Why Declaring the Houthis to Be Terrorists Was a Mistake

January 23, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: HouthisYemenYemen Civil WarRefugeesHumanitarian Aid

Why Declaring the Houthis to Be Terrorists Was a Mistake

The Biden adminstration will have to find a way to fix the mess in Yemen and provide badly-needed relief.

The former administration of U.S. President Donald Trump’s last-minute move to designate Houthi rebels as terrorists will leave its successor to manage the fallout in Yemen, which will likely include a more severe humanitarian crisis, more complicated intra-Yemeni political negotiations, and ultimately, a more entrenched civil conflict. On  Jan. 19, U.S. State Department designated the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization and three of its leaders as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.” The designations will trigger new financial sanctions that are intended to hold the Houthi movement “accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure and commercial shipping.” The State Department made clear in a Jan. 10 statement that the terrorism designation was also aimed at freeing Yemen from “Iranian interference” as part of the then-Trump administration’s firm anti-Iran strategy. 

  • The United States and the United Nations have both confirmed that Houthi rebels in Yemen have received both arms and defense equipment from Iran
  • Along with the State Department designations, the U.S. Treasury Department also issued four licenses to “facilitate the flow of humanitarian assistance” and allow the continued delivery of critical equipment and humanitarian aid from international groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

Washington’s new terrorism designations are intended to force the Houthis into a corner by limiting their access to financial networks. But that pressure could exacerbate the existing divides between various competing factions of the Houthi movement, rather than compel them to act together. The current Houthi leadership is divided over how to pursue political negotiations with Saudi Arabia and its allies in the internationally recognized Yemeni government, as well as whether the group should deepen its ties with Iran. Houthi leaders also do not have full control of the rank and file of the thousands of Houthi-aligned militia fighters active on the front lines. The fallout from the new U.S. sanctions will risk deepening splits among various Houthi factions, further complicating intra-Yemeni political negotiations aimed at ending the country’s six-year civil conflict. 

  • The Houthi movement has grown larger and more diverse over the many years it’s spent fighting the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, including in conflicts that predate the current one. 
  • The U.N. special envoy to Yemen said on Jan. 14 that the U.S. terrorism designation could have a “chilling effect” on the Yemeni warring parties’ willingness to come together.

The sanctions associated with the designations will also prevent aid from reaching the most vulnerable Yemenis, aggravating the country’s severe humanitarian crisis while further impeding an end to the conflict. The designations include numerous carve-outs for NGOs to help maintain the delivery of humanitarian aid, agricultural commodities, medicine and medical equipment. But by making it illegal for NGOs to transact with Houthi officials, the designations will still risk compounding existing resource scarcity in Yemen by hampering the delivery of such aid. Indeed, numerous aid organizations and international institutions, as well as U.S. lawmakers, have warned against the detrimental impact the designation will have on Yemen’s already profoundly destitute humanitarian situation, with roughly 80 percent of Yemen’s population estimated to be in need of aid. 

The newly sworn-in administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, will likely be forced to prioritize dealing with the humanitarian impact of the Yemeni civil conflict faster than it might otherwise have wanted to. The Biden administration could reverse the designation(s) if it can prove to Congress that doing so is needed to achieve the U.S. government’s goals in Yemen. But even then, the designations’ initial imposition could still create a chilling effect for foreign companies, institutions and NGOs active in Yemen. 

  • Biden has not expressed a desire to play a deeper role in mediating the conflict in Yemen, though officials in his administration have expressed the desire to reduce overall tensions in the Persian Gulf.
  • The U.S. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 requires a Yemen policy review by May 3. The Biden administration has already said it plans to conduct a strategic review of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, as well as the degree of U.S. support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen.

The Risks of the U.S. Dash to Declare Houthis Terrorists in Yemen is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical forecasting and intelligence publication from RANE, the Risk Assistance Network + Exchange. As the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor Worldview brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is a RANE (Risk Assistance Network + Exchange) company.

Image: Reuters.