Militias—or “armed groups,” for those who prefer a more neutral term—often depend on foreign support. Without weapons, funding, or political cover from a government, usually a foreign one, armed groups rarely develop the ability to pose an enduring threat. But the relationships between militias and their international patrons can be complicated or misunderstood. What can we learn about militias in general from a close examination of patron–client relationships in some of the deeply studied cases in the Middle East?

Thanassis Cambanis: In the years that I’ve been closely following armed groups in the region, starting with Hezbollah in Lebanon, there’s been a really profound debate about how to understand the role of foreign money and foreign control. In the case of Hezbollah, there was a sometimes simplistic debate about whether Hezbollah is an autonomous nationalist group or an Iranian proxy. In my view, Hezbollah functions in both ways. The harder question to ask is about how much influence or control Iran, the foreign patron, gets in exchange for its money and material support. Under what conditions can an armed group break with its foreign sponsor in a case where their interests diverge?

I’m especially interested in what you’ve learned by studying the different typologies of armed groups in Yemen. On the one hand, there are the Houthis—an older, established group with a changing relationship to an outside patron, Iran, that deepened during the course of this latest war. On the other, there are the newer armed groups supported by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Nadwa Al-Dawsari: Reports on armed groups in Yemen are often simplistic. All the groups are presented as proxies of regional actors. In some cases, it is assumed that they fight for money. While there is some truth to these ideas, the reality is much more complicated. All armed groups in Yemen have agency, and it is incorrect to assume they are mere proxies who are controlled by outside actors.

The Houthis have emerged as the most solid armed group, particularly in terms of discipline, military strategy, and messaging. The groups that are backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are fragmented. Iran’s approach with the Houthis has proven to be more effective and successful than that of the Saudis or Emiratis. But it is also important to recognize that the Houthis’ success is the result of decades of slow and consistent investment in them by Iran. Commanders from Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and advisers from Hezbollah are on the ground helping the Houthis with military strategizing and offensive operations. Iran has provided the Houthis with weapons manufacturing technology and ballistic missiles. Additionally, the Houthis have inherited state structures and large amounts of weapons they took from the Yemeni government military in 2014, including those provided by the United States to Saleh.

On the other hand, the Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces are almost completely reliant on their sponsors’ support. They don’t have sophisticated weapons like the Houthis do. The Saudi-led coalition relies mainly on airstrikes. Its ground operations are not consistent and, since 2018, have been mainly reactionary or defensive. Forces they backed have repeatedly lost territory because the coalition decided to suddenly suspend military support or airstrikes, with no good explanation. In mid-2020, al-Jawf, in the north, fell into the hands of the Houthis almost overnight when the coalition stopped airstrikes and withdrew its heavy weapons.

Breakdown of Control

Thanassis: How much control do these foreign sponsors get?

Nadwa: The Houthis are not Iran’s puppets—Iran does not control the Houthis, as some political actors and analysts perceive. While the relationship is solid and both share a political and religious ideology and are committed to fulfilling Iran’s expansionist agenda, the Houthis have a level of autonomy from Iran that none of the Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces have. The Saudi-led coalition does not have a clear vision or strategy in Yemen, and that is why its military operations have almost always been reactive, especially over the past three years. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have divergent agendas that manifest themselves in internal divisions and even conflict between the armed groups they support. The Emirates’ main goal has been to undermine Islah, the Yemeni Islamist party that is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Islah is the main political player in the government of Yemeni president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and most anti-Houthi fighters on the ground are affiliated with the party. Attempting to undermine Islah—coupled with a lack of strategy or military plan—played into the hands of both Iran and the Houthis militarily.

Iran treated the Houthis as allies and empowered them, while the Saudi-led coalition treated its allies as subordinates and, as a result, disempowered them. There is a sense of fatigue among anti-Houthi forces because of the lack of consistency in the coalition’s support. A recurring pattern is that the coalition provides support for a military offensive against the Houthis and, as Houthi forces collapse, the coalition stops the support, leaving the forces they backed exposed and vulnerable.

“Iran treated the Houthis as allies and empowered them, while the Saudi-led coalition treated its allies as subordinates and, as a result, disempowered them.”

The Saudi-led coalition has control over the forces they back because they are the only source of support for these groups. In other words, it is not a partnership. This arrangement is hardly sustainable or effective.

It would be naive to think that any outside force can fully control armed groups. They might have temporary control when interests align. But the conflict in Yemen is very fluid and, historically, alliances shift. My concern with the armed groups is that, in time, they will be too fragmented. Then, you will have a country run by many armed groups competing and fighting each other—further localizing the conflict.

Thanassis: I’m reminded of the collapse of the Afghan military in 2021 when the United States withdrew air cover and logistical support. The comparison is inexact, not least because it’s hard to compare a national military to subnational armed groups, but I suspect there are useful analytical comparisons.

In our discussions over the past year, we have learned a lot about the dynamics in different Middle Eastern conflict zones, and the very different dynamics posed by small armed groups in the generally stable and secure environment of the United States. Analysts often exaggerate the centrality of foreign sponsors to armed groups in the Middle East, as if there’s no need to understand the specific motives and aims of, for example, the Houthis or the groups fighting under the coordination of the Emirates. In contrast, analysts looking at armed actors in the United States assume that these movements are wholly autonomous, local, indigenous phenomena. These analysts rarely even ask whether these groups are being instigated, trained, supported or otherwise benefitting from connections to foreign governments. I see analytical failures in both cases—either the role of foreign governments is inflated, or it isn’t considered at all.

Nadwa: I agree. I believe the problem is that analysts tend to look at things from the perspective of their governments’ involvement. In the case of Yemen, analysts are mainly focused on influencing American or British policymakers to reduce the complicity of their governments in the Yemen war. And since these governments support Saudi Arabia, most analysts looked at the Yemen conflict from a regional lens focusing on Saudi Arabia and Iran’s role and often neglecting the local aspect of the conflict—in other words, neglecting Yemen.

The problem in most analyses is that they oversimplify matters because they are guided by certain policy prescriptions they want to push for. For example, they are meant to end Western government support to Saudi Arabia, so they downplay the role of Iran. Additionally, most of these analysts don’t want to get into the internal dynamics of conflicts because they are too complex to unpack. Most of the time, in these analyses of Yemen, Yemen itself is irrelevant and is only used as a showcase to support some other preexisting advocacy goals.

Thanassis: Why are you so averse to using the term “militias” to describe nonstate or sub-state armed groups?

Nadwa: I don’t really have an intellectual logic to explain this. I guess it’s a cultural thing. I am an Arab, after all, and in the Arab world, the word “militia” is considered a negative one. It refers to armed groups that are mainly spoilers and seek to undermine stability and the rule of law. In that sense, a group that organizes to defend its members’ homes should not be given a negative label like “militia.”

A Catalyzing Role

Thanassis: When I first started researching Shia militias in the Middle East nearly twenty years ago, I found myself frustrated by the simplistic ways that governments tried to describe armed groups as simple pawns. By this logic, Iraqi militias were described by some of their Iraqi rivals as nothing more than Iranian agents, and by the Americans, perversely, as “anti-Iraqi forces.” Similarly, Israel and the United States sometimes tried to portray Hezbollah as the “Lebanese division of the IRGC.” Careful research reveals a much more complicated web of international and local factors that undergird any particular group’s power—and the role of international support can ebb and flow over time. Hezbollah’s opponents have exaggerated Iran’s role, but Iran’s role has always been crucial to the group, and has grown closer and more hands-on since 2005.

How has your understanding of the role of foreign funding and foreign patrons changed over the course of your deep dive into Yemeni armed groups?

Nadwa: What I have learned is that armed groups can potentially change the course of history if supported by a reliable outside actor. Iran’s work with the Houthis has done that in Yemen. With Iran’s help, the Houthis transformed from a small armed group that relies on guerrilla warfare into a strong military power to be reckoned with.

“Armed groups can potentially change the course of history if supported by a reliable outside actor.”

I also learned that even established democracies are not immune from nonstate armed groups. In Yemen, the Houthi fighters overthrew the government, dragging the country into a civil war that has been going for more than seven years now. In the years leading to the war, Houthis were expanding militarily from their stronghold of Saada in the north toward the capital city of Sana’a. Most Yemenis, including myself, dismissed their threat and thought it was impossible for them to capture the capital. But look at where they are now. Not only are they the strongest military force in Yemen, but they also have caused some serious damage to key infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

Thanassis: Over the last year, Century International has held discussions that included researchers who specialize in violent extremist groups in the United States, and researchers working in the very different context of Middle Eastern conflict zones. We identified a lot of limits on trans-regional comparisons, especially because in the Middle East and North Africa we are often dealing with sustained insurgencies in weak or fragmented states, whereas in Western Europe and North America, armed groups tend to be small and operate on the fringe of society. What did you learn by thinking about your work in juxtaposition to the study of armed groups in the West?

Nadwa: In the United States, there are armed groups that seek to restore a political order that is dominated by whites. In Yemen, Houthis are also driven by a desire to reinstate the supremacy of their bloodline and its control over the government, which they lost in 1962, when the theocracy was overthrown and Yemen became a republic. These groups are driven by nostalgia about a lost identity and the great past, when they had a monopoly over power—as a distinct bloodline. They have perceived grievances and threats that influence their actions. So yes, it is hard to draw comparisons. But there are some obvious similarities.

Another comparative aspect is how these groups, both in the Middle East and in the United States, take advantage of social media to push their narrative, attract followers, and organize. This makes it a lot harder to address the threat of these groups and mitigate their appeal to the population in a world where state structures, even in the developed world, face serious challenges from irregular warfare and disinformation.

This dialogue is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.

header image: Tahami Resistance fighters, a militia aligned with Yemen’s Saudi-led coalition-backed government, sit in the back of a truck on the way heading to the frontline of fighting on September 19, 2018 in Haiz, Yemen. Source: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images