As violence from the war in Yemen spills over into the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the U.S. Government faces new pressure to redesignate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Nearly one year ago, President Joe Biden rescinded the Trump administration’s decision to place the Houthis on the State Department’s FTO list.
Was Biden’s decision the right one?
Those who brand the Houthis terrorists argue three points. First, they say the Houthis target civilians and engage in “terrorist activity.” Terrorism involves violence against civilians to serve a political purpose. Certainly, the Houthis have struck civilian targets, from airports to warehouses containing humanitarian aid.
But the United Nations has also condemned the Saudi-led coalition for carrying out thousands of bombing raids on residential areas, killing thousands of civilians. Just in the last month, the Saudis responded to a Houthi drone attack on the UAE that killed three people by destroying the home of a former Houthi military official and killing him, seven members of his household, and four neighbors; bombing a prison in northern Yemen, killing 87 and wounding 266 people; and destroying telecoms infrastructure in Hodeidah and taking down the country’s internet access.
Such disregard for civilian casualties and disproportionate retaliation violates the Law of Armed Conflict, which mandates proportionality. The Saudi coalition’s airstrikes have produced 18,755 civilian casualties. Its economic blockade has inflamed a humanitarian crisis. Over 377,000 people have been killed, 4.2 million people are internally displaced, and 80 percent of the population requires humanitarian assistance. There are no clean hands.
The Houthis’ political goals have long been somewhat unclear. Still, unlike terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo, or Peru’s Shining Path, which stand for little beyond vague rhetoric, when the Houthis started to form a coalition with President Abd Rabbuh Mansour al Hadi’s faction, they shadowed government officials to learn how to govern. It appears evident they intend to control government in Yemen.
Second, advocates of the FTO designation argue that only international pressure will compel the Houthis to settle the war. But UN peace mediator Martin Griffiths contends otherwise: the FTO designation “is liable to have a chilling effect … on efforts to bring the parties together.”
Designating the Houthis as terrorists will not bring peace to Yemen. David Beasley, the Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme, has declared that Yemen is “struggling now without the [FTO] designation. With the designation, it’s going to be catastrophic. It literally is going to be a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people in Yemen.”
Current U.S. Government policies undermine its ability to credibly mediate a peace process. As Annelle R. Sheline and Bruce Riedel have observed, while President Biden clearly wants peace, the U.S. Government’s promise to “end U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen” remains unfulfilled. For too long, successive administrations have provided Saudi Arabia with offensive capabilities: intelligence, weapons, and fighter jet maintenance. The U.S. Government’s failure to end the Saudis’ aerial and maritime blockade of Yemen has produced no policy change or cost to Saudi Arabia. Continued support to the Saudis implicitly endorses the blockade as a legitimate military and negotiation strategy. That diminishes U.S. credibility in the region and the chances for peace.
Third, designation supporters argue that Iran backs the Houthis and aims to turn them into a proxy like Lebanese Hezbollah. They assert that an FTO designation blocks Iranian support.
This is the great irony of the Yemen conflict. Saudi Arabia intervened to prevent the Iran-backed Houthis from gaining power and to restrain Iran’s ambitions. Yet the strategy backfired and prompted Iran to increase its participation. The Houthis built their power by forging local tribal alliances and coopting the defeated Yemeni military. That was before Iran began supplying the drone and missile technology which made the Houthis an extraterritorial threat.
Tehran’s association with the Houthis does not define a typical patron-proxy relationship. Iran’s support is largely transactional. Focused on Saudi Arabia, Tehran helps the Houthis to bog down the Saudis in a frustrating, expensive conflict. As a 2020 RAND report states, “The Houthis benefit from Iranian support, but do not want to be controlled by, reliant on, or beholden to their Iranian benefactors.”
Theological differences also keep Iran and the Houthis at a distance. The Houthis follow Zaydism, a Shiite sect that is doctrinally distinct from the Twelver Shiism that is dominant in Iran and preaches loyalty to the Iranian supreme leader. Yes, the Houthis accept foreign support despite their nationalist disposition. Still, it’s the ousted government of President Hadi that relies completely on foreign backing from Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis’ future path remains undecided. Their increasing attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE should give U.S. policymakers pause and add impetus to efforts to make peace a reality. Thomas Juneau and other regional experts have cautioned that Iran’s tactical partnership with the Houthis could mature into an enduring alignment against the United States, Israel, and the Arab Gulf states.
The United States may be better advised to avoid designating the Houthis and instead recognize their legitimacy in Yemen. Let’s keep the Houthis focused on Yemen, while stepping up diplomacy. Reinstating the FTO designation will undercut this objective and prolong rather than end the conflict.
Adam Lammon is the Managing Editor of The National Interest and a Junior Fellow in Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @AdamLammon.
James P. Farwell has advised the U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND and the US Department of Defense. He is the author of Information Warfare (Quantico: Marine Corps U. Press, 2020) and The Corporate Warrior (Brookfield: Rothstein Publishing, 2022). The views expressed are their own and not those of the U.S. Government, its departments, agencies, or COCOM.
This article was originally published by RealClearDefense.