Iran, Hezbollah operating with impunity in Yemen
Four Hezbollah military operatives working alongside the Iran-backed Houthi militia east of the Yemeni capital Sanaa were killed by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes last week. The operatives were in Al-Jawf and Nihm, areas that witnessed intense fighting at the start of the year. These locations, known to be heavily tribal, are strongly aligned with Yemen’s government and the majority of them are under its authority. Hezbollah’s involvement and cooperation with the Houthis in these areas point to Iran’s overall interest in sustaining violence in Yemen and increasing the Houthis’ territorial gains, as it relies on its proxies to bolster its overall position in its current standoff with the US.
This increased appetite for violence and expansion is at odds with the Houthis’ rhetoric of de-escalation, which it signaled in September last year. The activity points to a renewed calculus in Yemen’s war, dictated to a large extent by Iran’s interest in the region, especially since the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) member Qassem Soleimani, who was the commander of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force that specializes in unconventional warfare outside of Iran’s borders.
Evidence to support Iran or Hezbollah’s military involvement in Yemen was challenging to come by at the beginning of the conflict. But this involvement has been uncovered gradually throughout the years, showing a series of sophisticated covert operations and military support that elevated the Houthis’ capability. IRGC operatives thrived in Yemen and were able to enter the country and travel freely using Yemeni passports issued to them by the Houthis, according to local sources. Abdul Reza Shahlai, the deputy commander of the Quds Force, was recently targeted by the US in Yemen. Shahlai and his comrades have been focused on external operations that would serve Iran’s overall regional interests, including hampering the Saudi-led coalition’s actions in Yemen and attacking the Kingdom’s oil and military installations.
Iran, through its IRGC operatives and Hezbollah strategists, has set an agenda in parallel to the Houthis’ in order to reach its objectives in the region. Within this context, Iran helped the Houthis expand to achieve Tehran’s broader regional vision, which extends well beyond the scope and capacity of the Houthi group. Through the “Axis of Resistance” network, which the Houthis openly flaunt their membership of, extremist Shiite groups are uniting under Iran as a rival to Saudi Arabia, choosing destruction and violence as their methods of resistance.
Iran’s investment in nurturing the Houthis’ ability is not as recent as many may think. A video that was uncovered in a Saudi raid in Saada in early 2016 showed a Lebanese Hezbollah operative training several Houthi militiamen, citing examples of how Hezbollah helped the Houthis hide in water tankers in 2013 as they attacked the religious institute of Dammaj. This demonstrated the Houthis’ level of coordination with Hezbollah, which predates the current devastating nationwide conflict.
When in doubt about the relationship between the Houthis and Iran’s proxies, one should look for evidence from the Houthis’ leadership positions, statements or actions. In one instance last year, the Houthis organized a fundraiser to “pay back” Hezbollah for their “initial” support in the war. Add to this the several Houthi delegations that have been dispatched to Lebanon and Iran, openly flaunting their alliance with Hezbollah and the Iranian leadership.
The Houthis’ direct relationship with Iran needs to be assessed on its own, because it will have consequences for Yemen’s peace process. Undermining this aspect will lead to further miscalculations.
Fatima Abo Alasrar
Of course, aside from moral support, there is an immaterial and ideological component that has rarely been assessed in understanding the Houthis’ relationship with Iran’s proxies, such as Hezbollah’s media support before and during the conflict. Hezbollah’s main television channel, Al-Manar, has been giving the Houthis a voice throughout Yemen’s conflict by broadcasting their messages. Al-Maseera, the Houthis’ main channel, has also aired messages of solidarity with Iran, Hezbollah, Bashar Assad, and all actors within the Axis of Resistance.
Moreover, material support to the Houthis from Hezbollah and Iran has continued unabated. Last week, the US Navy confirmed seizing a dhow with weapons that were being smuggled to the Houthis. The UN panel of experts report released in early February also mentioned that some of the weapons used by the Houthis “have technical characteristics similar to arms manufactured in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” This evidence, on top of other UN reports and fuel and arms smuggling from Iran, shows Tehran’s consistency in helping the Houthis maintain and increase their power.
Overlooking the relationship between Hezbollah and the Houthis has led to many erroneous assumptions about Yemen’s conflict; chief among them being the one that emphasizes the Houthis as an independent actor with a modest strategic and military capability and that rejects any foreign interference. This view is considered a “moderate” one among many Western analysts and Houthi sympathizers, allowing Iran and Hezbollah to operate with impunity in Yemen.
The Houthis are, of course, perfectly capable of making decisions on their own. Still, their decision-making capacity needs to be critically questioned when it goes against their self-interest or their stated objectives to de-escalate. For example, they falsely claimed to have attacked Saudi Aramco facilities in May last year, within days of their stated commitments of peace and good engagement in Hodeidah, which the UN had praised. The Houthis also falsely claimed to have attacked the Abqaiq and Khurais oil installations in September last year, completely covering up for Iran. Moreover, they have escalated in Al-Jawf, Marib and Al-Dali provinces despite issuing verbal commitments to peace in September last year. Focusing on the Houthis’ rhetoric and ignoring their actions is no longer useful if anyone is serious about the pursuit of peace in Yemen.
The Houthis’ direct relationship with Iran’s transnational Shiite network needs to be assessed on its own, because it will have consequences for Yemen’s peace process. Undermining this aspect will lead to further policy miscalculations, which up until now have completely underestimated the level of Iran’s dictation of policymaking by the Houthis, who continue to operate with significant latitude in Yemen. Stronger critical thinking into the Houthis’ behavior and prompt actions regarding their violations are needed if a settlement for Yemen is to be achieved.
- Fatima Abo Alasrar is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. Twitter: @YemeniFatima