A looming U.S. government plan to list Yemen’s pro-Iran Houthi militia as a terrorist organization has sparked concern among observers and aid agencies about its impact on peace talks and the process of delivering aid to desperate civilians living under the group’s control in the country’s northern highlands.
Saudi Arabia and the and United Arab Emirates blacklisted the insurgent group in 2014, and the U.S. has considered taking similar action since 2018.
Foreign Policy magazine reported last week that it had learned from unnamed U.S. officials that the U.S. State Department was preparing to make the designation as a part of the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran. The announcement is expected to take place in December, according to The Washington Post.
Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and senior vice president at the Middle East Institute (MEI), told VOA that the terror labeling would make it more difficult for the U.N. to push for a peaceful resolution of war between the rebels and the Saudi-backed government.
“Houthis are already sanctioned by the United Nations, there is an arms embargo and there is no legitimate arms trade for the Houthis. So this will not have any effect on their position on the ground,” Feierstein said.
Such a move, he added, “will be seen as a political gesture, not as a gesture that is aimed at strengthening our counterterrorism strategies or identifying terrorist organizations.”
U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffith has been mediating peace talks between the warring parties for almost two years. While the efforts have resulted in a few cease-fire announcements and deals, a nationwide peace settlement remains absent.
Washington in the past has accused the Houthis of implementing Iran’s expansive ambitions in the region and failing to cooperate in the peace efforts. The designation, under the State Department guidelines, is intended to deter donations to and economic transactions with the group. It also will ban any form of material support or resources to the entity.
The Houthi rebels are a homegrown Shiite military and political movement headed by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. The group in 2014 took control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, following failed negotiations with the Saudi-backed government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The group commandeered the presidential palace in 2015, prompting the creation of a military coalition of Persian Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia. In the same year, the U.S. and U.N. sanctioned several Houthi leaders, with the U.N. Security Council accusing the group’s chief of acts “that threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen.”
The rebels over the years reportedly have sustained their war thanks to arms, funds and training support from Iran. In 2019, the U.S. State Department offered $15 million as part of its Rewards for Justice Program for information on Abdul Reza Shahlai, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force operative based in Yemen.
Some experts say Iran wishes to use the militia to establish a dominant influence in Yemen, a strategy that largely has worked with the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces.
“This version is created along extremely important international waterways and along the southern borders of one of America’s most important Arab partners [Saudi Arabia],” said Norman Roule, an Iran expert and former senior official at the CIA.
Saudi Arabia in the past has accused the rebels of targeting its oil shipments at Bab al-Mandab Strait, a vital economic hub, and a waterway link between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. On Tuesday, the group attacked a petroleum products distribution plant in Saudi Arabia’s coastal city of Jeddah.
Roule is asserting that a more powerful Houthi militia can pose a serious threat to the international economy and energy system. Analysts say the U.S. designation is unlikely to weaken the group, however, given that its main supplier, Iran, will continue to defy the U.S. efforts.
“The best way for the international community to pressure the Houthis is a multilateral diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran for providing weapons, training and funding that enables the Houthis to reject diplomatic approaches of the Arab Coalition and the U.N.,” Roule said.
Some aid agencies say the possibility of designating Houthis as a terror group also will affect the dire humanitarian situation of Yemen by preventing lifesaving assistance from reaching civilians under rebel-held areas.
Last week, eight Democratic members of the Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft, calling for the administration to prioritize the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, citing fears that further imposed sanctions would increase the risk of famine in Yemen.
“The chilling effect of the sanctions designation on international donors’ willingness to contribute will likely put malnutrition programs that are desperately needed at risk of being curbed and do significant harm to innocent civilians in Houthi-controlled areas,” the letter read.
According to Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead for Oxfam America, war-torn Yemen is among the top countries dependent on imports for vital goods such as food, fuel and medical equipment. Even if the designation exempts aid workers by providing a general license, it will still scale back their humanitarian activities by discouraging banks and donors from contributing, he said.
“Millions of people in Yemen are surviving multilayered crises — an economic crisis, a public health crisis, a crisis of social services and an added funding crisis — as humanitarian assistance to address these has already been substantially scaled back," Paul said. "It’s in this dire context that the U.S. government is now considering taking harmful steps that have no foreseeable upside to Yemeni people in the short or long term.”
Six years of war in Yemen has resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians and combatants. According to the World Food Program, 24 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance, upward of 3 million are internally displaced and 20 million are food insecure.