United States lawmakers are calling on President-elect Joe Biden to overturn the Trump administration’s decision to label Yemen’s Houthi rebels a “foreign terrorist organization”, slamming it as “short-sighted” and “a death sentence” for millions of people already reeling from years of war.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks said the designation announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo early on Monday “endangers the lives of the Yemeni people”.
“The Trump Administration has yet to learn that they can’t sanction their way out of a civil war,” Meeks said in a statement on Monday, denouncing what he described as the politicisation of the US’s sanction authorities.
Political observers and aid groups had anticipated that President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration would designate the Houthis – a rebel group that controls large swaths of Yemen’s territory – a “foreign terrorist organization” before Biden takes office on January 20.
The Trump administration has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and its allies in the region, including the Houthis, who are aligned with Tehran.
In his statement, Pompeo said the move aims to hold the group “accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping”.
“The designations are also intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors,” Pompeo said.
However, Peter Salisbury, a Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), said the designation does little to stem the Houthis’ activities and risks “collectively punishing” Yemenis.
In a series of tweets, Salisbury said the ICG has analysed the arguments for the designation; namely, that the sanctions “will weaken them [the Houthis] financially and convince their supporters they have no long-term viability”, while having limited general economic effects.
“Our research and analysis suggests otherwise,” Salisbury wrote. “Because if the impact of this designation is half as bad as has been predicted it is millions of ordinary Yemenis who are struggling to eat who will pay the price, while already distant prospects of peace slip away.”
We @CrisisGroup have been clear in explaining why we oppose the designation of the Huthis as a terrorist organization.
Doing so risks collectively punishing all #Yemenis by precipitating a famine while doing little to hurt the Huthis other than pushing them closer to Iran…
— Peter Salisbury (@peterjsalisbury) January 11, 2021
Humanitarian organisations also cautioned the move could complicate their ability to aid civilians living in Houthi-controlled areas.
Scott Paul, Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy lead, described the US decision as “a counter-productive and dangerous policy that will put innocent lives at risk”.
He said in a statement: “This designation will not help to resolve the conflict or provide justice for the violations and abuses committed during the war; it will only compound the crisis for millions of Yemenis fighting for their survival.”
‘Hamstring’ Biden’s administration
Yemen’s war broke out in late 2014 when the Houthis seized much of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.
The conflict escalated in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates assembled a US-backed military coalition in an attempt to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
What Saudi leaders thought would be a quick military intervention has turned into a protracted conflict that caused the spread of disease, destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and pushed millions of people to the brink of starvation.
Both sides have been accused of war crimes during the fighting that has killed tens of thousands of people.
Biden has pledged to “end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen” when he takes office.
Danny Postel, assistant director of the Center for International and Area Studies at Northwestern University, told Al Jazeera the point of the designation appears to be “to monkey-wrench and hamstring the Biden administration to make it difficult for it to reverse course and undo the massive damage of the Trump years”.
Meanwhile, the United Nations warned the US move is “likely to have serious humanitarian and political repercussions” and expressed concern that it may have a “detrimental impact on efforts to resume the political process in Yemen, as well as to polarise even more the positions of the parties to the conflict”.
Already in November, the global body had warned Yemen was in “imminent danger” of experiencing the world’s worst famine in decades – and US lawmakers said on Monday that they fear the Houthi designation will worsen the situation.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a frequent critic of US support for Saudi-led forces in Yemen who has tried to enact legislation to get Trump to end that assistance, said Monday that the move “is a death sentence for thousands of Yemenis”.
“It will cut off humanitarian aid, make peace talks nearly impossible, and empower Iran. Biden should reverse this policy on day one.”
Republican Senator Todd Young also criticised the decision and said he looked forward to working with Biden and his team “to overturn this misguided decision”.
The designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization is a death sentence for thousands of Yemenis. It will cut off humanitarian aid, make peace talks nearly impossible, and empower Iran. Biden should reverse this policy on day one. https://t.co/aHTo04KwGO
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 11, 2021