Hezbollah opens up about relationship with Al Houthis
Published: 03:03 May 11, 2015
Gulf News/Erica Solomon,/Financial Times
They are hundreds of miles apart and their local struggles have little in common, yet Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Al Houthi militiamen are opening up about a relationship forged by sectarian politics transforming the Middle East. With regional tensions exacerbated by a Gulf-backed coalition striking Al Houthis, the long rumoured but never proven ties are becoming visible.
Some sources say Iran-backed Hezbollah may even be providing direct support to their Yemeni allies.
Hezbollah has made no comment on its role with Al Houthis, but a political source close to the group’s leadership said the relationship goes back several years and hinted it may be playing an advisory role to Al Houthi militiamen. “Perhaps a limited role, giving advice and counsel, but there is no presence on the ground,” the source said. Other Hezbollah fighters say they have played a more active role on the ground in Yemen. An Al Houthi official who met with the Financial Times in Beirut said relations with the Lebanese movement stretch back over a decade.
“This is not a relationship with one side in control and the other mindlessly following. We exchange experience and ideology,” he said, asking not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject.
“We have our own character, our own way of doing things,” he stressed. “The goal is not to build a Hezbollah model in Yemen.”
Gulf officials say the Yemen campaign was partly designed to stop Iran from turning the Al Houthis into a copy of Hezbollah, a formidable guerrilla force. A Hezbollah commander, who withheld his name because members are not permitted to speak to media, said Al Houthis and Hezbollah trained together for the past 10 years. “They trained with us in Iran, then we trained them here and in Yemen.” Hezbollah has long been suspected of channelling Iranian support to Al Houthis. For years, Al Houthi officials have been spotted at Beirut hotels and are believed to be hosted on Iran’s dime. Al Houthi television channel Al Maseera is based in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. “There’s been an active Al Houthi office in Beirut, and the city has been a popular meeting place between Yemeni political groups and other regional actors for some time,” said Yemen analyst Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.
Hard evidence is scarce, but sources in Washington, Riyadh and London insist Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard experts are in Yemen, most likely for planning and co-ordination.
Analysts say any military links are likely quite limited. Hezbollah – already fighting in Syria to prop up President Bashar Al Assad and playing a small role supporting Shiite militias in Iraq – is militarily stretched and based far away from Yemen. While two Hezbollah members said hundreds of Lebanese and Iranian trainers and military advisers are in Yemen already, these claims were impossible to verify.
“The Iranians are probably dealing with missile batteries and other weaponry. We are the guerrilla experts, so we give advice about the best timings to strike back, when to hold back,” said one Hezbollah fighter. The Hezbollah commander, said eight Hezbollah members had died in fighting in Yemen, a claim impossible to verify but which shows the interest Hezbollah members have in portraying themselves as part of the fight.