The US Trump Administration announced this Monday that they would register Yemen’s Ansarallah (Houthis) Movement as a terrorist organisation, amidst fears from the UN of derailing peace talks between the group and the Saudi-backed opposition government.
Yemen is currently facing the largest humanitarian crisis on the planet, with roughly 80% of the country’s population in desperate need of aid in order to survive. According to UNICEF 12 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance, 2 million of which face extreme starvation according to the World Economic Forum. So far, since the violence escalated, triggering war in March 2015, roughly 255,000 people have died due to causes related to the conflict, according to the United Nations.
The war in Yemen includes many players, with the Ansarallah (Houthis) governing the largest block of the country and holding the Capital city of Sanaa. After the removal of former Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi from his position of power by Ansarallah in 2015, Saudi Arabia and other Arab regimes launched a war to reinstall Hadi as President. The United States and Britain backed the Saudi-led coalition to depose the Ansarallah from its newly acquired control of the Capital and surrounding territory, but have until now failed to meet that aim.
Hadi had fled Yemen and with Saudi backing was granted power to form a government based in the Southern city of Aden, also receiving International recognition branding him the legitimate President of Yemen. However, even in Aden, the UAE backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) has contested this power. In April of last year the STC declared their own autonomous rule in the South of the country, leading to an escalation of violence. In December however, the STC accepted joining the Internationally backed, anti-Houthi, “Unity government” led by President Hadi.
Whilst the so-called ‘unity government’ has been formed, it cannot be considered as an end-all-be-all solution for Yemen’s brutal war, as Ansarallah still remains the biggest player in Yemen, in terms of its military power and control of territory. Ansarallah has not been included in the newly formed ‘unity government’ and now with this new move by the US Trump administration to register the group as a terrorist organisation, it will, according to the UN, derail peace talks from going ahead between the group and its Saudi-backed opposition.
The designation will also block key aid from getting to those in need in Yemen, according to Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy Lead, Scott Paul, who said; “Of the many options available for identifying and punishing terrorists, the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation that Secretary Pompeo has chosen to apply is by far the most severe – and the most deadly for Yemeni families. It will block US humanitarian aid, goods, and personnel from entering northern Yemen, where 70% of the population lives, and will substantially reduce them throughout the rest of the country.”.
Marc Sievers, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs, who supports the reasoning behind the designation, but disagrees with it due to it even stifling attempts to secure US interests. Sievers states that “for the past five years, Oman has successfully arranged the release and repatriation of numerous foreign nationals, most of them Americans, held by the Houthis. This required intensive direct negotiations between the Omanis and the Houthis; negotiations that, following designation, would likely be considered material support and therefore subject to sanctions. On balance, this designation is likely to cause more harm than good.”
The incoming Joe Biden administration is reportedly open to entering back into the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), and this step could not be more vital for securing future stability in Yemen. The Ansarallah (Houthis) are backed by their Iranian allies, and a renewal of the Iran Nuclear Deal – including within talks during the process of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) – could ensure that the Gulf-backed anti-Houthi elements in Yemen see to their own interests in the region and hence have no need to pursue war in Yemen based upon financial incentive. This ultimately would kill two birds with one stone for the Biden administration, paving the way for possible peace with both Iran and Yemen.
However, the outgoing Trump administration is throwing as many hurdles as possible at the incoming Biden administration, arguably in order to prevent this from occurring. This designation of the Ansarallah as a terrorist group will mean that if Joe Biden wishes to truly pursue peace in Yemen, he must undo this designation, as you cannot negotiate with a “terrorist organisation,” or so the US government claim goes. On top of this, the outgoing sanctions on Iran, administered by President Trump, will have to be rolled back and the military threats of Trump must be abandoned.
The so-called threat of Iran to the Persian-Gulf Arab States has played one of the biggest roles in allowing for the war in Yemen to continue, pushing the regimes to pursue alternative trade routes negating the Iranian-controlled Strait of Hormuz.
On top of all of this, the designation doesn’t even benefit Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has pursued a military solution, with logistical, diplomatic and military support of the West, for almost six years – and has failed. In fact, Ansarallah has only grown stronger, gaining more territory, inflicting embarrassing defeats upon Saudi forces and their proxies and garnered more concrete support from its primary ally Iran.
In addition to this designation by the Trump administration, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, clarified the following in an official Press release: “The Department of State will notify Congress of my intent to designate Ansarallah – sometimes referred to as the Houthis – as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity, pursuant to Executive Order 13224. I also intend to designate three of Ansarallah’s leaders, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim, as SDGTs.”
Not only is the organisation itself being registered as a Foreign Terrorist Organizations, but also its leadership as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, which further complicates matters when it comes to a peace settlement.
Ultimately, this move will also justify (in the eyes of the US government) further US military action inside of Yemen against Ansarallah; and since the majority of US airstrikes are carried out by highly inaccurate drone strikes, high civilian death tolls as a result of the strikes are almost guaranteed.
This move does not weaken Iran, it will not favour Saudi Arabia, but is however backed by the UAE which has endorsed the move and is only accountable vicariously inside Yemen through its militia groups and contractors.
What is clear now is that this move will increase the suffering of the Yemeni civilian population, pushing Saudi Arabia to engage in the sole option remaining, a military one. This will result in untold suffering in Yemen, which is on the brink of famine and is experiencing an epidemic of cholera which is tearing the country apart.