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The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation
The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation

The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa

Continued fighting between Huthis and their various opponents could lead to a major conflagration, further undermining the Yemen’s troubled political transition.

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Executive Summary

The power balance in Yemen’s north is shifting. In early 2014, Zaydi Shiite fighters, known as the Huthis or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), won a series of battles, in effect consolidating their control over Saada governorate, on the border of Saudi Arabia, and expanding southward to the gates of the capital, Sanaa. Now a patchwork of shaky ceasefires is in place, albeit battered by bouts of violence. Tensions are high between Huthis and their various opponents – the Ahmar family, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar family) and his military allies, Salafi fighters, and the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, and their affiliated tribes. Fear is growing that an escalation could draw the state into a prolonged conflict. To head off a conflagration, the parties must turn the inchoate understandings reached during the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) into an implementable peace plan.

Renewed violence comes at a sensitive time in the country’s transition. In January 2014, Yemenis completed the NDC, which produced a blueprint for far-reaching political reforms. But the plan is aspirational at best. The country has until January 2015 to complete drafting a constitution and a referendum approving it, before holding parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year. Obstacles are many, including a weak, divided government; a desperate economic situation; and deteriorated security. Widespread violence would imperil the transition by undermining the state’s already weak authority and its embryonic political consensus. The status quo is already doing so, albeit more slowly.

Fighting in the far north is nothing new. Between 2004 and 2010, when the Huthis fought six rounds with the government, they were political and military underdogs, confined primarily to Saada governorate, with ill-defined demands and no clear political agenda. But the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh changed the country’s political dynamics, propelling the Huthis onto the national stage. Today, they have taken advantage of state weakness and political infighting to expand their popular support and territorial control in the north, including all of Saada governorate, where they run checkpoints, secure roads, collect taxes, oversee local government administration and administer justice. As the government has scant authority, they have become a virtual state within a state in these areas.

By joining the NDC, they gained a seat at the national bargaining table, where they advocated popular positions, including a federal state based on democratic principles, political pluralism, religious freedom and balance of powers. Their reputation as outsiders – opposed to Saleh-era power brokers and the widely disliked transition government – won them additional support, even outside their traditional base in the predominately Zaydi north. The result is a shifting coalition of competing streams – religious, tribal and even leftist – cooperating under an anti-establishment umbrella, the overall character of which has yet to be hashed out. Whether the group will emerge as a party, a social movement, an armed militia or some combination thereof will depend on how the transition is managed.

Huthis claim that their expansion is locally driven. Yemenis, they say, welcome them because they are frustrated with old regime forces, including the Salehs, Ali Mohsen, Islah and the Ahmars. With their foes, they claim, determined to violently halt the peaceful spread of their ideas, they insist on retaining their weapons, at least for now, to prevent a state controlled by their enemies from crushing them.

Opponents contrast the Huthis’ inclusive rhetoric with their often repressive tactics. Critics routinely accuse the group of wanting to reinstate, by force, a theocracy similar to the Zaydi imamate of Yemen’s past. Some go further, claiming that the Huthis have turned away from their Zaydi roots toward Twelver Shiism – to which Iran’s Shiites adhere – and are serving Tehran’s agenda. As the Huthis have gained ground, an increasingly wide array of Yemeni stakeholders have grown wary, demanding that they immediately relinquish heavy weapons and form a political party as proof they are serious about peaceful competition.

The situation is combustible. Emboldened by recent victories, the Huthis may overplay their hand and miss a chance to consolidate gains through compromise. Their opponents, who show no sign of giving in, are pushing state intervention to roll back Huthi advances. President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi’s government is at risk of being pulled into a conflict that it cannot win militarily, especially while it fights an emboldened al-Qaeda branch. Southern separatists also are watching developments in the north closely; should the military become embroiled there, they could seize the opportunity to advance an independence bid.

The NDC agreements, while a helpful starting point, cannot halt the creeping violence. They did not fashion a clear consensus around the issues driving the fighting, such as power sharing and the division of the country into six federal regions. Some elements, like disarmament of non-state actors, are dangerously vague, lacking timetables and enforcement mechanisms.

In April 2014, President Hadi initiated talks with Huthi leader Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi about ending the recent fighting and implementing the NDC. But Hadi and UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar must go further and transform the NDC conclusions into an implementable peace deal. The talks must include, at least informally, additional stakeholders: high-level representatives of the General People’s Congress (GPC, former President Saleh’s party), Islah, the Ahmars, Ali Mohsen and Salafis. Any realistic peace plan will need to satisfy the core concerns of belligerents and guarantee them with enforcement mechanisms. Three elements are critical:

  • National and local power sharing until elections can be held. This should include a consensus government that would ideally comprise Huthi representatives, with ministers chosen on the basis of professional skill and political affiliation.
     
  • Disarmament. The Huthis should agree to a detailed, sequenced program for transferring weapons to the state in exchange for government steps to improve its neutrality, especially of the security services. Disarmament, first of heavy and then medium weaponry, must apply to all non-state actors. To promote transparency and implementation, all sides could agree to a monitoring framework.
     
  • Guarantees of freedom of religious belief and peaceful political activities. As a first step, the Ahmars, Islah, Salafis and Ali Mohsen should explicitly accept the Huthis’ right to propagate their religious views and pursue peaceful political activities. The Huthis should do the same for others and form a political party.

Negotiating the details and sequencing of implementation are far from easy. The parties were unable to do so during the NDC, which succeeded in no small part because difficult decisions were delayed. Yemen no longer has this luxury. At stake is not only a relapse into violence, but the country’s fragile transition.

An elderly woman looks on while sitting on a make-shift bed as people try to salvage tents damaged by torrential rain, at a camp for Yemenis displaced by conflict in the northern Hajjah province on 30 September 2020. Essa Ahmed/AFP

The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation

The outgoing Trump administration has designated Yemen’s Huthi rebels a terrorist organisation. Proponents argue the measure will provide leverage with the Huthis, but in reality it will hurt efforts to end the war and could precipitate famine. The incoming Biden administration should rescind it immediately.

Against the advice of more or less everyone working in the humanitarian, economic and diplomatic fields in Yemen, and including many of its own professional staff, the outgoing Trump administration has designated Yemen’s Ansar Allah, better known at home and abroad as the Huthis, as a terrorist organisation.

The designation (in fact, a package of designations that named the Huthi movement both a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” and, along with three of its top leaders, a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” entity) will unquestionably make what the UN says is already the world’s largest humanitarian crisis much worse by tipping parts of Yemen into famine. The action is also bad for UN-led efforts to end the war. And it arguably runs counter to U.S. interests and harms the security of Washington’s Gulf allies.

The designation will unquestionably make what the UN says is already the world’s largest humanitarian crisis much worse by tipping parts of Yemen into famine.

For these reasons, the incoming Biden administration should reverse the Huthis’ designation as soon as possible upon taking office. In the meantime, the Trump administration should state unequivocally what exceptions and licences it has put in place to allow for the continued flow of humanitarian aid into Yemen and expand them to include commercial imports. Without such steps, famine is all but certain to follow.

The debate over the merits and risks of a designation is not new. Proponents of a designation, namely Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni allies along with the United Arab Emirates, have been unable to win the war militarily and contend that fighting will only end when the Huthis, now in the ascendant militarily and confident in their status as de facto rulers of north-western Yemen, have been forced into “behaviour change” by economic and political pressure. They also argue that the designation is warranted because the Huthis fulfil the criteria for it by engaging in indiscriminate attacks upon civilians in Yemen as well as firing rockets and missiles at Saudi Arabia and attacking shipping in the Red Sea. As the most recent example, they cite a missile they claim the movement launched at Aden’s international airport in southern Yemen to target the newly formed Yemeni government that had just arrived there on 30 December. The Huthis deny responsibility for the strike.

Critics of the designation, including Crisis Group, approach the issue from a different angle. They argue, first and foremost, that the designation will impose dire collective punishment on the estimated 20 million people who live in Huthi-controlled areas. Yemen is a poor country in peacetime; in wartime, ordinary people have become too impoverished to pay for basic foodstuffs, leaving them increasingly dependent on extensive humanitarian aid. As detailed below, the designation will send a chill through aid agencies, which will fear running afoul of the U.S., and it could throw international trade with Yemen into a deep freeze. Food will become scarce and costlier, making it too expensive for most people to buy. Critics of the designation also contend that it will contribute little to resolving the conflict. The Huthis are likely to become more bellicose and make up any income they lose from taxing local markets by increasing tariffs on goods, pushing the cost of living to even more unsustainable levels for ordinary Yemenis. They are also likely to rely more heavily on Iran, their main external backer, for economic and political support – an outcome the U.S. says it is determined to avoid.

A nurse cares for a malnourished child at a clinic in Tuhayta, Western Yemen, 28 September 2018. CRISISGROUP/Peter Salisbury

The Huthis’ ties with Iran are not the only issue where Washington’s actions are likely to prove counterproductive to its stated goals. Huthi officials say they will take “reciprocal” action as the designation’s impact becomes clear. Responses could range from a ban on contact with U.S. nationals to intensified cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia as far as to efforts to halt maritime traffic in the Red Sea. In December 2020, Saudi media outlets reported that a seaborne mine launched by the Huthis had struck a cargo ship in the Red Sea in what some in Riyadh saw as a warning from the Yemeni rebels.

The designation also complicates UN-led efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and convene political talks about ways to end the war. These efforts were already stalling, and in dire need of a boost from the U.S., as both the Huthis and the government seem resolved to pursue a military victory. The Huthis may now choose to boycott the UN envoy, whom they sporadically accuse of being a tool of U.S. interests. Foreign diplomats are likely to be constrained in their ability to meet the Huthis because of the designations. The Yemeni government, meanwhile, will see in the designation validation of its maximalist demand that the Huthis, in effect, surrender, rather than working to find a middle ground with the rebels. The designation further hampers UN-led efforts to remove an estimated one million barrels of oil from a rusting tanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, thus averting ecological disaster, and to decommission the vessel, an operation that will require foreign experts to travel to Sanaa – something that will become more difficult with the designations.

Along with UN and humanitarian officials, Crisis Group has repeatedly raised these concerns with senior U.S. officials. But the proponents have won the day, having gained the support of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior Trump administration officials. Since mid-2020, a group of these officials have come to see a designation as another building block in their “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and as a source of much-needed leverage with the Huthis for the U.S. and its allies. Internal deliberations over the designation intensified after President Donald Trump lost the November 2020 election, and Pompeo and others sought a final series of political “wins” at home and abroad before leaving office, including the normalisation deals between Israel and Arab states and a final wave of sanctions against perceived U.S. rivals. Congressional insiders in Washington liken the raft of punitive measures unleashed over the course of the administration’s final months to a “minefield” deliberately laid for the incoming Biden administration, which will likely be overwhelmed by the sheer number of politically sensitive measures it is pressed to undo in its early days.

The U.S. officials’ rush to the finish line has had deeply troubling consequences. So eager was the Trump administration to designate the Huthis before leaving office that it announced the move before it had done its due diligence on limiting humanitarian harm. It made the announcement before the Treasury Department had prepared a package of licences that would assure the UN aid agencies and humanitarian NGOs that they could continue their work in Yemen without fear of civil or criminal penalties in the U.S. Treasury officials are now scrambling to complete this package before the designation takes effect on 19 January. Meanwhile, no such licence is being prepared for private-sector importers, meaning that trade inflows may grind to a halt even if the U.S. puts humanitarian waivers in place in time. Senior aid officials say that if food and other imports are frozen, there is little they can do to prevent a famine. In December 2020, the UN warned that 16,500 Yemenis were already in famine-like conditions and that this number would triple by the end of 2021, before accounting for the effects of a designation.

If it wants to ward off mass starvation, the Trump administration should immediately take mitigating steps.

If it wants to ward off mass starvation, the Trump administration should immediately take mitigating steps. It should have the Treasury Department issue an expansive licence package while the Department of Justice should state unequivocally that humanitarian organisations will not be prosecuted for working in Yemen or engaging directly with the Huthis. If it cannot complete the package before the designation comes into force, the designation should be halted. The U.S. should also issue licences for the private sector, or at a minimum give clear public guidance to commercial interests that they will not be prosecuted for trading with merchants in Yemen, who may be subject to taxation, for example, in Huthi-held areas – that is to say, all businesses importing goods into Yemen.

But these measures are merely palliative – and inadequate at that. Never before has the U.S. slapped a terrorist designation on a group like the Huthis that controls this much territory (around 30 per cent of Yemen’s land mass) and administers (at least de facto) so many people (approximately twenty million Yemenis). Even with licences in place, international banks, insurers and commodity traders that grease the wheels of international trade could well conclude that the risk of legal censure in the U.S. outweighs the meagre profits offered by trade with Yemen. The only way to avoid additional impediments to the movement of trade is to lift the blanket designation of the Huthis.

That task will fall to the incoming Biden administration. The new president’s senior advisers may believe there are more pressing issues to attend to, or worry that lifting the designation is too tricky politically, given that the Huthis are a violent armed group with a sectarian outlook that overthrew Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Nonetheless, the administration must lift the movement’s dual Foreign Terrorist Organisation and Specially Designated Global Terrorist designations, preferably in its first days or week. That said, lifting designations can take time, and in the interim the Biden administration should be prepared to issue as expansive a licencing regime as possible and signal to the humanitarian aid community and others its intention to revoke the designations. It is far better to prevent a full-blown famine driven by U.S. actions now, than to deal with the consequences only when they become so evident as to be uncontrollable.