The State Department has initiated a review of the Trump administration’s decision to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), a spokesperson told CNN Friday.
It is a swift move by the newly installed Biden administration to examine one of the most consequential 11th hour actions taken by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who announced the decision less than two weeks before leaving, with the designation going into effect just a day before the inauguration on Wednesday.
“As noted by Secretary-Designate (Antony) Blinken, the State Department has initiated a review of Ansarallah’s terrorist designations,” the spokesperson said.
Blinken, President Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of state, said at his nomination hearing Tuesday that his “deep concern about the designation that was made is that at least on its surface it seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table, while making it even more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it.”
He told lawmakers that he would propose to review it “immediately.”
The foreign terrorist organization designation was swiftly condemned by humanitarian organizations, diplomats, and bipartisan members of Congress who fear it could further inflame the situation on the ground, upend UN peace talks, and exacerbate the country’s humanitarian crisis.
The State Department spokesperson told CNN that they “will not publicly discuss or comment on internal deliberations regarding that review.
“However, with the humanitarian crisis in Yemen we are working as fast as we can to conduct the review and make a determination,” they said.
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 State Department spokesperson said that they “strongly believe that Ansarallah” – another name for the Houthis – “needs to change its behavior,” adding that it “bears significant responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe and insecurity in Yemen.”
“At the same time, we must also ensure that we are not impeding the provision of humanitarian assistance,” they said.
Pompeo said in his statement announcing the designation that the United States was “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.
However, humanitarian organizations and lawmakers expressed serious concerns that the measures would not be sufficient.
Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D’Oyen said the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization would “undermine the overstretched humanitarian response in Yemen, threatening the lives of millions of Yemenis who rely on humanitarian assistance.”
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 spokesperson said the US “will continue to support the efforts of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in bringing the parties to a political consensus.”
“Our focus is on supporting a comprehensive political agreement that will end the conflict and resolve the dire humanitarian situation,” they said.
In his nomination hearing Tuesday, Blinken told lawmakers that the Biden administration intends to end its support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
“The President-elect has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. And I think we will work on that in very short order once the President-elect is President for the reasons that you cited,” Blinken said.
Asked what ending that support looks like, the nominee for top US diplomat said, “it looks like, first and foremost, making sure we understand exactly what support we are actually currently providing and which we need to look at, and then withdrawing that support.”
“But I want make clear, I think we have to be in close contact with Saudi Arabia, with our partner there. We need to be very clear about what we are doing, why we are doing something and talk it through,” Blinken said. “But the main point is that for reasons that we have discussed we believe that continuing that support is not the national interest.”