WASHINGTON: The word ''axis'' becomes portentous in times of war.
In 2002, then president George W. Bush made great mileage with ''axis of evil'', lumping Iran, Iraq and North Korea together as state sponsors of terror as he beat the drum for war in Iraq. On Tuesday a senior Iranian figure invoked the word, as Tehran openly threw its weight behind the beleaguered Assad regime in Syria.
During a high-profile appearance in Damascus, Iranian national security adviser Saeed Jalili was quoted on Syrian TV, declaring Syria to be ''an essential part of the axis of resistance'', which Tehran would not allow ''to be broken in any way''.
The rhetoric is common enough in the flowery language of the region. A placard brandished at a Palestinian demonstration in Jerusalem last year described Syria as husn al-uruba wa al-muqawama - the fortress of resistance and Arabness.
But used in the Syrian capital by Jalili, it cut through another layer of pretence over what is unfolding in Syria. Yes, there is a Syrian people's resistance movement that deserves support. But it is getting more foreign help than any of the other uprisings in the region because its objective is to topple Bashar al-Assad; and because of where the Syrian dictator sits in the regional crossfire.
Assad, a Shiite-aligned Alawite, is a vital ally of Iran because Syria is the conduit through which Tehran supplies, trains and funds Hezbollah, the Shiite political-militia force in Lebanon, through which Tehran can pressure Israel. So a blow struck against Syria, is a blow against Iran - which these days hovers with great uncertainty between negotiations, crippling sanctions and the possibility of war with the West and Israel over its nuclear ambitions.
Regionally, there is a Sunni-Shiite power-struggle - Iran, Syria and Hezbollah and, at times, Iraq, versus the rest, who are Sunni.
It all means that the conflict in Syria already is a proxy war. Claims in Washington and London that their aid to the rebels is ''non-lethal'' are meaningless when it is lumped in with what is presumed to be lethal aid, or cash that can buy lethal supplies, coming from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Jalili was telling the world that Iran is doing the same for Damascus and it will be twisting the arms of others - Moscow, Beijing and several other Arab nations among them - at a conference scheduled in Tehran today.
Several interpretations were made of Jalili's visit and words - Tehran had no option but to stick with Assad; Jalili was there to test the resilience of what was left of the Assad regime, with a view to better understanding the implications for Tehran in the event of a collapse in Damascus; he was trying to wrap his head around what might be needed from Tehran to stave of Assad's demise; it was a diplomatic push to fill the void left by the departure of would-be UN peace broker Kofi Annan; he was telling the world "we are involved - we are inside the battle".