The Trump administration appears on the verge of officially labeling the Iran-backed Yemeni rebel movement as a terrorist organization, a move that could bring major aftershocks for what is already one of the world’s worst humanitarian and security disasters.
Some former U.S. officials and private analysts are warning that putting Yemen’s Houthi rebels on the official list of global terror organizations would be a costly mistake that sidelines the U.S. from peace efforts. Such a risky move by an outgoing Trump administration, they say, carries a host of unforeseen consequences.
The State Department reportedly is mulling whether to officially label the Houthis — a powerful Shia insurgency that’s waged a long, violent civil war against the Yemeni government and its chief ally, Saudi Arabia — a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). There’s no doubt that terrorist-style attacks are part of the Houthis’ arsenal, one recent example being a Monday missile strike against Saudi oil facilities in Jeddah. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack and vowed that “operations will continue” against Riyadh.
Members of the group, named after its founder, Hussein Badr-al-Din al-Houthi, also have targeted and kidnapped American citizens.
Supporters of the designation say it will be welcomed by Saudi Arabia and be a shot across the bow to Iran, which has backed the rebel movement in part for its ability to bog down and weaken Riyadh.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is said to be an advocate for the designation, and National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien, talking to reporters on a trip to Manila this week, said the Trump White House was “keeping all our options open” in the face of what he said was a failure by the Houthi leadership to embrace a “good-faith peace process” to end the conflict.
“President Trump is still the president of the United States for the next 50 days. This will be something that is certainly on the agenda and we will have to see how that plays out,” he added.
But critics of the move warn the FTO designation could backfire for the U.S. in both the short- and long-terms. Analysts say the move would represent something of a change in how the U.S. defines terrorist organizations and could water down the term, making it more difficult to galvanize support among Middle Eastern allies for other counterterrorism campaigns against more immediate threats to the American homeland and its security interests abroad.
“In my understanding of the definition of foreign terrorist organizations, the Houthis are not. They are many things but they are not a terrorist organization,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.
“They do not threaten American citizens. They are not a threat to U.S. national security,” he said. “I think [an FTO label] undermines our overall interest in building international support for strong counterterrorism.”
The Houthis retain a popular base of support in Yemen’s north and have captured and held the capital city of Sanaa despite repeated attempts by the Yemeni government and its Saudi allies to dislodge them.
On the ground, there’s a fear that the move would restrict — and even choke off entirely — international efforts to deliver food, medicine and other aid to civilians living in parts of Yemen under Houthi control that have been ravaged by more than a half-decade of fighting.
U.N. aid organizations routinely label the instability, violence and lack of basic necessities for civilians caught up in the Yemeni conflict the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now.
The label also could limit U.S. efforts to push for a lasting peace settlement, as it would be much more difficult for Washington to engage in any formal talks with a group it considers terrorists. Presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden and his foreign policy team would surely find themselves hamstrung by the move, as legally undoing it would take time and would give the impression that American policy is chaotic and confused.
A State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times on Tuesday that the administration would not comment on “potential deliberations” about possible FTO designations. Foreign Policy magazine was among the first to report last week that the issue was under discussion inside the administration.
Despite its drawbacks, the designation likely would be welcomed by Saudi Arabia, which has endured regular cross-border terrorist attacks from Houthis after it intervened in the civil war in March 2015.
Despite an influx of military equipment and logistical backing from both the Obama and Trump administrations, the Saudis and their allies has been unable to defeat the group on the battlefield. The Houthis have proven to be resilient adversaries, helped by reported shipments of Iranian weapons.
International observers estimate that as many as 100,000 people have died during Yemen’s civil war, which is about to enter its seventh year and has left the country split between areas under government control and regions overseen by Houthi militias.
‘A very scary prospect’
That death toll could rise much higher if international aid groups are discouraged from delivering supplies to the region. The U.S. theoretically could impose financial penalties on any organization that provides support to a terrorist organization.
“It’s a very scary prospect as the country teeters on the edge of famine,” Hassan El-Tayyab, a Middle East policy lobbyist at the lobby group Friends Committee on National Legislation, recently told Al Jazeera. Organizations “would risk being hit with secondary sanctions and other penalties. It’s going to make delivering critical humanitarian assistance nearly impossible.”
In the U.S., the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen has led to growing demands that Washington take the lead in facilitating peace. The war has grown increasingly unpopular among lawmakers of both parties amid reports that Saudi Arabia airstrikes have killed large number of civilians with military equipment it bought from the U.S.
Support also has dried up in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates had been a key ally to Saudi Arabia but last year withdrew all of its forces from Yemen — a step many observers viewed as a public admission that the conflict could not be won militarily.
On both sides, there seems to be growing war weariness and a recognition that peace talks are the only lasting solution. But a U.S. terrorist designation could blow up those talks before they even come close to the finish line.
“The legal ramifications for engaging with an FTO are significant, and raise concerns about how, then, the Yemen war ends, as negotiations become that much more complicated,” said Katherine Zimmerman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies the region.
“Political leaders who might otherwise split from the al Houthi movement under certain conditions have fewer incentives to do so if they will be blocked from holding formal positions in a future government,” she told The Times. “Even meeting with the al Houthis for talks becomes more difficult because of the material assistance challenge.”
“The practical benefit of the FTO designation is far from obvious,” she said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy, “The Houthis and their financial supporters are already subject to U.S. 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.”
But supporters of a Houthi designation argue that the impact stretches far beyond Yemen’s borders and would put additional pressure on Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival and key backer of the Houthis. Last year, the administration designated the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, a move that preceded a January airstrike in Baghdad that killed the IRGC’s longtime leader, Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The U.S. justified the designation by arguing, among other things, that the IRGC was clearly acting as a terrorist organization by encouraging and using proxy forces to carry out attacks against American military personnel stationed in neighboring Iraq.
The Houthis, meanwhile, have their own grim track record. The group, estimated to have tens of thousands of fighters in its ranks, has on multiple occasions kidnapped American citizens. In October, for example, two Americans were released from Houthi custody in exchange for the return of more than 200 Houthi soldiers held prisoner in Oman.
The group’s slogan — “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!” — echoes the calls for death and destruction employed by other terrorist groups across the Middle East and Africa. The organization also routinely employs “virulently anti-Semitic rhetoric,” according to the Counter Extremism Project.
Specialists do not dispute the Houthis violence or its anti-Semitism. But they argue that, in the case of Yemen’s civil war, a terrorist designation will make peace harder to achieve.
“The outcome of that course is it makes it less likely that the resolution of the conflict will reflect our national interests and our preferences to how this is going to work out,” Mr. Feierstein said. “We deal ourselves out of the game by this designation.”
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