purposes.

Syria has long boasted about being one of the few protectors of militant groups fighting Israel. It is the main transit point of weapons brought from Iran to Hezbollah and a collapse of Assad’s regime would make it difficult for arms to reach the militant group that has been exchanging threats with the Jewish state and fought a 2006 war with Israel.

The axis also spread its influence to Shiite majority Iraq, where the fall of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated regime gave way to a government controlled by Shiites.

The uprising against Assad that erupted 19 months ago, amid tumultuous changes sweeping the Arab world, shook a major pillar of the alliance.

“The fate of the alliance rests on the future of the Assad regime. If Assad goes, Iran and Hezbollah will suffer and find it much more difficult to plan, coordinate and communicate,” Bilal Saab said.

Airstrikes near Damascus

In other developments, Syrian warplanes fired missiles at opposition strongholds around Damascus and in the north on Wednesday as Turkey, a key backer of the anti-regime rebels, appeared to distance itself from an earlier call to impose a no-fly zone.

The Syrian regime has intensified airstrikes in recent days following the failure of a U.N.-backed holiday truce over a four-day holiday that never took hold. Activists said at least 110 people were killed nationwide in airstrikes, artillery shelling and fighting Wednesday.

Wednesday’s casualties pushed the death toll since the conflict began in March 2011 to more than 36,000, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Much of the violence took place in rebellious suburbs of the capital Damascus and in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. The Observatory said government jets carried out multiple strikes in the eastern Ghouta district, a rebel stronghold close to the capital.