Houthis’ visit to Beirut stirs division and controversy
BEIRUT - A public visit by a Yemeni Houthi delegation to Beirut renewed tensions between the Iran-backed Hezbollah and Gulf-allied Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, pushing relations between the two to near collapse and further complicating efforts to create a cabinet of national unity in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s relationship with the Yemeni group is not new but it is the first time that both sides featured it so publicly. On numerous occasions, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has praised the Houthis, denying, however, that he sent them arms, funds or men to fight the Yemeni government and its Gulf allies.
Saudi Arabia claims the Houthis have a training camp run by Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Riyadh also accused Hezbollah of transporting missiles to the Houthis.
The Lebanese government this summer received a copy of a letter sent to the UN Security Council by the Gulf-backed Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi accusing Hezbollah of providing the Houthis with material and logistic support. It went unanswered at the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, whose minister, Gebran Bassil, is a Hezbollah ally.
The Houthi movement has a television channel, which operates from southern Beirut, called al-Masirah and whose director, Ibrahim Duleimi, was present at the meeting with Nasrallah. Attempts by Lebanese Information Minister Melhem Riachy, a Saudi ally, to withdraw the channel’s licence failed as have moves by the March 14 alliance to restrict its broadcast abilities. Al-Masirah is located next to Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV with backup studios at Hezbollah headquarters.
Houthi spokesman Mohammad Abdulsalam said he met with Nasrallah in Beirut on August 19, posting a photo of the meeting on Twitter. The photo had to have been taken by a Hezbollah photographer because smartphones are not allowed in Nasrallah’s presence.
Hezbollah leaked the photo through Abdulsalam, it seems, with multiple objectives. The first was a message to Saudi Arabia that Tehran’s interference in Lebanese affairs would continue if economic and political pressure is applied on Beirut. Second, it was a message from Nasrallah making Hariri look weak and irrelevant to his Saudi allies.
“The visits never stopped,” said Lebanese analyst Nidal al-Sabe. “Mohammad Abdulsalam visited back in October 2015 to pay condolences to Hezbollah. Coordination has always been high, backed by Iran and endorsed by Syria.
“The United States and Iran are trying to get Hezbollah and Iran out of Syria. Hezbollah will compensate for that by increasing its Arab presence elsewhere. They are trying to tell the Saudis, ‘If you continue to pursue mischief in Lebanon, we are capable of doing the same in Yemen.’”
There are some in Saudi Arabia angry with Hariri’s inability to rein in Hezbollah, seeking new Sunni allies in Beirut who can limit Hezbollah’s role in Yemen and Syria. The announcement of the visit gives the Saudis more ammunition to claim Hariri is unable to curtail Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon or the broader Middle East.
Saudi media asked how the Houthis were given visas to enter Lebanon. The answer is through the Lebanese General Security, which is headed by Hezbollah’s ally General Abbas Ibrahim.
For many, it is a given that the Houthi visit will obstruct the trust and confidence-building measures that have developed between Hariri’s Future Movement and Hezbollah in forming a cabinet. Their presence is likely to undermine support for Hariri, making him more amenable to Hezbollah pressure regarding the appointment of Sunni politicians in the next government. Hariri has refused to name any Sunni figures from the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, keeping all Sunni posts in the hands of his Future Movement.
Houthi delegates have in recent years travelled frequently to Beirut, where they receive money sent by Tehran. Two senior Houthis — Jibreel al-Houthi, the son of Houthi leader Abdelmalik al-Houthi, and Mohammad Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Revolutionary Council of Ansar al-Allah — reportedly live in southern Beirut, using fake passports
Previous visits by the Houthi leadership to Lebanon had been kept secret, in light of a 2016 understanding between Nasrallah and Hariri, which allowed the latter to return as prime minister in exchange for making Michel
Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, Lebanon’s president. It has now been made open, which means the
relationship between the Future Movement and Hezbollah is at an all-time low.
Hariri wants the Iran-backed group to distance itself from Yemen. Hezbollah wants Hariri to normalise relations with Damascus and end his public support for the Syrian opposition. If Hariri continues to refuse, the March 8 alliance has made it clear it would obstruct the cabinet formation, possibly bringing down his candidacy.
Hezbollah has no intention of severing its relationship with the Houthis, however, even if Hariri mends relations with Damascus. The relationship is not based on reciprocity but on “might makes right.” It regards itself the stronger link in the lopsided relationship — given that it has the manpower, arms and demographic majority in Lebanon.
Hariri is being asked to normalise with Syria and support the repatriation of refugees from Lebanon. The only thing he will get in return is the internal success of the government.
The Houthi visit signals an escalation in animus by Nasrallah towards the Arab Gulf region, which risks killing chances of a quick cabinet formation in Lebanon.