Designation of Houthis as Terrorist Group Carries Risks and Rewards

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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The US Department of State issued a statement in the waning days of the Trump administration designating the Yemeni military rebel forces Ansar Allah, currently occupying the capital and large swaths of the country, as a terrorist group. More commonly referred to as the Houthis, the group has been locked in a battle since 2015 with the internationally recognized and Saudi-backed government led by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The terror-group designation is likely to make more difficult the job of the various UN-backed organizations already on the ground, even though some have suggested that it may also provide the UN with valuable leverage in the negotiations with the Houthis.

Coming only days before the Biden administration took power, the designation has caused some consternation among the incoming Department of State officials who, according to public statements, also published by Yemen Online, have promised to review the designation before they are fully committed to it:US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will quickly revisit the designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as terrorists and end support of the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition in the country, his pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said late on Tuesday. At his confirmation hearing, Blinken said he would ‘immediately’ review the outgoing Trump administration’s labeling of the Iran-linked insurgents, fearing the move was worsening a humanitarian crisis…. Aid groups fear that they will face legal problems in the United States by interacting with the Houthis, which they say is unavoidable as they are the de facto government in much of Yemen.”

However, should President Joe Biden and his new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, decide to undo the decision, they are likely to receive some pushback from US allies in the region, including the Saudi government, which, as this Arab News report points out, has already expressed publicly its approval: “The Saudi Cabinet strongly condemned the continued violations by Houthi militia of the Stockholm Agreement to end the Yemen conflict. It also condemned the Houthi’s use of Hodeidah Governorate as a ‘platform for hostilities and terrorist operations’ by launching ballistic missiles and drones. Such actions, the Cabinet said, are a threat to regional and international security, and undermine political efforts to end the conflict. The remarks were made on Tuesday during a virtual session chaired by King Salman.”

The Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram also noted that the terror-group designation for the Houthis has been warmly welcomed by the Egyptian government, especially following the latest alleged attack by the Houthis targeting Saudi Arabia: “The Egyptian Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the latest Houthi attack on Jazan governorate in Saudi Arabia, affirming Cairo’s support to the kingdom against terrorism. The ‘Egyptian government and people reiterate that they stand by the sisterly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the face of brutal terrorism and its supporters’, a statement by the foreign ministry read…. The statement also voiced support to measures taken by the kingdom to preserve its security and stability and protect its citizens against ‘such cowardly and despicable’ attacks…. In the last few years, Saudi Arabia has intercepted hundreds of projectiles launched by the Houthis, accusing the Iran-backed group of targeting civilian areas.”

Equally important is the support expressed by the UN-recognized government led by Mr. Hadi. In an interview with Asharq Alawsat’s Mohammed Nasser, “Yemeni Human Rights Minister Ahmed Orman asserted that international organizations do not have access to areas controlled by Houthi militias in Yemen. They have also been denied visits to detention centers established by the Iran-backed group… Orman said that some organizations and researchers have rivalries with member states of the Saudi-led Arab Coalition which backs the internationally recognized government in Yemen. He went on to criticize these organizations for overlooking the violations committed by Houthis and pledged to work to correct this imbalance…. The minister pointed out the Houthi human rights violations are graver than those reported to have been allegedly committed by pro-government forces.”

In addition to the favorable reaction by the Yemeni, Saudi, and Egyptian governments, several regional dailies have also come out in support, welcoming, among other things, increased scrutiny of Iran’s actions in Yemen. For example, a recent Khaleej Times editorial asserts that the Houthi’s terror-group designation also shines a light on their Iranian supporters: “The US decision to designate the Houthi militia in Yemen as a terrorist organization is the right step…. It also serves to choke the organization’s ability to raise funds for its brand of violence that has brought ruin on the country and its people while raising fears that the humanitarian crisis could worsen if the Houthis turn their ire on innocent civilians…. The US realizes that designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization could heap more misery on ordinary Houthis, but the decision had to be made to push back against Tehran and its proxies before it’s too late…. The US government’s designation… gives the Arab and Gulf countries tackling Iranian proxies like the Houthis and Hezbollah the diplomatic ammunition they need to bring Tehran to the negotiating table.”

A Gulf News editorial, goes so far as to argue that, besides putting pressure on Iran, the terror-group designation would “empower the UN to end the war…. The United States has taken the right decision to classify Yemen’s rebel militias, Al Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organisation following the escalation by the Iran-sponsored group of its attacks on Saudi civilian border areas and on oil tankers in the Red Sea…. Tehran clearly would want to use the conflict in Yemen as a bargaining chip in its expected talks with the upcoming Biden administration on a new nuclear deal. The US decision has effectively stripped Tehran of that card. Meanwhile, the move gives the UN elbow room in its talk with the militia to end the war and the suffering of millions of Yemenis, especially following the Riyadh agreement that led to the formation of a unity government in Aden.”

That is not what UN officials have said, however. Many in fact, as this report by The National indicates, fear that, by designating the Houthis as terrorists, the US is complicating, rather than making easier, the UN’s mission in Yemen: “Three UN officials urged the US to reverse its decision to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as terrorists, saying the move could lead to a backlash that causes more food shortages in the conflict-blighted country…. UN officials fear any backlash from the group, which controls Sanaa and other parts of the north, could worsen food shortages throughout Yemen. UN aid chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council on Thursday that Washington’s decision was discouraging suppliers, banks and shipping companies from operating in Yemen…. [UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin] Griffiths said the designation cast a shadow on efforts for a peace deal between the Houthis and the government of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, which the rebels drove from the capital, Sanaa, in 2014.”

And, if initial reports by the Iranian Press TV are to be trusted, it seems that the designation may only have hardened the resolve of the newly designated terrorist group, with its leaders now calling for mass protests across the country:Yemen’s Houthi Ansarullah movement has slammed a recent decision by the United States to designate the popular group as ‘terrorist’ and impose sanctions on some of its leaders, saying the move is in fact a ‘badge of honor’ for the movement…. The Ansarullah spokesman went on to say that the international community contacted the popular Yemeni movement shortly after the US designation, and stressed that the decision had nothing to do with them and that Washington was acting recklessly on various issues…. Meanwhile, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a member of Yemen’s Supreme Political Council, called for mass rallies across the country on Monday in protest of the US designation.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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