Yemen in Focus: Could US terror designation be used to leverage Houthis?

Yemen in Focus: Could US terror designation be used to leverage Houthis?
This week we focus on the impact of a potential US move to designate the Houthis as "terrorists".
5 min read
27 November, 2020
More than 100,000 have been killed in Yemen's conflict [Getty]
The United States move to label Yemen's Houthi rebels as terrorists can be used as a leverage point to promote a viable peace plan in Yemen, analysts told The New Arab, despite rising concerns over the designation.

Earlier this month, Washington said it is "keeping all our options open" when it comes to the Houthis, with national security advisor Robert O'Brien criticising the rebels for failing to engage in a "good-faith peace process" to end the conflict.

The comments came days after reports suggesting that the US is laying the groundwork for a designation of the rebel group, which controls the capital Sanaa and much of the north after a grinding five-year war that has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

With an outgoing President Donald Trump entering his final weeks in office, the Houthis are now at the centre of a flurry of diplomacy designed to isolate his administration's arch-foe Iran, which has for the past four years been a centrepiece of US regional policy.

Responding to a question on whether the US would designate the Houthis a "terrorist organisation",O'Brien said Washington was "watching closely".

"We are constantly considering whether and who and how we should designate terrorist organisations," O'Brien said. 

"President Trump is still the president of the United States for the next 50 days and this will be something that is certainly on the agenda and we will have to see how that plays out," he added. 

"Right now we encourage the Houthis to expel the Iranians, to stop attacking neighbours and stop attacking people within Yemen and engage in a good-faith peace process with the other stakeholders in Yemen."

But the move, has caused a debate among experts.

Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni rights defender and former advisor to Yemen's embassy in London, said such action could be a step in the right direction.

"One of the weak points has always been in the UN approach, and especially with the current envoy, who lacks points of leverage on the Houthis," Shiban told The New Arab.

"When [The Houthis] signed the Stockholm agreement until today, they haven’t, for example, removed the land mines, opened humanitarian corridors to Taiz, as they they promised, they haven't stopped the recruitment of children. They continue to arbitrary detain and forcibly disappear activists and humanitarian workers," Shiban said.

"They are acting with full impunity because they totally realised that neither the UN or the international community has any leverage points on them," Shiban added.

"Realistically a Biden administration will not follow this designation with any military intervention. This is a reality because there is a lack of appetite in the US for any intervention. The move is more of a political move, but it could help the UN envoy and can help also the new US administration."

The move can serve as an incentive to say if the Houthis commit to concrete steps towards peace and achieve a government that is more inclusive for all for all Yemenis, the rebels can then be removed from the US terrorism list, the expert added.

"There needs to be no impunity for perpetrators and people who violate human rights laws in Yemen," Shiban said. 

However, rights defenders have expressed caution over the move and have urged the US to reconsider listing the rebels as a terror organisation. 

One Western diplomat in the Gulf who oversees Yemen said earlier this month that the move has many consequences.

"Some or many countries will have problems in dealing with them at all, and that can complicate the whole 'peace' process and the UN's work," he said, referring to hopes for an end to the conflict.

The looming designation 'is likely to only worsen this devastating humanitarian crisis and poses a serious obstacle for both the already overstrained humanitarian response and precarious political process in Yemen'

The impact on the Houthis, who are already under US sanctions, may be limited but ordinary Yemenis could pay the price, with further damage to programmes already cut back due to record-low funding during the coronavirus pandemic.

Everything from interacting with Houthi officials, handling taxes, using the banking system, paying health workers, buying food and fuel and arranging internet services could be affected.

Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said his organisation joined other humanitarian groups "in expressing deep concern at the prospect of additional, near-insurmountable hurdles to providing lifesaving aid in Yemen".

If the US goes ahead with the move they must issue "clear and unambiguous exemptions" that will allow aid workers to operate without fear of legal repercussions, he said.

'Totally insane'

The Houthis reacted angrily to the prospect of the US designation, saying Trump had no right to make the ruling after failing to win a second term. 

"The US elections are over and someone else won but he still insists that he was victorious. This man's statements have no meaning any more," said Sultan Al-Samee, vice president of the political council of Ansar Allah, the movement's formal name.

"If he designates Ansar Allah as a terrorist organisation, then this would be coming from an unqualified person who is going totally insane," he told AFP.

Meanwhile, Democratic members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling for efforts to protect Yemenis from the fallout.

The looming designation "is likely to only worsen this devastating humanitarian crisis and poses a serious obstacle for both the already overstrained humanitarian response and precarious political process in Yemen," they said.

The conflict in Yemen, which was exacerbated by a Saudi-led military intervention in 2015, has so far led to more than 100,000 being killed and millions to suffer food shortages.

As the war approaches its sixth year, Yemenis have called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and have condemned the use of the country as a mere "battleground" for regional enemies to settle scores.

Agencies contributed to this report.

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino