Houthi rebels chant slogans at the grave of Saleh Al-Sammad in Sanaa (photo: AFP)
In a new twist to the crisis in Yemen, Washington has decided to designate the Yemeni Ansarallah Movement, also known as the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO). In a statement released on 10 January, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he would notify Congress of the designation that will go into effect on 19 January.
The development comes over a month since it was revealed that US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker had brought up the subject on a visit to Oman. He told Omani officials that his government was in the process of studying this step, which has elicited diverse reactions in the light of the effects the designation will have on the stalled Yemeni peace process, the various local, regional and international stakeholders, and humanitarian relief efforts.
Congress is likely to approve the designation in the light of the State Department’s reasoning. The timing is also significant as 19 January coincides with the last sessions of the special committees of the outgoing Congress, in which the Republicans hold a majority in the Senate.
In addition to the Ansarallah Movement as a whole, Pompeo said he also intended to designate three of its leaders, Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi, his brother militia commander Abdel-Khalek Badreddin Al-Houthi, and Military Commander Abdullah Yahya Al-Hakim, as “specially designated global terrorist (SDGT) entities.”
“The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure and commercial shipping,” Pompeo said. “The designations are also intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbours.”
The mention of Iran underscores Washington’s acknowledgement of a close relationship between Iran and the Houthi insurgency. In a previous move, Washington blacklisted and sanctioned Iran’s recently appointed Ambassador to Sanaa Hasan Irlu, an officer of the overseas wing of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The appointment was emblematic of Iran’s military and material support of the Houthis, which the US Treasury Department noted in November when it announced a freeze on the activities of organisations used as a screen to transfer funds to the Ansarallah.
Pompeo anticipated the objections the action would trigger, not just in Congress but also among international partners involved in efforts to bring peace to Yemen. Shortly after his meeting with Schenker in December, Iranian Foreign Minister Sayed Badr Al-Busaidi told a summit in Bahrain that he did not think it was productive to blockade a main party in the conflict and exclude it from negotiations.
“Is that [designation] decision going to resolve the Yemeni conflict, given that this group is a key player,” he asked. “Would it be better to really support what the United Nations envoy is trying to do by inviting everyone, including that group, to the table?”
In his statement, Pompeo countered that “progress in addressing Yemen’s instability can only be made when those responsible for obstructing peace are held accountable for their actions.” Indicating that his decision was the outcome of the Houthis’ refusal to abide by UN resolutions over the past six years, he added that “if Ansarallah did not behave like a terrorist organisation, we would not designate it as an FTO and SDGT.”
The US decision triggered outcries from many because of the impact it could have on deliveries of desperately needed humanitarian relief to the Yemeni people. Responding to such concerns, Pompeo said that “[Ansarallah] has led a brutal campaign that has killed many people, continues to destabilise the region, and denies Yemenis a peaceful solution to the conflict in their country.”
The Houthis’ “brutal” record has been substantiated by UN experts and international reports. Further underscoring the militia’s increasing terrorist behaviour, Pompeo spoke of mounting threats to international trade and shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Oman.
Houthi attacks are no longer restricted to ships belonging to members of the Arab Coalition fighting to restore the legitimate government in Yemen, given the strikes against British and Greek vessels in December.
With only ten days left of the current administration in Washington, the State Department may try to fast track other decisions relevant to the conflict. Given that department staff are working with the team of incoming President Joe Biden, it is likely that he was informed in advance of the actions, regardless of any objections raised.
Even as the State Department was still considering the designation, two officials told the US news channel CNN that a step of this nature would effectively box in the incoming administration and hamper its ability to develop its own policy on Yemen. Many observers believe that a step of this sort will be difficult for Biden to reverse.
The outgoing administration in Washington has taken the view that the Houthis cannot be a partner in peace efforts in the country given that they have obstructed all opportunities for a settlement presented by negotiating processes in Kuwait, Geneva and Stockholm.
Few believe that there are parties opposing these aside from those sharing interests with Iran, such as Oman, or wanting to score points, such as the UK, which acts as though it is the driving force in the UN-sponsored peace process and has been keen to support British diplomat Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen.
The reactions from Sanaa and Tehran were predictable. “We condemn the terrorist designation of Ansarallah and reserve the right to retaliate against any such designation from the Trump administration or any other party,” President of the Ansarallah’s Revolutionary Council Mohamed Ali Houthi wrote on his Twitter account.
Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said that the designation was “doomed to failure” and predicted that the “bankrupt US administration would leave another legacy in its final days.”
Equally to be expected was the Yemeni government’s praise for the decision, as it had previously urged the Trump administration to make it before it left office. The “Houthi insurgents deserve the name of terrorists,” it said, urging “additional legal and political pressure” on the Houthis, whom it accuses of having attempted to assassinate members of the new cabinet upon their arrival in Aden last month.
The Saudi-backed government in Yemen, which sees itself as charged with liberating territories controlled by the Houthis now that options for a diplomatic solution have receded, sees the US designation as a victory for its cause. Riyadh, as the leader of the Arab Coalition fighting to restore the Yemeni government, hailed the designation, which it claimed was consistent with the demands of the legitimate Yemeni government.
In addition to stymying any countervailing policies that the incoming Biden administration might envision on Yemen, Pompeo’s action makes Washington a partner in the pursuit of those it had labelled “terrorists,” especially the three Houthi leaders mentioned to Congress.
But the response by Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi raises the spectre of an escalation against US targets in the Gulf region, which will compel Washington to raise its level of preparedness there, leading to intensifying tensions.
Arab Coalition forces appear to have agreed their options regarding paths to a resolution to the Yemeni conflict, with the most salient indication being the Riyadh initiative to solve the Yemeni crisis. The Riyadh Agreement, as it was called, aimed to promote a settlement among the warring parties in southern Yemen so as to focus their efforts on eliminating the Houthis and restoring the legitimate Yemeni government.
In response to or in anticipation of coalition moves towards this end, the Houthis might increase their terrorist activities, including strikes against fixed or mobile targets belonging to coalition members and leader Saudi Arabia.
The UN mission to Yemen may be the party most thrown into confusion. It may be forced to replace Griffiths and pursue other alternatives for dealing with Yemen now that Pompeo’s action has effectively put paid to the peace process, even if some saw this as an attempt to legitimise the Houthis and increase their influence.
One alternative the UN might pursue could be termed the “Taliban option”. Even if the Houthis are on the US blacklist, settlement efforts could continue through the backdoor, via Qatar, for example.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.