Israel’s Near and Far Enemies
On October 7, Hamas brutally attacked Israel, turning their long cold war hot. It has now burned for just over 40 days, with worldwide ramifications. Some 1,300 Israelis and 11,000 Palestinians have been killed so far. Besides Hamas, who’s to blame? Mainly the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran egged on the Palestinian “Islamic Resistance Movement,” its main anti-Israel proxy. The ayatollahs’ obsession with Islamic End Times beliefs is a major factor here. Some of them believe that war with “the Zionist entity” will spark the Mahdi’s coming. For some American Evangelicals, this conflict also has eschatological overtones. From the Israeli side, however, its (merely) Biblical, not apocalyptic. At least so far.
Hizbullah, Like Hamas, Is a Near Enemy
Hamas is Israel’s main near enemy. But Iran has other groups to do its vile bidding, as well. Primarily Hizbullah and the Houthis. The former, the “party of Allah,” was founded in Lebanon 40 years ago. It was part of the IRI’s effort to make itself the world’s leader of Muslims. Starting with the 20% who are Shi`a, of whichever sect. So the ayatollahs came to support that 1/3 of Lebanon’s population. HB is a Mini-Me version of Iran’s clerical rulership, headed by Hassan Nasrallah. It now constitutes a “state within a state” in Israel’s northern neighbor. And does Tehran’s bidding, as fellow Twelver Shi`is. So far HB has not opened its threatened second front against Tel Aviv. And Israel remains vigilant, staging air attacks just yesterday. But HB is armed to the teeth — by Iran — and poses another major proximate threat to Israel.
The Houthis of Yemen: A Far Enemy
The Houthis in Yemen are much farther away. Twelve hundred miles, in fact. With the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in-between them and Israel. And unlike Iran and HB, the Houthis are not Twelver Shi`is. They are Fivers, or Zaydis. What’s the difference? Both believe in Imams, descendants of Ali (Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law), as divinely-guided leaders. (The majority Sunnis reject any such hereditary authority.) Twelvers believe that line stopped with, well, the 12th one. Who didn’t die, but disappeared, and will return as the Mahdi. Yemen’s Shi`is look back to the fifth Imam, Zayd, who fought against the “oppressive” Sunni Umayyads in the 8th century AD. Although he lost, and died, they see him as the heroic model of rulership. The two primary Zaydi qualifications for a ruler are thus knowledge of Islam and leading jihad.
Houthis are Zaydi Shi`is — Here’s Some History
Zaydi Shi`ism first took root in Iran, not Yemen. A number of Zaydi kingdoms were established just south of the Caspian Sea between the 8th and 16th centuries. However, those were wiped out when the Safavids, who took over Iran in the early 1500s, forcibly converted that country to Twelver Shi`ism.
Zaydi missionaries, some from Iran, had better long-term success in Yemen, starting in the 9th century. Particularly among the Houthi tribes of the northwestern part of the country, where it stuck. This tradition of Iranian patronage in Yemen is something Tehran is trying to emulate.
The Ottomans Tried to Conquer Them
Several different Zaydi states were established in Yemen. And the main Muslim colonial power, the Ottoman Empire, tried to subdue them. From 1548-1636, and again in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Sunni Ottomans invaded Yemen. (Full disclosure: I wrote a book about this, and other, Ottoman counterinsurgency wars.) But both times the Yemen occupation turned into Istanbul’s Vietnam. Or, perhaps more accurately, its Afghanistan.
How Yemens became Yemen
Throughout the middle of the 20th century, north Yemen was Zaydi-ruled as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. In 1962, socialist Egypt supported a coup which produced the Yemen Arab Republic. The USSR helped turn south Yemen into the People’s Democratic Republic. The latter was backed by the Saudis, because Egypt supported the former. As the Cold War wound down, the two Yemens merged in 1990. At first the majority Sunnis and large minority (40%) of Zaydi Shi`is got along. Then post-9/11 geopolitics complicated the situation. Al-Qaeda and, later, ISIS, moved into Yemen. Some of the Zaydi Houthi leaders trained in Iran and wanted to set up a similar government in Yemen. US troops there irritated many Houthis — even if they were sent to take on Sunni jihadists. (Our forces are still there, by the way.) The 2011 “Arab Spring” also destabilized Yemen.
Houthis Zaydi Leadership: Iran-trained
But the major influence has almost certainly been Iran. The current Houthi Zaydi leader is Abd al-Malik al-Houthi. He opposes the influence of the Saudis in Yemen, what he calls “Wahhabization.” He has also bought into Iranian ideas of “Western exploitation” and jihad against Israel. (The Houthi Zaydi flag proclaims “death to America” and “to Israel” as well as “ a curse upon the Jews.” Who they accuse of wanting to “eradicate humanity.”) Some think Abd al-Malik al-Houthi may even aspire to re-establish the Zaydi Imamate.
What’s in it for Iran?
Iran’s goal in the southwestern corner of Arabia is now mainly to cause problems for both the Saudis and the Israelis. Since Yemen borders the former, and has a larger population, that’s already been accomplished. Saudi Arabia, with UAE support, has been fighting the Houthis since 2014. But that didn’t stop the latter from taking control of the capital, in addition to the northwest of the country, the following year. The Houthis have launched missiles at both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. And, of course, at Israel. What, besides making the ayatollahs happy, did they hope to accomplish? Perhaps to get taken seriously as a player in the region. To make the leap from non-state to state actor. And to bolster their negotiating position vis-à-vis their near enemy, the Saudis. By attacking their far enemy, Israel.
The Houthi Zaydi May Bite Off More Than They Can Chew
But the Houthi leadership should take care. Israel’s force projection power is considerable. And while the Saudis may pretend to care about the Palestinians, they make no such pretense about the Houthis. Should the IDF Air Force decide to strike Yemen, the Saudis would almost certainly look the other way. If not actively assist Tel Aviv. Houthi military bluster did lead to them shooting down a US drone. But substantial American naval forces are now backing up Israel, both in the eastern Med and in the Red Sea. And one of our destroyers has already taken down a Houthi missile. Our diplomats might want to remind Yemenis that, unlike the Palestinians, they don’t have any representation in Washington. And while the ayatollahs of Iran, Israel’s main far enemy, are probably willing to fight to the last Houthi Zaydi, the people of Yemen might not be.
Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.