President Donald Trump‘s administration will designate the Yemeni Houthi rebel group a terrorist organization, with just days of the president’s term remaining.
The parting shot against the Iran-backed rebels has been interpreted as a final show of support for Saudi Arabia—which has been leading a coalition military campaign against the Houthis in neighboring Yemen—and another move to hamstring President-Elect Joe Biden, who hopes to both revive dialogue with Tehran and press the Saudis on human rights abuses.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the new “foreign terrorist organization” designation of the Houthis—officially called Ansar Allah—will take effect on January 19, one day before Biden takes office.
Pompeo said Sunday: “These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansar Allah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region. The designations are intended to hold Ansar Allah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.”
The Houthis responded by blaming the U.S., and in particular the Trump administration, for regional unrest. “The policy of the Trump administration and its behavior is terrorist,” said one Houthi leader, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, on Twitter. “We reserve the right to respond to any designation issued by the Trump administration or any administration.”
The Houthis have been at war with the Yemeni government since 2014, civil war erupting after years of lower intensity conflict and political unrest. The Houthis now hold the capital Sana’a, but fighting has been largely stuck in a stalemate in recent years. Successive peace talks have so far failed to reach a lasting peace deal.
The group is supported by Saudi and American rival Iran, which helps fund and train Houthi fighters. Weapons supplied by Iran or based on Iranian technology have allowed the Houthis to launch ballistic missiles and armed drones at Saudi cities and infrastructure targets, plus attack shipping and oil facilities off the Yemeni coast with mines and missiles.
Saudi Arabia intervened on behalf of the deposed Yemeni government from 2015, leading a multinational coalition launching devastating airstrikes against Houthi military and civilian targets. The coalition receives weapons plus intelligence and logistical support from the U.S. and other nations including the U.K.
The Saudi-led military campaign is led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to his father King Salman’s throne and widely seen as the country’s de facto leader. The 35-year-old prince has presented himself as a liberal reformer, but his brutal authoritarian record tells a different story.
The war has caused a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. According to UNICEF, more than 24 million people—or 80 percent of the country’s population—are in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.
The power vacuum created has also allowed Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to take territory within Yemen, posing a security threat to regional nations and those further abroad.
AP reported that the Trump administration has been mulling the designation for some time, but delayed over concerns that sanctions might exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Pompeo said Sunday the U.S. would address these concerns.
“The United States recognizes concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” Pompeo said. “We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.”
This will include special Treasury Department licenses to allow the continuation of American assistance to Yemen and for humanitarian organizations to continue their work there.
The humanitarian NGO Norwegian Refugee Council, however, released a statement condemning the decision and warned it would have “a far-reaching impact on the already dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.”
Yemen Country Director Mohamed Abdi said the designation 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.”
Meanwhile, Peter Salisbury, the senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the designation “risks collectively punishing all Yemenis by precipitating a famine while doing little to hurt the Huthis other than pushing them closer to Iran.”
The designation will complicate Biden’s foreign policy agenda. The incoming president-elect wants to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump abandoned in 2018 touching off his subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign to collapse Iran’s economy and isolate Tehran.
Since losing the election in November, Trump has introduced fresh sanctions on Iran, sent additional military assets to the Middle East and warned that continued Iranian aggression would prompt American action. A top Iranian nuclear scientist was also assassinated, according to Tehran by Israeli operatives with American knowledge or even support.
Iran, meanwhile, has been expanding its production of enriched uranium, which could one day be used in nuclear weapons. Trump, his Iran hawk advisers, and U.S. allies including Israel and Saudi Arabia are set against the JCPOA, and appear to be dedicating the administration’s final weeks to undermining Biden’s plans to return to the 2015 agreement.
The Houthi designation is also the latest expression of the close U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, one Biden has vowed to re-evaluate once in office.
Saudi Arabia’s despotic ruling royal family has been widely criticized for its human rights abuses against activists and dissidents at home, plus its support for extremist groups abroad and its punitive and bloody intervention in Yemen.
MBS is the chief architect of the disastrous war in Yemen and the family’s authoritarian crackdown at home. The young prince is cementing his power and position as successor to his elderly father, and is accused—among other things—of ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Trump stood by MBS throughout the Khashoggi scandal, even siding with the crown prince over the conclusions of the CIA and despite broad international condemnation. Trump has touted major arms deals with Saudi Arabia and blocked Congress‘s efforts to end American support for the kingdom’s war in Yemen.
The Trump administration considers Riyadh a key cog in its anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East, along with Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The New York Times reported last month that the Trump administration is mulling a request to grant MBS immunity from a federal lawsuit that alleges he was behind an attempt to kill a former Saudi intelligence official now living in Canada.
Bloomberg reported in December that the Trump administration is also pushing to sell $500 million in weapons to Saudi Arabia before the president leaves the White House later this month.
MBS and the Saudi royals are facing a very different prospect with a Biden presidency and Democratic control of the House and Senate. In November Biden said he would “make it very clear we were not going to sell weapons of war” to the Saudis, and that he would instead make them “pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.”
In October, Biden said his future administration would “reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”
Biden’s nominee to be the next secretary of state, Antony Blinken, will spearhead his foreign policy agenda. In 2018, Blinken was among former officials who served under President Barack Obama who signed an open letter acknowledging that the initial U.S. backing for the Saudi war in Yemen had failed to limit or end the conflict.