Trump administration likely to designate Houthis as terrorist group

Analysts are concerned that the expected US step could add complexity to the six-year war.
Thursday 19/11/2020
Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels raise their weapons during a gathering in Sana’a. (AP)
Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels raise their weapons during a gathering in Sana’a. (AP)

WASHINGTON – With US President Donald Trump’s mandate ending in January, his administration is reportedly preparing to designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia a terrorist organisation, in a gamble with unknown consequences, according to experts.

Analysts are concerned that the expected US step could add complexity to the six-year war that has thrown the country’s population into a dire humanitarian crisis.

Three correspondents of the American Foreign Policy magazine, Colum Lynch, Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch, detailed international division over the anticipated US move and noted strong opposition within the Pentagon and among US foreign policy experts.

Riyadh, which has been at war with the Houthis for more than five years, has already classified the Iran-backed group as a terrorist organisation and urged its ally Washington to do the same.

“They [the Americans] have been contemplating this for a while, but Pompeo wants this fast-tracked,” one diplomatic source told Foreign Policy.

“It’s part of the scorched-earth policy the sour grapes in the White House are taking.”

The United Nations and international aid agencies have recently tried to dissuade the Trump administration from making the designation, but the likely decision would grant Secretary of State Mike Pompeo another victory in his anti-Iran strategy during his visit to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE this week.

Risky gamble

Analysts believe the Trump administration’s decision would be a risky gamble after United Nations Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths pressured the US to stay out of the conflict. If Trump follows through, it would also make it difficult for his successor, Joe Biden, to help forge a final settlement to the conflict.

Last month, US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft urged Washington to reconsider plans to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation. Germany and Sweden have also put pressure on the United States to reevaluate the policy but their efforts so far seems to have failed and the UN is now bracing for the announcement.

The US Defence Department and State Department experts oppose the move, and a coalition of international charities is preparing a joint statement comparing the potential effects of the designation to famine that broke out in Somalia after the United States designated Al-Shabab a terrorist group in 2008.

Gregory Johnsen, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that Trump’s move would be inflammatory and undermine the next president’s ability to set policy on the Yemen war.

“It is a mistake. This is an inflammatory move from Secretary of State Pompeo and the Trump administration to take,” Foreign Policy reported Johnsen as saying.

“It would basically box in the new president when he wants to take a new approach to the war in Yemen, and cut back on the Saudi war.”

Diplomats opposed to this move unsuccessfully tried to influence Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch ally of Trump who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, to express opposition to this designation.

Democrats in Congress have grown concerned that the designation could undermine the fragile peace talks in a war-torn country.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said any such designation would be a “clear attempt by the Trump administration to hamstring future peace negotiations.”

“The Houthis and their financial supporters are already subject to US sanctions, so the practical impact of the designation would be exclusively to make it more difficult to negotiate with Houthi leaders and to deliver aid to Houthi-controlled areas, where the majority of Yemenis still live,” Murphy said.

The move appears to be part of a broader effort by the White House and Pompeo to increase pressure on Iran and its allies in the Middle East during the last months of the US administration, a development likely to complicate Biden’s efforts if he decides to reopen talks with Iran over its nuclear programme.

According to a report published on the Axios news site, the Trump administration, in coordination with Israel and the US’s Gulf allies, intends to impose new sanctions on Iran and its backers before Biden’s inauguration on January 20.

The International Crisis Group says the move is framed in internal deliberations as an expansion of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran, while others say discussions over the designation were driven by direct requests from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which together lead the coalition that intervened against the Iran-backed Houthis.

The Trump administration has been studying plans to designate the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, as a terrorist organisation for more than a year, but it has grown more serious about the prospect in recent months.

Last September, American officials told The Washington Post that the US administration had begun reviewing its position on the Houthis, and that it was studying whether to declare them a foreign terrorist organisation and designate their leaders as “global terrorists,” a measure that would lead to freezing Houthi assets and preventing the group’s members from travelling to the United States.

Officials and insiders said the Trump administration could designate Houthi leaders as global terrorists rather than designating the entire movement as a foreign terrorist organisation.

Boys holds a poster of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, during a rally held by Houthi supporters, in Saada, Yemen January 6, 2020.  (REUTERS)
Boys holds a poster of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, during a rally held by Houthi supporters, in Saada, Yemen January 6, 2020.  (REUTERS)

The Houthis seized power in Yemen in January 2015, after months of protests over fuel subsidies. They now control a large part of Yemeni territory, but the international community has never recognised them, and their expulsion from the Yemeni government paved the way for a military intervention in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia, with the support of the United States.

Increasing pressure on Iran

A broader terrorist designation is regarded as the most extreme approach, subjecting not only the group’s members, but any supporters, to criminal sanctions.

This, of course, could prove to be a disruptive factor for the activities of humanitarian organisations working to help civilians in Houthi-controlled territory.

Deliberations in the US started after Washington’s Gulf allies declared the Houthis a terrorist organisation. Recently, US diplomats raised the idea of ​​adding the Houthis to the United Nations list of individuals and entities subject to UN sanctions.

The United States initially failed to secure adequate support for the initiative and abandoned it, while the United Nations Sanctions Committee included some senior Houthi officials on the list of individuals subject to assets’ freeze and travel bans, although most Houthi leaders do not travel frequently and do not use the international banking system.

Humanitarian experts in Yemen say it is tragic that the Trump administration has turned the issue, which could have life or death implications for Yemeni citizens, into a political matter.

They warn a designation by Washington will be difficult to undo, and that by the time the Biden administration takes over, a lot of damage will have already been done.

Griffiths, the third UN peace envoy to Yemen, has been working since his appointment in February 2018 to broker a peace agreement between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of exiled Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Six years of UN mediation has not brought peace to Yemen, but Griffiths last month brokered a major prisoner exchange between the country’s warring factions, a deal that is expected to lead to the release of about 1,000 detainees.

The United States has expressed concern about the Houthis’ increasing dependence on Iran, which has provided the movement with missiles, drones and training, allowing them to target airports and other vital infrastructure in neighbouring countries.

The move to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation comes a year after the Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation.

Supporting Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen has been a central pillar of the Trump administration’s comprehensive strategy to contain Tehran’s regional ambitions.

However, a coalition of progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans have come together in recent years to try to force the Trump administration to halt the US military’s support for the war in Yemen.

Diplomats and other officials say that the US policy on Yemen during the Trump administration is focused on a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, without concern for its impact on Yemen’s stability.