Stopping the ‘Hezbollahisation’ of Yemen

Written by Julie Lenarz on 20 December 2018 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

As with Hezbollah, the EU should designate the Houthis as terrorists, argues Julie Lenarz.

Houthi rebel fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans during a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters | Photo Credit: PA Images


UN-led peace talks in Sweden ended last Thursday with a fragile agreement between Houthi rebels and Yemen’s internationally recognised government that includes a full withdrawal of Houthi militias from Hodeidah’s three ports and city.

If fully implemented, the agreement should help alleviate Yemen’s devastating humanitarian crisis and could pave the way for a negotiated peace. Now the challenge is for the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to adhere to the terms of the deal.

The alternative is the ongoing “Hezbollahisation” of the conflict. Iran has applied the “Hezbollah model” successfully across the region in a concerted effort to destabilise the Middle East. Examples are the Islamic Republic’s links to militias fighting in Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and most recently the Houthis in Yemen.


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The Houthi rebels have fought the internationally recognised government since 2015 in a war that has left the economy in ruins and 80 percent of the population dependent on humanitarian aid. It is often forgotten that millions of Yemenis still live under an occupation deemed illegal by the United Nations. These facts don’t change and liberating those living under oppressive Houthi rule, suffering tragic humanitarian consequences, should remain the number one aim.

From the conflict’s start, the Houthis have deployed tactics straight from the Hezbollah handbook at the expense of the Yemeni people. They embed themselves among the civilian population, deliberately intimidating entire communities. Human shields have become a tragic feature of their approach, with reports earlier in the year that they were “militarising a hospital”. Sadly, we’ve seen Hezbollah in Lebanon adopt the same tactic many times over.

Iran is the common benefactor that binds these two groups together. In October 2016, a senior Iranian diplomat told Reuters that there has been a “sharp surge in Iran’s help to the Houthis in Yemen”, including funds, weapons, and training. Smuggling efforts, via Oman and Somalia, have also increased despite a UN restriction on arms transfers from the Islamic Republic.

Kornet anti-tank missiles, a weapon possessed by Iran but not part of Yemen’s looted stockpiles, have been reported on the battlefield, as have other advanced systems, including armed drones. The weapons transfers also include ballistic missile technology, which have grabbed headlines with their regular launch against civilians in neighbouring states and commercial shipping in the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

"The “Hezbollahisation” of Yemen must be stopped at all costs, before Iran can carve out a state within the state and further fulfil Tehran’s foreign adventurism under the guise of governance"

There is more. The UN, Western countries, and the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen all say the Houthis’ Burkan-2 missile mirrors characteristics of an Iranian Qiam ballistic missile. Additionally, a report from the independent watchdog Conflict Armament Research noted that roadside bombs disguised as rocks, bear similarities to those used by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and by insurgents in Iraq and Bahrain.

Based on the Hezbollah model, the Houthi rebels have also increasingly incorporated anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric into their speeches, echoing the malignant hatred of their Iranian paymasters. In October, the group handed out student and staff ID cards at the University of Sana’a with a slogan saying, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam” in a disturbing escalation.

As a fragile ceasefire has been reached, the UN must guarantee full and transparent Houthi cooperation or risk permanently entrenching a “Hezbollah of the South” in the Arabian Peninsula. The Houthis have already proven willing and able to fire ballistic missiles at the Saudi capital and their campaign of aggression has seen nuclear power plants, civilian airports and oil tankers all targeted.

Given all this, western powers should seriously consider designating the Houthis as a terrorist organisation. In 2013 the European Union designated Hezbollah’s military wing as such and should now consider doing the same with their cousins to the south. As it stands, The Houthis still appear to enjoy a certain false equivalence with the legitimate government despite clearly mimicking the behaviour of a similar group who have been classed as terrorists. An official designation will likely take some time, however starting the process will focus Houthi minds and strengthen the international community’s hand in the negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Houthis have proven utterly incapable and uninterested in governing those areas they illegally occupy, instead relying on violence and tyranny. The humanitarian situation in Yemen is a tragedy, one which sadly will not be better served in anyway by allowing the Houthi’s to continue to hold sway over vast swathes of the country’s territory.

A well-armed and Iran-aligned Yemen could vastly complicate a regional conflict that has already been described by the UN as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The “Hezbollahisation” of Yemen must be stopped at all costs, before Iran can carve out a state within the state and further fulfil Tehran’s foreign adventurism under the guise of governance.

About the author

Julie Lenarz is Director of the Human Security Centre in London and a Senior Fellow at The Israel Project in Washington D.C.

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