A decision to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a “terrorist” organisation appears to be the Trump administration’s parting shot to the group’s regional ally, Iran, but there are now real fears the decision may have a devastating effect on millions of Yemenis in desperate need of humanitarian aid.
The Houthi rebels took control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa in September 2014 and about 70 percent of Yemenis live in areas under their control.
The group runs a de facto state in that territory, which includes control of financial institutions and coordination with international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that supply food and other aid to Yemenis.
The imminent United States designation of the Houthis has worried those NGOs – will they now continue to be able to deal with a “terrorist organisation”? And if not, will that mean a halt to aid being sent to Yemen?
“The designation threatens to further shrink the space and access we need to deliver humanitarian assistance,” said Abeer Etefa, the World Food Programme’s Middle East spokeswoman.
“The humanitarian response does not operate in a vacuum: we work with banks, commercial traders and transporters, who in turn have links to global insurers and so on … Right now, this looks like a worst-case scenario for Yemen. Life has just got harder for millions who are already struggling to survive.”
The argument being made by opponents of the Houthi terrorist designation is the move will impose difficult bureaucratic and legal barriers to working in Yemen.
The country imports 90 percent of its food, and aid organisations are already struggling to help Yemenis in need.
While the outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US would be issuing licences to NGOs working in Houthi-controlled territory, the fear is the situation is already so dire that any further impediments will only exacerbate the slide to a potential famine in Yemen.
Humanitarian aid is also not the only area that will potentially be affected. Anyone conducting trade in Houthi-controlled territory may be at risk of legally falling foul of the US, and the same can be applied to anyone making financial transactions in those areas.
This could, therefore, plunge the Yemeni private sector into an even greater crisis than the one brought on by nearly six years of war, leading even more Yemenis into poverty.
“Many NGOs and businesses will have their legal teams assessing whether working in Yemen leaves them open to prosecution for materially supporting the Houthis simply by operating in the areas they control,” Peter Salisbury, the International Crisis Group’s senior Yemen analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“Many will conclude that the legal risks outweigh the benefits and halt work. Already traders are telling us that they will have to cease operations.”
Effect on Yemen’s War
Pompeo has framed the designation as an attempt to “achieve a peaceful, sovereign and united Yemen that is free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbours”.
The implication is the decision will quicken the demise of Houthi control over Yemeni population centres, and strengthen the Yemeni government in its pursuit of a victory in the country’s civil war.
Detractors argue this will likely not be the case, and the designation could instead serve to further widen the gap between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, and make it more difficult for peace negotiations to succeed.
“[The Houthis] are on the front foot militarily and feel that they are winning the war,” said Salisbury.
“They will use the designation and its humanitarian fallout as propaganda for their war effort … I am extremely pessimistic that we will see peace in Yemen in 2021. It is clear that the gap between the different parties is too wide to be bridged at present, and I fear that we need to start considering the war in Yemen a chronic long-term conflict like those in Somalia or Afghanistan – with a major famine thrown in for good measure.”
Despite those fears, the US designation of the Houthis has been welcomed by many Yemenis opposed to the group. The Yemeni government and its backers in the Saudi-led coalition have long called for the Houthis to be treated as an international pariah, and say the movement’s crimes have been ignored.
Most recently, the Yemeni government has accused the Houthis of being behind a December 30 attack on Aden International Airport that killed at least 25 people. Opponents of the Houthis say the group fundamentally behaves like a terrorist group, and the interests of Yemeni civilians are best served by their immediate downfall.
They also point out that NGOs and businesses have complained about Houthi restrictions and corruption in the past, and continuing to do business through Houthi channels will only serve to prolong their rule.
“The Houthis have shown repeatedly that they are willing to put Yemenis in danger to achieve their goals,” said Baraa Shiban, a former member of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference. “They are willing to blow up the homes of their opponents, persecute minority groups, crush dissenters and terrorise local communities. They need to face consequences for their actions.
“The international community has not been able to put viable and effective pressure on the Houthis because they don’t have any leverage over them,” Shiban added. “This designation could eventually be used as a means to force the Houthis to compromise, although there are no guarantees.”
But the United Nations sees it differently. UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the US decision would “cause dangerous humanitarian and political repercussions”.
“We fear that the classification will have a negative impact on imports of food and other basic commodities at a time when more Yemenis are starving to death,” Dujarric said.