How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On February 24, the Saudi Arabia–owned Al Arabiya news network posted a video of what it claimed was a meeting last summer between Hezbollah commander Abu Saleh and Houthi forces in Yemen. The video shows a man in military fatigues addressing a group in Lebanese-accented Arabic about training for assassination operations inside Saudi Arabia, including a specific attack against an unnamed Saudi commander of border forces.
The current war in Yemen began with the country’s unsuccessful political transition following the ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Popular protests in 2011, led by youth who were inspired by protests in Egypt and Tunisia, quickly turned violent. Soon after, Yemen faced the prospect of a civil war. A Saudi-brokered initiative, backed by the European Union, United Kingdom, and United States, transferred power from Saleh to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, during a one-candidate election in February 2012.
This transition was faulty from the start. Yemen’s youth and the Houthis rejected the election as an establishment-brokered arrangement. They were soon joined by Saleh loyalists, who witnessed their political and military clout diminish. The UN-sponsored National Dialogue Conference tried to work with Yemeni political parties to implement constitutional reforms but was stymied when it came to establishing power-sharing agreements. Political deadlock soon turned into armed conflict, and Houthi forces—backed by Saleh’s General People’s Congress—defeated their political rivals in the north over the course of 2013 and 2014.
By September 2014, a coalition of Saleh loyalists and Houthi militants moved south, capturing Sanaa and pushing Hadi to relocate to the southern city of Aden. From there, Hadi attempted to reestablish the Yemeni government. Soon after, however, the coalition pushed south and made the country turn ever closer to a civil war. That is, until March 26, 2015, when an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia began launching air strikes against Houthi positions, supporting Hadi’s beleaguered government. The Saudis claimed that the Houthis were an Iranian-backed entity and that Tehran was attempting to establish an organization similar to Hezbollah within the country.
Hezbollah leadership has denied its involvement in Yemen. But those on the ground have been more candid.
Hadi has claimed that he received a letter from Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that read, “Our fighters arrived in Yemen to teach the Yemeni people the essence of governing.” The Yemeni government also claims to have recovered documents from abandoned Houthi military positions that confirm Hezbollah’s participation in the fight. Riyadh, meanwhile, has hinted that Iran is attempting to turn the Houthi force into a replica of Hezbollah, an organization that Tehran has bankrolled in Lebanon for 34 years.
Even the United States has gotten involved. In 2013, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned Khalil Harb, a former Hezbollah special operations commander, for involvement in operations throughout the Middle East, particularly his command of Hezbollah activities in Yemen from 2012 onward. According to the Washington Institute fellow Matthew Levitt, commanders such as Abu Ali Tabtabai, who formerly oversaw troops in Syria, have been dispatched to aid Houthi forces.
Although Iran and Hezbollah have publicly expressed support for the Houthi cause, both have denied military involvement. In a speech on March 1, Nasrallah condemned the Saudi intervention in Yemen, saying, “I am now 57, and I say this with all honesty . . . the greatest thing I’ve done in my life was speak out on the second day of the Saudi war in Yemen.” He stopped short, however, of addressing accusations that Hezbollah has actually inserted itself into the war. Hezbollah leadership, too, has denied its involvement in Yemen. But those on the ground have been more candid. During our recent interview in Beirut with a Hezbollah commander named Abu Abbas, a pseudonym, the organization’s plans in Yemen became clear. “After we are done with Syria, we will start with Yemen, Hezbollah is already there,” he said. “Who do you think fires Tochka missiles into Saudi Arabia? It’s not the Houthis in their sandals, it’s us.”
Tehran’s interest in funding, training, and facilitating Houthi actions in Yemen are meant to help Iran build a base of operations for future attacks against Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah, a loyal proxy of Tehran, has helped it develop its capacities throughout the Arab world, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Given that Hezbollah is the most powerful Arab Shiite force in the region, it also sees itself as a protector of Shiite causes throughout the Middle East—particularly against the rise of Sunni jihadism.
“Poverty, ignorance, these make individuals susceptible to Wahhabi brainwashing,” Abbas told us. “They don’t talk about Israel as a common enemy. They only talk about their hatred of the Shia.” There is reason to believe that Abbas is telling the truth, since alleged activity in Yemen would fit the broader pattern of Hezbollah’s operations outside of Lebanon. Hezbollah is often engaged in combat well before it admits to its activities. And any time the group admits to any role in a conflict, it’s usually an understatement.
For example, in May 2012, a senior Hezbollah official told the International Crisis Group that his organization “did not and will not fight in Syria.” But by 2013, opposition groups reported that Hezbollah was providing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime with technical and logistic support, as well as arming and training Shiite communities. By April, Hezbollah was ready to admit to its role in Syria, as it led an assault on the rebel-held town of Qusayr. By February 2014, Hezbollah captured the town of Yabroud, a rebel stronghold that served as a base for Jabhat al-Nusra’s fight against the group. Today, Hezbollah is openly involved in the fight for Syria, leading operations across the country.
On March 2, the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The Arab League has taken similar steps, labeling Hezbollah a terrorist group on March 11. Although these designations will not impact Hezbollah’s ability to operate in Iraq, Lebanon, or Syria, it will make operating on the Arabian Peninsula much more difficult. Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have deported a number of individuals for alleged links to Hezbollah. But Abbas doesn’t think that this will affect his organization’s goals.
“Putting us on the terrorist list will give us more power,” he said. “Saudi Arabia and its allies used to make such moves under the table, now they are making the same moves over the table. By labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization, the Gulf is now working with Israel openly, everybody will now see who they are, who the Gulf supports.”
Hezbollah, in cooperation with Iran, may in fact double down on its assistance as a result. According to Abbas, “In the future there will be antiair weapons in Yemen, wait and see.” And indeed, this would not be the first time Iran attempted to send such weapons to Yemen. On January 23, 2013, the Yemeni government intercepted the Jihan-1, an Iranian ship carrying 20 surface-to-air missiles, as well as other armaments. Should next month’s Yemeni peace talks fail, and proxy wars continue elsewhere in the region, it is likely that Iran could send more arms to its proxies in order to turn the tide in the Yemeni conflict. Given Iran’s ascendance and Saudi Arabia’s increasing belligerence, it may only be a matter of time before the proxy war in Yemen escalates. If so, Hezbollah will have much more training to do as the Yemeni conflict lingers on.