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.
Only few years ago, the coalition was becoming so powerful that King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a "Shiite crescent," meaning countries from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
A new boldness was seen in 2010 when Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah emerged from hiding for a rare public trip to Damascus, where he attended a meeting with his powerful regional allies, Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The leaders smiled confidently and appeared relaxed in footage of their meetings, a show of force meant to deter and demonstrate the unshakable power of the "Axis of Resistance."
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," said Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
The brutal crackdown by Assad's regime on the Sunni-dominated uprising was an embarrassment to Hamas, the main Palestinian arm of the coalition. Hamas leaders in exile, who had been based in Damascus since the late 1990s, left for Egypt, Qatar and other countries.
Hamas officials say they could not be seen supporting a regime that was brutally suppressing a popular rebellion, particularly since most of those rising up against Assad are fellow Sunni Muslims.
This about-turn also caused new tensions with the Palestinian movement's main financial backer, Iran. Tehran demanded that Hamas step up and support Assad publicly. Hamas refused to do so, but didn't break ties entirely with Tehran, for lack of an alternative source of funds.
However, another benefactor may now be stepping forward.
Last week, the emir of Qatar, a vociferous critic of Assad, became the first foreign leader to visit the Gaza Strip. In a way, it formally sealed the break by Hamas from the "Axis of Resistance."
The trip offering the internationally isolated Hamas leadership there an unprecedented stamp of approval and Qatar promised more than $400 million in development projects for the impoverished territory.
The Qatari leader's generosity will likely give him some leverage over Hamas' decision-making at a time of growing debate within the movement over whether to stay in the orbit of Iran and other radical groups or move closer to the more moderate Gulf Arab camp.
Syria's president has painted the uprising against him as a universal attack designed to destroy the entire "Axis of Resistance." Last month, Assad told Iran's visiting foreign minister that the fight against his government "targets resistance as a whole, not only Syria."
"There will have to be serious adjustments in the axis should Assad go and preparations in Tehran for the day after are, I assume, already underway," Saab said.
Hezbollah, which supported revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, backed Assad in the crackdown. That support turned much of the Middle East's Sunni population against the group they once looked up to.
The group came under renewed pressure and criticism earlier this month when a car bomb in Beirut on Oct. 19 killed one of the country's top intelligence officials, an anti-Syrian figure. Hezbollah's opponents at home immediately pointed fingers at the group, calling for the resignation of the government Hezbollah now dominates.
Iran, the wealthiest and most powerful member of the alliance, has reportedly sent billions of dollars to Assad to help suppress the uprising, according to a recent report by Times of London. Tehran has given Hezbollah billions since the group was created in 1982.
But now Iran is struggling to cope with Western sanctions that have ravaged its economy. The sanctions aim at thwarting its nuclear program.
The distress was all too apparent in the freefall of Iran's currency the rial, which lost more than a third of its value in a week. The decline is widely tied to the effects of sanctions.
Israel has threatened to carry out a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who heads the Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division, warned that Iran will target U.S. bases in the region in the event of war with Israel.
"The question is not whether it (the alliance) will survive or not. The question is will it have the capacity to act offensively," said Gerges. It is on the defensive."
Associated Press writers Karin Laub and Zeina Karam contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue