Hezbollah’s Firm Grip Over Lebanon Fuels Region’s Sectarian Strife
Chief Iranian proxy Hezbollah has a firm grip over Lebanon — and the terror group’s bloody intervention in Syria was instrumental in preserving the brutal Assad regime.
Yet Hezbollah’s meddling in other regions of the Middle East usually does not receive as much attention.
That changed drastically earlier this month, when Saudi Arabia publicly accused the Shiite terrorist organization of firing a ballistic missile at its capital, Riyadh, from Yemen.
“It was an Iranian missile, launched by Hezbollah from territory occupied by the Houthis in Yemen,” charged Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. A Saudi air defense battery shot the missile down before it struck Riyadh’s airport, but the incident has seen Saudi-Iranian tensions, which were already high, spike.
A United States Air Force source has reportedly confirmed the Saudi information about the Iranian origins of the missile.
Iran denied the Saudi accusation, and has played down its links with the Houthis. But this denial flies in the face of mounting evidence of an important Hezbollah and Iranian role in assisting Ansar Allah in Yemen.
Some of this evidence comes from Hezbollah itself, or more precisely, its unofficial mouthpiece in Lebanon, the Al-Akhbar newspaper. Editor Ibrahim Al-Amin published a boastful article in July 2017 detailing Hezbollah’s spread across the region.
“In Yemen, Hezbollah has become a direct partner in strengthening the military capabilities of the Houthi Ansar Allah, who consider Hezbollah to be their truthful ally,” Al-Amin wrote.
The same article proudly said that in Iraq, Hezbollah ‘s “experts are present in the biggest operations rooms. … [Hassan] Nasrallah serves as the commander of the Popular Mobilization Units [the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias] in Iraq.”
Hezbollah’s activities around the Middle East have become a controversial topic in Lebanon, where a portion of the population opposes its monopoly on political and military power, its militant ideology, and Iran’s proxy control of the country.
Last year, Future TV, a station owned by the recently resigned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (who quit in protest of Iran’s takeover of Lebanon), broadcast what it said was a video of a Hezbollah operative providing military-terrorist training to Houthi fighters.
A Hezbollah operative says in the video: “We take a group, a special unit, it goes in, assassinates, kills and plants a large bomb. This is what we call a special operation. I have a special operation in Riyadh.”
At this stage in the video, the Hezbollah member briefing the Houthis is interrupted with a question: “[Is this] a suicide operation?”
He replies: “Possibly a martyrdom operation. We do not call it suicide. We call it a special operation.”
An examination of the flag used by Ansar Allah finds that its red and green colors are influenced by the Iranian flag; more importantly, the motto etched on the flag: “Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon The Jews, Victory to Islam” is inspired by official Iranian mottos.
The Houthis have been influenced by Hezbollah in more than one way, said Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel.
“The group’s use of militant anashid (jihadist anthems) in its videos further portrays it as more in line with Hezbollah’s models of ‘resistance,'” he told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. “Images depicting Houthi fighters with the sun as a background further draw a parallel to other Shiite jihadist groups, giving the Houthis spiritual legitimacy within the context of a Shiite jihadist organization.”
Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the current Houthi leader, also delivers speeches in a style inspired by Hezbollah’s Nasrallah, Karmon said.
Houthi leaders also appointed a prominent Iranian-educated religious figure with close links to the Islamic Republic as the top Islamic authority in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.
A May 2015 Financial Times report, “Lebanon’s Hizballah and Yemen’s Houthis open up on links,” cited Hezbollah members saying that they have “played a more active role on the ground in Yemen. … A Houthi official in Beirut said relations with the Lebanese movement span over a decade, while a Hizballah commander said Houthis and Hizballah trained together for the past 10 years in Iran, then in Lebanon and in Yemen.”
The report added that Hezbollah helped create the Houthi Al-Masira television channel, which is based in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a district under Hezbollah control.
Earlier this year, Karmon assessed that “[a] physical Iranian presence based on a strategic cooperation with the Houthis, both ground and naval,” in Yemeni ports on the Red Sea “represent a direct threat to Israel’s security and interests.”
And the Houthi takeover of Yemen’s capital and other regions increased Shiite Iran’s influence there, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center reported.
Based on publicly available information, it seems safe to conclude that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is using Hezbollah to strengthen the Houthis militarily in Yemen, and to help Iran increase its influence over this poor, war-torn state, which is also experiencing a humanitarian disaster on a grand scale due to the ongoing conflict.
Hezbollah’s role as a regional proliferator of terrorism, radicalism and high-level operational capabilities is a constant threat to the Middle East and beyond.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, “The Virtual Caliphate,” explores the online jihadist presence.