This outcome sent shock waves throughout the Arab world. Revolutionary Shi’ism gained a new legitimacy and Iran, the long-time patrons of Hezbollah, were able to reap the benefits of their ally’s victory. It is important to remember that Iran is not some puppet master of Hezbollah, but they do maintain a very close relationship both ideologically and militarily. Sunnis and other religious minorities across the Arab world who saw Israel as the true belligerent in the region were highly sympathetic to Hezbollah’s victory. Hezbollah gained a new legitimacy as a real military force and used this “success story” as propaganda to spread revolutionary Shi’ism to the different Shia communities in the Arab world. It seemed the ideology that came out of the Iranian revolution was back with a newfound confidence after this massive military underdog story by Hezbollah.
This success increased the competence and seriousness of the transnational networks of Shia revolutionaries. Some close to Iran, some not. What they did all have in common was that the Hezbollah model of using close kinship networks to develop a competent guerrilla force is a powerful tactic. Hezbollah’s knowledge of building tunnels, feigning attacks, and spreading false intelligence to enemies was spread across the Shia world with new power. The IRGC was a crucial node in this spread of information as they dispersed themselves across international Shia movements and offered tactical and technical support from the knowledge gained in the 2006 war. This was also combined with spreading Hezbollah’s tactic of building social welfare networks to increase party support and embedding themselves in the local economy.
The militants within the Shia majority population in Iraq were the first to use some of these new spiritually imbued guerilla tactics. Even though this population has had an on again off again relationship with Iran, violence by Sunni fundamentalist like Al-Qaeda was very real in holy Shia cities in the 2000’s. Various bands of Shia militias launched counter attacks against their clandestine enemies. This resulted in a new wave of sectarian violence in the county. It would also set the roots for the sectarian militias that sprouted up from the cascading effects of the Syrian Civil War down the road. Iraq would become a major battlefield for Iran and Salafist militants to battle for political influence.
Arab Spring Sprouts New Militancy
Arab Spring for Shia populations offered a serious reflection regarding their place in the various states they call home. Especially in the gulf were Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar were all rocked by massive protests led in part, by their Shia minority and majority populations. In Yemen, which is three quarters Sunni and a quarter Shia, the protest brought together liberal reformers and the Houthi movement in the streets of major cities. These massive protests resulted in the stepping down of the countries long time Saudi aligned leader. At the same time Yemen was experiencing a renewed resurgence of Al Qaeda activity in the eastern part of the country, a long-time recruiting ground for the terrorist group. This led to more militant groups like the Houthis gaining legitimacy as “protectors” from sectarian violence.
The Houthi movement started as a series of student clubs in the early 1990’s and reflected Yemen’s specific form of fundamentalist Shi’ism combined with ideas of national liberation and development. Although theologically differing, Houthis read the work of Nasrallah and found a comradeship with Hezbollah and Iran. The Houthis shared a similar anger to the American invasion of Yemen. As their rhetoric became more and more critical of Israel, America and most importantly Saudi Arabia’s influence in Yemen. The government responded by launching a series of mass arrests in 2004. The Houthis left the cities began a guerrilla war from Western Yemen’s Mountain ranges. Saudi Arabia military alliance with Yemenis government could not stop this insurgency. Both parties signed a negotiated ceasefire in 2010. Throughout this time Hezbollah and Iran had been active in building closer relationships with the Houthis and spreading the tactics learned from the 34-Day War.
When the popular Arab Spring protests in 2011 removed their long-time dictator, the Houthis began to gain more state power. Taking over important infrastructure like radio stations, wells and staffing government administration with their men in mainly the western Shia parts of the country. Throughout all these successes they maintained a key technical and material relationship with the revived militant Shia movement. The Houthis and Hezbollah had both defeated a comprehensive assault on their holdings by much larger armies. The theological and political implications of these victories were great, as they affirmed the long revolutionary struggle of radical Shia since the Iranian revolution. Due to these organization’s clandestine nature, the details of their relationships are shrouded in mystery. It is certain however, that they feel closely linked to each other even though Yemen is comparatively far away from Iran and Lebanon. Supplies, training, and intelligence sharing were most likely prevalent.
“After decades of old men ruling, al-Houthi represents a new face in the Yemeni political scene,His politics are conservative and his campaigns are often violent, but he’s a fresh face. A young man matched with power and assertiveness.”
- Yemeni analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani on the leader of the Houthi Movement, Abdel Malek al-Houthi
In 2015, the Houthis took their revolution a step further and seized the presidential palace along with major government infrastructure in the capital. They rejected the negotiated settlement that came out of Arab Spring, claiming that foreign influence was still great in the country. In response, the Saudis and their international coalition blockaded the country and launched a massive air strike campaign. This air strike campaign along with a ground invasion by Saudi aligned forces has been going on for 7 years at this point. Even though the Saudi military arsenal is stocked full of the most technologically advanced weapons from western powers, they still have had little success against the Houthi’s guerrilla tactics.
The Saudi arsenal which has always been the most expensive materials on the market thanks to the nature of the oil trade with western powers, is built for conventional war not guerrilla war. The Saudis and their allies can drop as main bombs on infrastructure and marketplaces as they want, the guerrilla fighters will simply disappear and come back at a more opportune time. This style of conflict bears a striking resemblance to the way Israel attempted to combat Hezbollah in a conventional style. They did not anticipate the guerrilla forces knowledge of their environment or deep-set ideological convictions. This has only continued to increase the exchange of tactical advice between Hezbollah and the Houthis as their conflicts may be on different terrain, but their enemies are quite similar in strategy and arrogance.
“Our standing by Yemen was not an option but a duty to support the Yemeni people in confronting the aggression of Iranian-backed militias,”
- King Salman of Saudi Arabia (Reuters)
Both groups rely on large kinship networks in order to gain support and recruit fighters. These family networks also serve to increase the power of martyrdom and cohesion of the military unit as they think of themselves commonly as one big family. It is not uncommon for a Hezbollah or Houthi unit to be made of people from the same neighborhood or school. Most important of all, both groups try to strike a balance between building a social welfare system to keep public support while also fighting a guerrilla war.
Saudi Arabia has even attempted to ship in their own guerrilla counter insurgent mercenaries to combat the Houthis. Janjaweed fighters from Sudan, ex-military Columbian veterans from the war against the FARC and various private mercenary companies have all been hired and sent to fight against the Houthis. This has led to little success and can be used for propaganda purposes by Houthi media to show foreign influence in Yemen. There are also vast swaths of territory in eastern Yemen that are controlled by an Al Qaeda. This has only led to increasing sectarian violence between the fundamentalist Salafist Al Qaeda groups and the radical Shia revolutionaries. Again, the presence of Al Qaeda serves to increase Houthi propaganda power as Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to focus on Al Qadea’s presences in the war.
It is common for western think tanks and media to overblow the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the Yemenis war to justify the international blockade on the country that has led to increasing food and water insecurity. It is absurd to think that Hezbollah, a group so heavily monitored by international intelligence organizations, can spare a mass number of fighters to the country. At the same time Iran would have to traverse the Gulf of Oman which is a heavily monitored security zone. Some weapons, advisors, and oil are being sent to help the Houthis, but Houthi success is mostly of their own action and means. Iran and Hezbollah by most accounts have little influence in the Houthi decision making process or policy. They do, however, share similar ideological goals and militant commitments. Their victories serve to inspire one another’s convictions. Most importantly the victory of Hezbollah in the 34-day war. The renewed revolutionary Shia movement also had another post-Arab spring development and success, in the Syrian Civil War.
“I declare my support for the resistance of Yemen’s believing men and women ... Yemen’s people... will establish a strong government,”
- Iranian leader Khamenei in 2018
Syria’s World War
Arab Spring ignited massive protest in the streets of Syria in 2011. The Assad family from the minority Alawite group (a distinct offshoot of Shi’ism) had been leading the country in some form since 1971. Their political power came out of the secular Baathist movement that arose in 1970s. The countries security apparatus, mostly staffed by Alawites, had implanted a similar form of repression to Saddam’s Baathist Iraq. Religious radicals both Sunni and Shia along with various socialist groups and other religious minorities had been targeted with the strong hand of the state for decades. When the protest broke out there was a long held intense anger that flooded into the streets. Especially from radical religious groups who held long held vendettas against the Assad regime.
The destruction of Iraq by the American invasion and the disbursement of Saddam’s military across western Iraq and into Syria had also helped flood the region with weapons and resentment. As the protests continued, Sunni radical groups that recruited from the Sunni majority population and other anti-Assad groups began to arm themselves. This conflict was further exacerbated by Assad’s geopolitical position. Without his previous Baathists ally in Iraq. Syria was now one of the view states with some opposition to gulf and Israeli supremacy in the region backed by western powers. Gulf powers and western countries like America and the United Kingdom as well as Assad’s opponents in Turkey promptly threw their support behind various anti-regime rebel groups. Increasing violence from both sides of the protest descend the country into its Civil War but really a World War encapsulated within Syria.
As Assad and his military continued to maintain power over Damascus, armed groups began to battle with the army for territory and urban areas. The most powerful domestic opposition to Assad did not come from any organization of former military officers or liberal reformers but from the Sunni Salafist groups that held deep resentment against the regime. These groups had also formed beneficial connections to the disbursed Sunni militants across Iraq. Fundamentalist groups like Al-Nusra Front ( Al-Qaeda in Syria), became heavily armed thanks to the influx of weapons and support by various countries who were arming anyone they could to get rid of Assad and not asking many questions.
“Our biggest problem is our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends, and I have a great relationship with Erdogan, which I’ve just spent a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being, who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
- Joe Biden 2014
As these groups began to take towns, cities and rural areas, they imposed their brand of fundamentalist Sunni Islam. These included the harsh repression of minority groups like the Shia and imposition of more oppressive aspects of Sharia law. In this chaotic environment of weapons, war torn poverty and religious fundamentalism the Islamic state arose in western Iraq and Eastern Syria. Possibly being the most extreme version of the Sunni fundamentalist that came out of the Syrian Civil War. There were multiple massacres of religious minorities like the Shia, Druze, Alawites, Christians, and Yazidis by these groups.
Assad for a time was without allies and as the war began to intensify, Iran began to see the situation as a prime opportunity to increase their influence. In 2013, Iran sent several thousand fighters to support the Assad government. Along with this they sent IRGC advisors and special forces fighters to the various Shia communities across the country and into Iraq. The Shia and other religious minority groups as well as less radical Sunnis, saw possibly no other option but to work with Iran and the government to protect themselves from the Sunni fundamentalist militias. Iran built up a network of informal militias based on local connections and leadership across Syria and Iraq. As fundamentalist groups like ISIS increased their power in Iraq, Iran’s strategy became more legitimate as recruits were not in short supply. Again, the revolutionary Shia movement gets to show themselves as protectors of the minority Shia from groups like ISIS and Al Qadea.
These various militias became known as the Popular Mobilization Forces and were armed and coordinated by Iranian military officers. These units became extremely effective at gaining local support and international popularity as they had several successes battling ISIS and other Sunni fundamentalist groups. This had the secondary effect of defending the Assad regime which at this point benefited Iran. Now that the Syrian Civil War seems to be entering its final stages and the threat of ISIS in the Levant is weakening for now, these groups have become powerful nodes of the international Shia movement. Iran has used them as a powerful political piece inside Iraq and Syria. At the same time, they have once again affirmed Iran’s place as the leader of revolutionary Shi’ism and shown their seriousness at pursing wider influence across threatened Shia groups who have no were else to turn. Later in the war this alliance would also gain tide turning air support from Russia.
Another example of the trans-national Shia movements impact in Syria was that on Iran’s request and to the somewhat chagrin of their base, Hezbollah entered the War as well. They mostly fought in the border lands near northern and southern Lebanon but thanks to their experience as guerrilla fighters, were key in Assad’s defense of Damascus. There is only so many highways in a small country like Syria and Hezbollah played a key role in putting up a defense against rebel groups. This again, showed off the spirit of solidarity among these groups and their renewed confidence after the 34-Day War. A small number of Houthi fighters also travelled to Syria, but they were for the most part busy in their own war to have any meaningful effect besides boosting Shia morale. The transfers of tactics learned from success in battle was becoming widespread and these militant groups were becoming more and more competent at fighting.
Serious geopolitical Players
The strongest geopolitical implication of the Syrian Civil War and the rise of the Houthi Movement is that Shia militants are now fighting on multiple fronts against the regional powers in the middle east. Saudi Arabia’s support of rebel groups in Syria has failed to depose Assad and they have yet to defeat the entrenched Houthi movement on their southern border. Israel as well has now had to deal with an emboldened Hezbollah that continues to build their own self-sufficient state within Lebanon. America is now facing an Iran that has transnational influence thanks to their support of various Shia movements and their success in Syria.
The most important aspect of all this is that since the surprise outcome of the Israel-Lebanon War in 2006 it has been demonstrated comprehensively that the shrewd guerrilla tactics of militant political parties like the Houthis and Hezbollah have proven to be significantly better in combat then anything the regional powers can offer. Even a world leader in air power like Israel, and the international support of the Saudi coalition has been unable to gain a desired outcome. There is a new confidence in these Shia revolutionary groups thanks to their success on the battlefield which has led to an affirmation of their ideological convictions.
The regional powers are absolutely terrified of the development of a Shia crescent across the levant. After the events of the Syrian Civil War, Iran can now much more easily deliver oil and aid to their allies in Lebanon and can continue to boost their own influence in neighboring Iraq. Countries like Saudi Arabia are horrified of these developments because not only does it show their own military weakness to the entire world but their nightmares are filled with the threat of a domestic Shia insurgency among their oppressed domestic populations.
This essay has not been written to show unquestioning support for these developments in revolutionary Shi’ism. Groups like Hezbollah impose their own version of religious law and we have already seen in Iran the structural attack on human rights government officials feel justified in thanks to their religious authority. This essay is arguing that revolutionary Shia groups that take influence from the Iranian Revolution and Husayn’s martyrdom, are winning. They are winning in places that no one expected them too and against opponents that seek their political destruction and sometimes their religious extermination.
It is hard not to admire slightly what groups like Hezbollah, the Houthi movement and the Popular Mobilization Forces have been able to do in terms of victory on the battlefield. Iran supports all these groups, but the revolutionary Shia movement reaches farther then just Iran’s goals. When the head strategist of Iran’s war in Syria and the brains behind the Popular Mobilization forces, Qasem Soleimani was killed in a sudden air strike. People like Donald Trump may have thought this would put an end to the revival of revolutionary Shi’ism, but it has not. This movement is extremely local and based on familial relationships, it has no real leader, it comes out of an interpretation of gods will. For the time being its not going anywhere and will remain a real threat to the current regional powers in the middle east and their patrons in western countries.
“Soleimani was not indispensable. No one is. He was good at his job. He will he replaced. And now that he’s been ‘martyred’ we have done our job to move towards war.”
- Jasmine El-Gamal, Former Middle East Advisor at the Department of Defense