The Trump administration is preparing to designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi insurgents a terrorist organization before leaving office in January, fueling fears the move will disrupt international aid efforts and upend United Nations-brokered peace efforts between the Shiite movement and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, according to several diplomatic sources.
The U.N. and international relief agencies have tried to dissuade the Trump administration from designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, but the apparently imminent decision would give U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo another victory in his anti-Iran strategy as he visits Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates this week. Riyadh, which has been at war with the Houthis for over five years, has already designated the Houthis a terrorist organization and has been urging Washington to do the same.
“They have been contemplating this for a while, but Pompeo wants this fast-tracked,” said one diplomatic source. “It’s part of the scorched-earth policy the sour grapes in the White House are taking.”
In recent weeks, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, has been pressing the United States to back down and appealing to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to intervene with Pompeo, according to diplomatic sources. Last month, Guterres urged Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., to reconsider plans to list the Houthis as a terrorist organization. Germany and Sweden have also pressed the United States to back down. But the effort has apparently foundered, and the U.N. has begun preparing the groundwork for a U.S. decision to list the Houthis.
The U.S. Department of Defense and career experts in the State Department are said to be against the move. A coalition of international charities, meanwhile, are preparing a joint statement anticipating the designation, comparing the potential impacts to the famine in Somalia after the U.S. designated al-Shabab as a terrorist group in 2008.
“It is a mistake. This is an inflammatory move from Secretary of State Pompeo and the Trump administration to take,” said Gregory Johnsen, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It would basically box in the new president when he wants to take a new approach to the war in Yemen, and cut back on the Saudi war.”
Diplomats opposing the move have also tried to sway Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a powerful ally of outgoing President Donald Trump who heads up the Senate Appropriations Committee’s foreign affairs panel, to come out against the designation. But Democrats in Congress who have long been calling for the Trump administration to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its role in the war are worried that the label could undermine fragile peace talks in the war-torn nation.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said any such designation would be a “clear attempt by the Trump administration to hamstring future peace negotiations.”
“The Houthis and their financial supporters are already subject to U.S. sanctions, so the practical impact of the designation would be exclusively to make it more difficult to negotiate with Houthi leaders and to deliver aid to Houthi-controlled areas, where the majority of Yemenis still live,” Murphy said.
“There is no doubt that the Houthis have led a brutal military campaign that has starved, imprisoned and killed many civilians,” Murphy added. “But if the U.S. government is going to designate international actors for intentionally harming civilians in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition should also be at the top of that list.”
The move appears to be part of a broader push by the White House and Pompeo to ratchet up pressure on Iran and its Middle East allies in the administration’s final months in office, a development that is likely to complicate efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to reopen talks with Iran over its nuclear program. During his presidential campaign, Biden pledged to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal negotiated in 2015 by the Obama administration but abandoned by Trump two years ago.
The Trump administration, acting in coordination with Israel and several Gulf sheikdoms, intends to impose a flood of new sanctions on Iran and its backers before Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, according to a report in Axios.
“[T]he move is being framed in internal deliberations as an expansion of the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Tehran,” according to the International Crisis Group. “Others say discussions of a designation were prompted by direct requests from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Gulf monarchies leading the coalition that has intervened against the Huthis.”
The Trump administration has been mulling plans to designate the Houthi movement, formally called Ansar Allah, as a terrorist organization for well over a year. But that effort has gained momentum in recent months. In September, U.S. officials told the Washington Post that the administration had launched a terrorism review of the Houthis, and that it was weighing whether to declare the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, and to name Houthi leaders as “global terrorists,” an action that would lead to a freeze of Houthi assets and bar members of the group from traveling to the United States.
Officials and other people familiar with the matter said the Trump administration could also designate Houthi leadership as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, rather than designating the entire movement as a foreign terrorist organization. Of the policy options, the broader terrorism designation is seen as harder-line, as it would not just sanction individuals in the group but would subject anyone who provides support to the group to criminal penalties. This could be a significant complicating factor for humanitarian organizations trying to help civilians in Houthi-controlled territories.
The deliberations come after Washington’s Gulf allies declared the Houthis a terrorist organization. Recently, U.S. diplomats floated the idea of adding the Houthis to a U.N. list of individuals and entities subject to U.N. sanctions. But the U.S. failed to secure sufficient support for the initiative and dropped it. The U.N. sanctions committee has already listed a handful of senior Houthi officials on its list of individuals subject to an asset freeze and travel ban. But like most of the Houthi leadership, they don’t travel often or use the international banking system.
The Houthis seized power in Yemen in January 2015, following months of protests over fuel subsidies, and now control the majority of Yemeni territory. But the Houthis have never been recognized by the international community, and their ouster of Yemen’s government set the stage for a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led invasion of Yemen in 2015, starting a protracted war that has pushed the country into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
During the presidential campaign, Biden had made it clear he wanted to pursue a diplomatic outcome in Yemen. In a statement marking the second anniversary of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, Biden vowed to reassess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Griffiths, the U.N.’s third Yemen peace envoy, has been laboring since his appointment in February 2018 to broker a peace deal between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government of Yemen’s exiled president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Six years of U.N. mediation have not brought peace to Yemen, but Griffiths last month brokered a major prisoner swap between the country’s warring factions, a deal that is expected to result in the release of some 1,000 detainees.
The United States has expressed alarm over the Houthis’ growing reliance on Iran, which has supplied the movement with missiles, drones, and training, allowing the group to target airports and other critical infrastructure. The move to designate the Houthis a terrorist organization comes a year after the Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization.
“The legal bar for designating the Houthis has been made lower since the designation of the IRGC,” said Elana DeLozier, an expert on Yemen at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “Since the U.S. now considers the IRGC a terrorist group, any group they support—including the Houthis—is low-hanging fruit for designation,” she added, though she stressed that many Yemen experts opposed the decision because it could hamper peace talks and complicate humanitarian relief.
Backing Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen has been a key pillar of the Trump administration’s overarching strategy to contain Tehran’s regional ambitions, even though its policies have sometimes run afoul of Congress. An unusual coalition of progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans banded together in recent years to try to force the Trump administration to halt military support for Yemen, making limited progress against the president’s opposition.
U.S. policy on Yemen throughout the Trump administration has been filtered through the lens of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran, with too little regard for the impact it has on Yemen’s stability, diplomats and other officials say.
“The worry—among many Yemen watchers and stakeholders—is that the negative consequences for designating the Houthis will outweigh any attempt at gaining leverage and that our Yemen policy is being overly driven by an Iran lens,” DeLozier said.
Pompeo drew sharp criticism from lawmakers for expediting arms sales to the UAE and circumventing Congress through an emergency declaration last year in what became the source of an internal State Department watchdog investigation.
Tensions over how to handle Yemen policy continue to simmer within the administration, people familiar with the matter said, with some career experts at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development sharply opposing the potential decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization.
“What’s tragic is it’s a political and messaging issue for the Trump administration, but it’s a matter of life and death for people [in Yemen],” said one humanitarian expert on Yemen who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s going to be really hard to make rolling this back a day-one action and by the time [the Biden administration] takes office a lot of the damage will already be done.”
“We do not publicly discuss deliberations regarding designations or potential designations,” a State Department spokeswoman said when asked for comment.
In recent months, senior U.N. officials have warned that dozens of international humanitarian programs are at risk of being shut down due to lack of funding. Major donor countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, pledged billions of dollars of support, but by September only $1 billion of the funds required for humanitarian programs had been transferred.
“That’s the backdrop we’re up against—a worsening humanitarian crisis, a funding shortfall, an economic collapse, and fighting along multiple fronts,” said a nongovernmental organization official not authorized to speak to the press. “You really can’t get much worse than that already.” The NGO community has already begun to think about a general license or humanitarian exemption to soften the blow, which could also make it difficult for a number of countries and institutions to fund the humanitarian operation.
Depending on what the designation looks like, the Treasury Department that oversees the implementation of sanctions can issue licenses to carve out exceptions for humanitarian organizations to deliver food, medical supplies, and other life-saving assistance to Yemen.
But even issuing those licenses can take time, and banks and insurance companies that work in Yemen or with humanitarian organizations may not be willing to cooperate.
“Designating the Houthis is a decision that could deprive some of the most vulnerable Yemenis of the aid they need to survive,” said Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy lead. “A major funding shortfall is already forcing lifesaving programs to close, and this decision would discourage even more donors and banks from working in Yemen.”
The heads of top humanitarian organizations—Oxfam America, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, CARE USA, and International Rescue Committee—sent a letter to Pompeo on Nov. 16 in a last-ditch attempt to urge him to reconsider the decision.
“A designation of Ansar Allah could cause even greater suffering, given the number of people under its jurisdiction, its control over state institutions, and the already frightening levels of food insecurity and humanitarian need across Yemen,” they wrote in the letter.