The Trump administration will designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization in a move that diplomats, members of Congress and international aid groups fear could further inflame the situation on the ground, upend UN peace talks, and exacerbate the country’s humanitarian crisis.
In a statement released just before midnight Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the State Department would notify Congress of its intent to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization as well as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity. Pompeo said he also intends to designate three of the group’s leaders – Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim – as specially designated global terrorists.
“These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region,” Pompeo said. “The designations are intended to hold Ansarallah (the Houthi rebels) accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.”
Yemen has been embroiled in a years-long civil war that has pitted a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, a Shia political and military organization from the north of Yemen. The conflict has cost thousands of civilian lives and plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis.
The group’s leadership condemned the designations, which were praised by Yemen’s Saudi-backed government. The news was also welcomed by the Saudi and Emirati governments – some sources believe that the designation was a parting gift to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The foreign terrorist designation will go into effect on January 19, just a day before the administration leaves office.
‘A big mistake’
“It’s a big mistake,” said former US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein. “It mostly is a problem for the US government more than for the Houthis.
“The Houthis will be more or less unaffected by this. Obviously, Iran doesn’t care whether we designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization or not,” he told CNN Monday. “But it does make it much more complicated for the US government to play a positive role in helping to resolve the conflict.”
The move was rebuked by Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Democratic House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks called the designation “short-sighted” and accused the administration of politicizing sanctions authorities. Republican Sen. Todd Young said it “comes at the worst possible time as it will prevent the critical delivery of food, medical supplies, and other items necessary to combat both COVID-19 and famine.”
The top Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Michael McCaul, said in a joint statement they “fully support efforts to compel the Houthis to end their dangerous and destabilizing behavior” but “are concerned designating them as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, without mitigation measures in place, will have devastating humanitarian impacts.”
One congressional aide said that a Monday call with State Department officials about the action was “an absolute dumpster fire” and that the designation appeared rushed out without proper assurances that it wouldn’t do significant damage to the ability to deliver crucial outside humanitarian assistance to the war-torn country.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN they “don’t comment on internal deliberations or our conversations with Congress.”
The United Nations warned in December that the number of people facing catastrophic food insecurity could triple in the first six months of 2021, and the opportunity to prevent famine in Yemen “is slipping away with every day that passes,” in the words of the World Food Programme executive director.
Pompeo said in the statement that the United States is “planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.”
“We have expressed our readiness to work with relevant officials at the United Nations, with international and non-governmental organizations, and other international donors to address these implications,” he said.
A UN spokesperson said they “are studying the announcement closely to assess its potential impact. But the decision is likely to have serious humanitarian and political repercussions.”
‘Pure diplomatic vandalism’
International aid groups swiftly condemned the 11th hour move.
The head of the International Rescue Committee called the decision “pure diplomatic vandalism.”
“This policy, in the name of tying up the Houthis, will actually tie up the aid community and international diplomacy. The opposite is needed – effective pressure on all parties to the conflict to cease using civilians as hostages in their war games,” David Miliband said. “The further immiseration of Yemenis, which will be the product of this policy, is a disgrace to the name of the US, and will have the perverse result of strengthening precisely the forces it claims to oppose.”
Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D’Oyen said the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization will “undermine the overstretched humanitarian response in Yemen, threatening the lives of millions of Yemenis who rely on humanitarian assistance.”
OXFAM America’s humanitarian policy lead, Scott Paul, said this “dangerous policy will put innocent lives at risk.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council said the “sanctions will hamstring the ability of aid agencies to respond, and without additional safeguards and broader exemptions for the commercial sector, Yemen’s faltering economy will be dealt a further devastating blow.”
“Getting food and medicine into Yemen – a country 80% dependent on imports – will become even more difficult,” NRC Yemen Country Director Mohamed Abdi said in a statement on Monday. “We are calling on the US government to provide unambiguous safeguards and guarantees so that humanitarian aid can still be delivered without delays and across conflict territories regardless of who is in control, and protect aid workers from being criminalized.”
Even if humanitarian organizations are able to continue to operate in the country, a source familiar with the situation noted that it could deter the shippers who bring affordable food to the population in Houthi-controlled areas of the country, as the rebels control the docks and customs in the key port city of Hodeidah.
“They provide food to 15 million people who are now one step closer to famine because of this,” this source said.
Biden’s ability to reverse the decision
Some of the organizations called on President-elect Joe Biden to reverse the decision, with Paul of OXFAM saying, “in this instance, acting ‘on day one’ cannot be only a figure of speech, as lives hang in the balance.”
Feierstein, the former US ambassador to Yemen who also worked on counterterrorism issues at the State Department, said that while bureaucratically it is possible for Biden to reverse the foreign terrorist organization designation, it is also a question of politics and bandwidth.
“You have the Trump administration saying these people are terrorists. That now requires the Biden people to come in and say no they’re not terrorists,” he said. “And that is fraught, and it requires a political decision that they may not be willing to make.”
“And then the other reality is, look, Joe Biden and his administration are going to have a gazillion things that are going to occupy their time and attention that are going to be higher on their priority list than the Houthi designation. And so it’s not so much a question of can they do it, will they do it – it’s also a question of when they can get around to it. And I’m not sure that the answer is going to be very quickly,” Feierstein said.
The source familiar echoed this, noting that the incoming administration “cannot be seen to coddle one of the most abusive insurgent movements in the world.”
Houthi leader Mohamed Ali Al Houthi condemned the designation on Twitter Monday, saying “we reserve the right to respond against any designation issued by the Trump administration, or any other administration.” He did not provide further detail of how the group is planning to respond.
The source familiar with the situation said it is likely that the Houthis will retaliate and that they could do so by breaking up UN peace talks, banning UN entities, or taking hostages.
The UN spokesperson said they “are concerned that the designations may have a detrimental impact on efforts to resume the political process in Yemen, as well as polarize even more the positions of the parties to the conflict.”
“Notwithstanding possible political repercussions, we will continue to work with all parties to resume and continue an inclusive political process to reach a comprehensive negotiated settlement to end the conflict,” they said.
Yemen’s Saudi-backed government expressed support for the US government’s designation.
“[The government] will continue to provide full support to all UN-led efforts to reach a comprehensive peace,” it said on Twitter.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Greg Clary, Richard Roth, Mostafa Salem, Hande Atay Alam, Lindsay Isaac, Sam Kiley and Kareem Khadder contributed to this report.