Why re-designating the Houthis as terrorists could fuel Yemen's war
The United States has escalated its policy towards the Houthis after two months of military efforts to counter attacks on shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
Relisting this Yemeni actor poses fresh challenges for reaching peace in the country and also indicates that the US has begun a new approach to deal with the Iran-backed group.
On 17 January, the White House said, "In response to the [Houthis'] continuing threats and attacks, the United States announced the designation of Ansarallah, also known as the Houthis, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist".
"The US re-designation has provided a motive for rival Yemeni actors to resume the war"
The US resolution is not a formula for uprooting the Houthis or stopping their attacks. However, it signifies that Yemen has entered a new chapter of conflict and has provided a motive for rival actors to resume the war.
Before the Houthi involvement in the Gaza-Israel war, which began on 7 October, the Houthi group and the UN-recognised Yemeni government were about to agree on a peace deal to end the civil war, which started in 2015.
Today, peace talks are no longer a priority as the US-Houthi faceoff continues to escalate. This new reality has rekindled differences between Yemeni opponents and could prompt them to ready for a new phase of military conflict.
When the Houthis began attacking ships linked to Israel in the Red Sea in November last year, the Yemeni government condemned it, calling their actions piracy and terrorism.
Two months ago, Yemeni government officials called for re-designating the Houthis as a terror group for threatening the shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
Yemen Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Haidan said in late November the US should reinstate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation not only for disrupting maritime traffic off Yemeni shores but also for killing Yemeni children and abusing human rights.
After the Houthis were listed as a "terrorist group" by the US, the Yemeni government welcomed the resolution, saying such a move was consistent with its position.
"The Yemeni Government reiterates its confirmation that to establish peace in Yemen, the Houthi militia must abandon its terrorist approach and its loyalty to the Iranian regime, renounce violence, and accept the peace proposals, including the proposed road map the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia … to maintain the security and stability of Yemen and the region," a statement said.
Such language will likely infuriate the Houthis, adding to their inflexibility and increasing their hostility towards the Yemeni government.
For the Houthis, attacking Israeli-linked ships is a "moral and religious duty" because it could put pressure on Israel to stop its brutal war on Palestinians in Gaza. According to their narrative, this certainly does not amount to terrorism.
Ali Alqahoum, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, said the US has been using the terrorist designation as a form of intimidation and punishment for anyone who disagrees with US and Israeli policy.
"The Houthi group is encouraged by the popular support it has earned and the new fighters it has recruited over the past two months. The US designation will not stop them, instead, it has made them defiant"
"The United States uses the terrorist classification in accordance with its interests and the interests of Israel, and it does not have any legal standards on which it takes its decision," Alqahoum said.
As a result, the conflicting stance of Yemeni rivals on the war in Gaza has magnified their rifts, which makes a political solution in Yemen a more challenging task.
Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, Yemen's vice president and head of the Southern Transitional Council, indicated last week that the Houthi attacks on the Red Sea have blocked efforts to achieve a peace agreement in Yemen.
During his participation at the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, he said, "How will there be a peace process with strikes on commercial ships? How will that happen?"
An impetus for resuming the war
The Houthis and the Yemeni government today have their own motivations for renewing the war in the country. The government is motivated by the US re-designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group and Western condemnation of the Houthi attacks on shipping lines.
Anti-Houthi forces in Yemen feel that the US blacklisting of the Houthi group will provide them with guaranteed international military and political support if a new war breaks out in Yemen.
On 21 January, the Presidential Leadership Council, which is the UN-recognised authority in Yemen, demanded that the international community boost the government's military capabilities, particularly the Coast Guard, to "secure regional waters and combat Houthi terrorism, the Al-Qaeda group, and Daesh".
The demand for military support against the Houthis appears to be an acknowledgement that ongoing peace talks have led nowhere, and that the UN-sponsored military calm Yemen has experienced over the last two years is not a path to a conclusive solution.
"The West, including the US and UK, are furious about the Houthi attacks and are serious about ruining the Houthi military capabilities,” a politics lecturer at Sanaa University told The New Arab.
“Given this new reality, the Yemeni government prefers a new battle against the Houthi group."
Commenting on the impact of US-UK airstrikes on Houthi sites in Yemen, Al-Zubaidi said last week that the aerial barrage alone was not enough to deter Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.
"Ground forces must be supported on the ground, and these forces belong to the [Yemeni] legitimate government," he added.
"This new reality has rekindled differences between Yemeni opponents and could prompt them to ready for a new phase of military conflict"
Houthis are ready for a new battle
Washington has given the Houthis a 30-day ultimatum to stop their attacks on ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. If the attacks cease, the designation will be withdrawn. One week has now passed, and Houthi attacks have continued.
The latest assault hit a US Army cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden on 22 January, although the US denied Houthi claims about the incident.
In his speech on 18 January, the Houthi movement chief, Abdulmalek Al-Houthi, said he would continue to confront American and British aggression, denying that the recent US and UK strikes had degraded the group's military capabilities in Yemen.
Responding to the US resolution that re-designated his group as a terrorist organisation, Al-Houthi said that Yemen "will classify the Americans and the British on the list of countries that protect, sponsor, and support Zionist terrorism".
Despite airstrikes on Yemen and the inclusion of the group on the US terror list, the Houthis are showing no reluctance to engage in military operations against local rivals or international forces, according to the Sanaa-based politics lecturer.
"The Houthi group is encouraged by the popular support it has earned and the new fighters it has recruited over the past two months. The American designation of the Houthis will not stop them. Instead, it has made them defiant, which will plunge Yemen into more conflicts," he told TNA.
The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.