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The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation
The U.S. Should Reverse Its Huthi Terror Designation
Houthi militants stand in the house of Houthi leader Yahya Aiydh, after Saudi-led air strikes destroyed it in Yemen's capital Sanaa, 8 September 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Report 167 / Middle East & North Africa

Yemen: Is Peace Possible?

Yemen's outlook is bleak. It is crucial that the opposing blocs and their regional allies commit to a political process to resolve the conflict, but there is no end in sight. The immediate priority should be an agreement on humanitarian aid and commercial goods for areas where civilians are under siege.

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Executive Summary

Nearly a year on, there is no end in sight to Yemen’s war. The conflict pits Ansar Allah (Huthi) rebels and military units allied with ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh against a diverse mix of opponents, including what remains of the government of President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led coalition supported by the U.S., the UK and France. Ending the war requires negotiations leading to an interim settlement that must include security arrangements providing for militia withdrawal from cities, a return to the political process pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and agreement on a transitional leadership. While these are matters for Yemeni parties to decide during UN-sponsored negotiations, Saudi Arabia’s buy-in will be essential, spooked as the kingdom is by what it perceives as an Iranian hand behind the Huthis and their attacks on Saudi territory. Reaching agreement will take time, a luxury Yemenis do not have. The immediate priority thus should be to secure agreement on delivering humanitarian aid and commercial goods to war-torn, besieged areas.

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The descent into civil war has its roots in a post-2011 political transition that was overtaken by old-regime elite infighting, high-level corruption and inability of the National Dialogue Conference (a cornerstone of the 2011 transition roadmap) to produce consensus on power sharing and state structure, especially the status of south Yemen, where desire for independence is strong. The Huthis, a Zaydi (Shia) revivalist movement turned militia, thrived by framing itself as an uncorrupted outsider. They struck an opportunistic alliance with their old enemy, Saleh, against common domestic foes, including the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, the powerful Ahmar family and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the family), all of whom had turned against Saleh during the 2011 uprising. When the Huthis captured Sanaa, on a wave of popular resentment against the Hadi government in September 2014, a majority of Yemenis were already disillusioned with the transition. Yet, the Huthis overstretched: trying to forcibly expand their writ over the entire country, they alienated new supporters and confirmed critics’ worst fears.

In March 2015, the internal power struggle was eclipsed and reshaped by a Saudi-led military intervention. Saudi Arabia views the Huthis as part of an expanding Iranian threat in the region. Under the leadership of King Salman and his son Mohammed bin Salman, the defence minister and deputy crown prince, it decided to attempt to reverse Iran’s perceived gains by pushing back the Huthis and reinstating the Hadi government. It rallied a coalition of nine mostly Sunni Arab states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) prime among these. The U.S., UK and France have lent support to the war effort, even as they harbour reservations regarding the conflict’s necessity and are concerned about its possible duration and unintended consequences, particularly the near-catastrophic humanitarian crisis (bordering on famine) and uncontrolled spread of violent jihadi groups such as the Yemeni franchises of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

The intervention has layered a multidimensional, thus more intractable, regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran onto an already complex civil war, significantly complicating prospects for peace. It has also solidified opposing domestic fronts that have little in common save for their position on the Saudi-led military campaign. On one side, the Huthis and Saleh have wrought a tactical alliance, despite their mutual distrust, against what they view as an existential threat. On the other, the anti-Huthi bloc is even more diverse, bringing together a range of Sunni Islamists, (mostly secular) southern separatists and tribally/regionally based fighters who reject Huthi/Saleh dominance but have radically different visions for the future of Yemen.

After nearly a year of combat, no side is close to a decisive military victory. Huthi/Saleh fighters are ensconced in the Zaydi northern highlands, while the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies are strongest in Shafei (Sunni) areas in the south and east. As the latter have pushed the Huthi/Saleh front out of southern territories, where they were largely viewed as northern invaders, a range of armed groups, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and southern separatists, have moved in to take their place. If the Saudi-led coalition succeeds in capturing additional territory in the north, which it appears determined to do, the result is likely to be a protracted, bloody battle producing additional chaos and fragmentation. For its part, the Huthi/Saleh bloc is significantly complicating peace prospects by increasing cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, a move that makes it more difficult for the kingdom to halt the conflict when it cannot boast a clear military victory.

Each side’s commitment to UN-led peace talks is lukewarm. Neither is defeated or exhausted; both believe they can make additional military gains; and neither has been willing to make the compromises required to end the violence. The structure of talks, too, is problematic, with Saudi Arabia, a core belligerent, conspicuously absent. Prospects for a ceasefire and productive Yemeni talks would be helped by direct high-level consultations between the Huthi/Saleh bloc and Saudi Arabia over sensitive issues such as the border and the Huthis’ relationship with Iran. Moreover, to succeed, UN-led negotiations must be made more inclusive, expanding as soon as possible beyond the Yemeni government and Huthi/Saleh delegations to incorporate other Yemeni stakeholders.

The immediate future looks bleak. The war has devastated an already weak infrastructure, opened vast opportunities for AQAP and IS to expand and widened intra-Yemeni political, regional and confessional divides. The UN estimates that at least 6,000 people have been killed, including over 2,800 civilians, the majority by Saudi-led airstrikes. Even if the UN can broker an agreement to end major combat, the road to lasting peace will be long and difficult. The country is broken to a degree that requires significant time, resources and new political agreements to overcome. Without a breakthrough, it will continue descent into state disintegration, territorial fragmentation and sectarian violence. That trajectory would have calamitous consequences for Yemen’s population and severely undermine Gulf security, particularly Saudi Arabia’s, by fomenting a new refugee crisis and feeding radicalisation in the region to the benefit of violent jihadi groups.

Recommendations

To achieve a general ceasefire and return to a Yemeni political process

To all belligerents: 

  1. Abide by the law of war, refrain from media campaigns that label opponents in sectarian terms or as agents of foreign states and express support for and actively work toward a ceasefire and negotiations leading to a durable settlement. 

To Saudi Arabia, the Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress Party (GPC):

  1. Open immediate high-level consultations on priority issues, such as de-escalating tensions on the border and the Huthis’ relationship with Iran, that could facilitate a UN-brokered ceasefire and meaningful intra-Yemeni talks. 

To the government of Yemen, the Huthis and Saleh’s GPC:

  1. Participate without delay or preconditions in the next round of UN-brokered negotiations on an agenda specified by the UN special envoy.

To the Saudi-led coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE):

  1. Encourage government support for the UN special envoy’s negotiating agenda, including implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 and compromises needed to implement it and revive the Yemeni political process.

To the UN Security Council permanent members, especially the U.S., UK and France:

  1. Back the UN special envoy, including by supporting a follow-up Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire by all sides and an inclusive political compromise. 
     
  2. Condition the supply of weapon systems and ammunition to Saudi-led coalition members on their support for an immediate ceasefire and inclusive political negotiations. 
     
  3. Encourage high-level, direct consultations between Saudi Arabia and the Huthi/Saleh bloc.

To improve the chances of a durable political settlement

To the UN special envoy:

  1. Improve the negotiating framework by:
     
    1. Integrating regional security concerns and economic reconstruction into negotiations by supporting high-level official consultations and unofficial Track II discussions between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni stakeholders, particularly the Huthis and Saleh’s GPC, that are separate from but inform the intra-Yemeni negotiations. 
       
    2. Expanding negotiations to include, as soon as possible, additional Yemeni stakeholders, among them the Sunni Islamist party Islah, Salafi groups and the Southern Resistance, so as to ensure a durable ceasefire; to be followed by inclusion of civil-society groups, political parties and women’s organisations, to help resolve outstanding political challenges; and
       
    3. Prioritising three political challenges: i) agreement on a broadly acceptable executive leadership and more inclusive government until elections; ii) a mechanism for resolving the future status of the south and other regions seeking greater devolution; and iii) accountability and national reconciliation.

To Ansar Allah (the Huthis): 

  1. De-escalate the conflict and build confidence by: releasing political prisoners; allowing unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to civilians in Taiz; and suspending hostilities on the Saudi border for a specified period to show capacity to do so and goodwill ahead of UN talks. 

To Saleh and the GPC: 

  1. Work with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemeni stakeholders to agree on the former president’s departure from Yemen for a set period of time as part of the larger political settlement, ideally along with General Ali Mohsen and President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi. 

To President Hadi and the Yemeni government:

  1. De-escalate the conflict and support compromise by: refraining from calling for the military “liberation” of Sanaa and other cities; facilitating unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to all parts of Yemen, including Huthi-controlled areas; and recognising publicly the need for political reconciliation and a revived Yemeni political process. 

To Yemeni parties and organisations currently left out of the UN negotiating framework, except groups that reject politics:

  1. Lobby for inclusion in the negotiations and accept an invitation, if offered, to participate in them, as well as in Track II discussions, without preconditions.
     
  2. Select representatives for negotiations and prepare proposals for elements of a political settlement, especially on sensitive issues such as state structure, national power sharing and militia disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR). 

To the kingdom of Saudi Arabia:

  1. Communicate specific security requirements and political concerns, especially regarding the border, disarmament issues, and the Huthis’ relationship with Iran, directly to all Yemeni stakeholders involved in negotiations and the UN special envoy.
     
  2. Participate, if requested by the UN special envoy, in official consultations and unofficial Track II discussions supporting Yemeni negotiations; make specific proposals for reconstruction, including in the north, and work toward incorporating Yemen into the Gulf Cooperation Council.
     
  3. Suspend military action in the capital, Sanaa, for a specified period of time to show goodwill ahead of UN negotiations.

To the UAE:

  1. Assist in political resolution of the southern issue by helping the Southern Resistance select its representation for future talks.

To the Islamic Republic of Iran:

  1. Approach the Yemen crisis as a low-cost, high-value opportunity to reduce tensions with Saudi Arabia by: 
     
    1. Ending inflammatory rhetoric that stokes fears of Iranian intent to use Yemen to threaten the security of Saudi Arabia;
       
    2. Encouraging the Huthis to participate constructively in both UN negotiations and direct discussions with Saudi Arabia on resolving the conflict; and
       
    3. Discussing directly with Saudi Arabia ways of de-escalating tensions in the region, including through actions in Yemen that could start with ending any existing military support to the Huthis.

Brussels, 9 February 2016

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.