In his strategy of Gray zone, Iran uses third parties to implement its main lines of action. The terrorist group Hezbollah stands as one of the great proxies of the Iranian regime in its operations abroad. In the Gray Zone of the conflict in Yemen, Hezbollah has served as an Iranian intermediary to support the Houthi rebels militarily and politically, as well as through influence operations. However, Hezbollah develops hybrid strategies in favor of Iran in its geopolitical struggle to achieve regional hegemony over Saudi Arabia.
The recent Houthi offensiveit’s about taez, south of Yemen, endangers the continuity of the truce, agreed between the opposing parties, which began with the opening of the Ramadan period of the current year 2022. In the absence of official confirmation, different information point out that this new air campaign by the Houthis could break the objectives of expanding the ceasefire provided by the United Nations Special Envoy in Yemen, who intended to extend the horizon of the agreement until October 2, 2022 (OCHA, 2022) .
After more than seven years of conflict, almost 6 million displaced people, 23 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and close to 350.000 dead since the beginning of the conflict; The war in Yemen ranks as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. In addition, the conflict in Yemen is much more than a war between local factions, it is a scene of regional competition between powers. The confrontation between the Yemeni government, internationally recognized and backed by the international coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi rebels, promoted by Iran, make up one of the most active focuses between Saudis and Iranians for leading the hegemony of the Middle East (Council on Foreign Relations, 2022).
In this struggle to gain influence and power in the region, Iran uses intermediaries such as the terrorist group Hezbollah. The Lebanese organization is one of its main tools in the Iranian strategy of Gray zone (Eisenstadt, 2021), specifically in scenarios such as the proxy war in Yemen by supporting the Houthis. Along these lines, the Lebanese terrorist organization has been developing hybrid strategies in the Persian Gulf country for years, just as it has done – and does – in countries such as Lebanon and Syria (Ibid., 2021).
Hezbollah Hybrid Capabilities
Hezbollah is much more than a terrorist group, so much so that many deny that it even is, and end up buying into the false “resistance” terrorist narrative. Hezbollah -in addition to being a serious and clear armed actor whose operation applies to the terrorist group definition– is a leading social, political and religious agent in Lebanon. The ambitions and tentacles of the jihadist organization, as well as its combined and simultaneous action on different combat fronts in the conflict against Israel in 2006 and later, led it to be called a paradigmatic organization of the Hybrid Wars (Hoffman, 2007).
Despite this, for an updated and more adequate analysis, we are inclined to frame Hezbollah’s actions as hybrid strategies within the lines of action of a Gray Zone strategy, which turn out to be one of its differential elements (Global Strategy, 2022). . In addition to ambiguity and gradualism (Ibid., 2022), the theoretical aspects of hybrid strategies are brought to Hezbollah’s daily practice as a proxy for Iran and the mainstay of its lines of action in the Gray Zone.
So what have been the hybrid capabilities developed by Hezbollah in recent years? In the first place, any implementation of this type of strategies and capabilities needs large sources of financing, in the case of Hezbollah with great profusion and diversity (Pérez, 2021). In this sense, the Lebanese group has managed to develop an international illicit financing network that moves freely in smuggling, drug trafficking and money laundering through opaque structures, collaboration with organized crime and loyal envoys to the organization by half the world (Ibid., 2021).
Within the actions typical of a Gray Zone context, Hezbollah – sponsored and sponsored by Iran – has exerted great influence within the Lebanese political system, being key in the election of first-level positions, such as that of the President of the Lebanese Parliament; occupying ministerial portfolios, such as those of Health or Youth; leading the religious influence of the Shia communities in Lebanon, as well as promoting those of foreign countries such as Iraq or Nigeria; or by providing the security that the Lebanese state is unable to ensure for its citizens. In the same way, like other Islamist terrorist groups in the region, it tries to destabilize other political regimes such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Yemen; supporting armed political opposition or directly attacking them. Which brings us to another gray area hybrid capability such as military intimidation or coercion.
On the other hand, Hezbollah has been a pioneer in the use of weapons not previously used by groups of its nature or by combining unconventional combat tactics such as guerrilla warfare or terrorist actions (Huovinen, 2013). Thus, the Lebanese group has developed air bridges for UAVs with military capabilities in areas of the Bekaa Valley (Azani and Karmon, 2018) – a historical stronghold of the jihadist organization in Lebanon – and has launched 4.000 rockets in a month of conflict against the Israeli population in 2006 – a milestone only surpassed by Hamas in May 2021 during the clashes between the Gaza group and the IDF. Likewise, Hezbollah has been characterized by the construction of a network of tunnels throughout Lebanese territory, some that even connect with Israel, being a priority of the Israeli intelligence services for years (Huovinen., 2013). These secret and interconnected paths were added to the anti-missile bunkers of the Lebanese group, the use of family residences as human shields in the areas of their influence and strategically placed combat trenches (Ibid., 2013).
Also, on the hybrid armed level, Hezbollah stands out not only for its terrorist operations and reasoning, but also for a qualitative leap in urban combat tactics. One of its most important foreign bases was the one established in Al-Qusayr (Syria) on the border with northern Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s “elite unit” – Radwan–has trained its militias in guerrilla tactics and urban combat that it later put into practice in the recovery of key positions between the territories of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs for the Bashar al-Assad regime (Azani and Karmon, 2018). The development of all these armed capabilities, both conventional and irregular, make Hezbollah an actor with the capacity for deterrence and military coercion – especially if its strategies are combined with those of other Iranian actors and proxies.
As for influence operations, closely related to the cognitive plan of the hybrid strategies of the Gray Zone, Hezbollah has a structure entirely dedicated –as well as a deputy to the leader of the terrorist group who advises him on communication matters– to the strategies disinformation and propaganda campaigns (Pérez, 2020). These are usually in perfect harmony with the Iranian regime, the terrorist actions of the Lebanese Shiite group and the multiple operations in which Hezbollah is involved. In this way, it has managed to turn its media network into one of the main communication groups in the country, especially influential among the Shia community, and make it work as one more tool of its hybrid strategies by creating narratives in its favour, the destabilization of public opinion and disinformation campaigns about their rivals (Ibid., 2022). In reference to the aforementioned elite unit,Radwan , this has become regular material for Hezbollah propaganda that seeks to intimidate militarily; as can be seen in one of the last videos published of him.
However, the Lebanese organization launches its hybrid capabilities not only in the Lebanese context, as we see, but also in other scenarios where armed conflicts take place. It is especially noteworthy that despite Hezbollah’s operational autonomy, its operations abroad are closely linked to the interests and fronts on which the Islamic Republic of Iran is fighting – whether in an open conflict or in the Gray Zone. The case of Syria is of special mention because Hezbollah has fought not only alongside Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, but also alongside Russian troops deployed on the ground .. From Putin’s military, he also obtained valuable military training in the use of drones and combat tactics in his fight against Daesh or the –then– Al-Nusra (Azani and Karmon, 2018). Some collaborations that Hezbollah is currently replicating with the Houthi rebels in Yemen, one of the main proxy wars within the Iranian Gray Zone strategy.
The role of Hezbollah in the gray zone of the conflict in Yemen
Hezbollah is a great proxy for Iran in the implementation and monitoring of its great lines of action in the Gray Zone. In this sense, and regarding the Iranian strategy in the conflict in Yemen in support of the Houthi rebels, the Lebanese group stands out as an intermediary of the Ayatollahs’ regime in the military, political and influence operations. Likewise, in a letter from the United Nations panel of experts to the Security Council, it was warned of the significant volume of weapons provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran, or entities related to it, to the Houthis in Yemen (Security Council, 2021). Specifically, estimates suggest that the number of attacks led by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia would amount to 430 with ballistic missiles, 851 with armed drones and 100 of them using explosive boats (Bou, 2022) .
On these issues, Hezbollah has stood out in instructing the Houthis to prepare and launch ballistic missiles and UAVs against Saudi targets from the Sanaa airport and other positions in the hands of the Houthis (Jones, et al., 2021). With Iranian material and instructions from Hezbollah, the Houthis have allegedly attacked critical infrastructure such as Saudi oil refineries on multiple occasions since the start of the conflict (Ibid., 2021). In this sense, Saudi intelligence would have obtained graphic evidence from Hezbollah commanders sent to Yemen to train the Houthis in the use of armed drones with which to attack the Yemeni government backed by the international coalition led by Saudi Arabia (Bou, 2022) . Although the exact number of Hezbollah members in Yemeni territory is unknown, the presence of senior officials of the Lebanese organization in the southern Persian Gulf, such as Abu Ali Tabtabai , is known., who would have expanded the training given by members of the Iranian Quds forces, in matters related to the mobilization and instruction of the Houthi troops in guerrilla tactics (Ibid., 2022).
On the political level, there are speeches by the Secretary General of Hezbollah – Hasan Nasrallah – in which he admits the presence of members of Hezbollah in Yemeni territory, lamenting the death of several of them in combat; which implies a clear recognition of the interference of the Lebanese organization in the conflict, in addition to the meetings of members of Hezbollah with members of the Houthi rebels at the highest level (Bou, 2022). Likewise, prior to the ceasefire decreed between the parties, in March 2022, it was revealed that a Saudi delegation had traveled to Beirut to meet with Qassem Naim, number 2 of the Lebanese Shiite group, to negotiate specific points and demands related to the truce between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of Yemen (Hearst, 2022) .
These lines of action in the Iranian gray zone undertaken by Hezbollah are complemented by the section on influence operations. On the one hand, from Hezbollah’s propaganda apparatus, especially from its television arm Al-Manar, there are dozens of references to the Lebanese organization’s support for the cause and means undertaken by the Houthis in Yemen. Similarly, Hezbollah would have provided advice in the launch of the Houthi propaganda platform, Al-Masirah (Lobel, 2021). Also, from the Iranian media structure –such as the Islamic Radio & Television Union agency– present in Lebanon, the Houthi narrative against the coalition led by Saudi Arabia has also been supported. The synergy in this sense is given to such an extent that the headquarters of Houthi television is located in the same Beirut neighborhood where the Hezbollah media group building is located (Ibid., 2021). In addition, Houthi fighters have released several propaganda videos imitating those made by Hezbollah’s elite Radwan unit .
After this exposition of facts, and under a comparison between the Iranian fronts of the Gray Zone (Jordan, 2018) and the actions of Hezbollah, the Lebanese organization participates in the gray zone of the conflict in Yemen in the following scenarios:
- Influence in the Yemeni political system , through Hezbollah’s support for the Houthi rebels from the highest political level of the Lebanese organization and the intermediation of its members in negotiating the ceasefire with Saudi Arabia.
- Military intimidation, through training in the preparation and use of the material provided by Iran, the instruction of Hezbollah officers in guerrilla tactics and co-participation in attacks against critical infrastructure.
- Influence operations, thanks to the support of narratives in favor of the Houthi rebels, the delegitimization of their Saudi rivals and advice on propaganda and disinformation campaigns.
- War by proxy, due to the total involvement of Hezbollah as Iran’s proxy in the Houthi rebels becoming stronger and successful in the conflict in Yemen.
The development of Hezbollah’s hybrid capabilities and its active role in brokering the main Iranian lines of action in the Gray Zone of the conflict in Yemen demonstrate the success of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategy to strengthen its leadership in regional competition. of the Middle East by subversively weakening its main rival. Likewise, we can affirm that these actions of Hezbollah as a proxy for Iran in the gray area of the conflict in Yemen are observed with more intensity on fronts such as: influence in the Yemeni political system, military intimidation, influence operations and its role as Iranian proxy in a proxy war such as the Yemeni conflict.
In the same way, after this analysis we can also affirm Hezbollah’s strong position as a paradigm of hybrid threats thanks to its simultaneous combination of different scenarios of confrontation and diversified means to obtain its political objectives. Also, this article confirms how Hezbollah’s action has rebalanced the regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, within the conflict in Yemen, reinforcing the side defended by the Ayatollahs’ regime.
Finally, a series of reflections are necessary. The first is that we must reconsider the importance of the response to hybrid threats rigorously from strategic studies and not from media polarization and political marketing that mixes concepts and fails in risk analysis. In the same way, this should lead to reflection on the potential of the Gray Zone of conflicts as a successful strategy of authoritarian states such as the Iranian one, using subversive methods or methods far removed from conventional forms of armed confrontation. Finally, this analysis serves so that the focus of the studies of international conflicts does not move away from wars such as the Yemeni one.
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