Opposition to Houthi terror designation at odds with wishes of Yemeni people, says minister

Moammar Al Eryani responds to former US diplomats opposing the move

Houthi troops ride on the back of a police patrol truck after participating in a Houthi gathering in Sanaa, Yemen February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Objections to a possible US terrorism listing of Yemen's Houthi rebels ignore the demands of the Yemeni people, Yemen's Information Minister Moammar Al Eryani told The National.

A Foreign Terror Organisation designation of the Iran-backed rebels recognises the Houthi “creed which is based on murder, terrorism, slogans of death and hatred for the other including the US”, Mr Al Eryani said.

In December, Oman’s Foreign Minister Badr Albusaidi said the US was considering designating the Houthis an FTO, after a meeting with US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker.

Twenty former US diplomats, including several former ambassadors to Yemen, urged the Trump administration not to give the group an FTO designation in a joint letter last week.

The group said such a move “would be deeply damaging to US national security interests, including the fight against terrorism, and, most of all, to the innocent civilians in Yemen”.

But Mr Al Eryani said their position ignores the will of the Yemeni people who, he said, have called for the Houthis to be designated a terrorist organisation and to face sanctions.

“It also ignores thousands of crimes and aggressions perpetrated by the Houthi militia against civilians, including murder, displacement, kidnap, torture, forced disappearances and forceful military conscription of children,” he said.

The former diplomats wrote they held no sympathy for the Houthis, who they said were “responsible for provoking this conflict and for inflicting grave harm on Yemen’s civilian population and its infrastructure”.

Cholera, a collapsing healthcare system, poverty and malnutrition are only some issues worsened by the Houthi seizure of aid, widespread corruption and lack of transparency in reporting coronavirus rates in areas under their control, all while the war rages on for a sixth year.

Speaking to The National, the former US ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, a signatory to the letter, said the FTO designation would have a small impact on the amorphous group's military activities but a far bigger one on humanitarian groups, salaries, trade and, ultimately, the food imports on which millions of Yemenis rely.

According to the World Food Programme, Yemen depends on food imports for 90 per cent of its wheat and 100 per cent of its rice requirements. Most of these imports flow through the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah and would be greatly cut down if private importers chose not to do business in Yemen, a scenario more likely to happen under an FTO designation, experts have previously told The National.

“The Houthis do collect import duties from the port of Hodeidah, so their incomes would be impacted. On the other hand, their smuggling operations would not be and so for some Houthis, it will be their windfall, causing them to make more money,” Mr Feierstein said.

“Additionally, they will continue their military operations. Iran won’t care about the designation and won’t stop smuggling weapons in.”

Mr Al Eryani said the rebels maintain foreign bank accounts which would be affected by the sanctions accompanying an FTO designation, thereby damaging their funding and subsequently to their military activities in Yemen.

The rebels’ smuggling activities would be also come under greater scrutiny, he said.

“Allegations by some that the humanitarian operations in the Houthi militia-controlled areas could be affected by this step ignore the truth,” the minister wrote in an article for the National Council on US-Arab Relations this month.

“They ignore the pressures and extortion the militia has exercised, since the coup, against international relief organisations, including the World Food Programme, and how it stole food from the mouths of the hungry and distributed it to its fighters on the fronts, and monopolised it for the families of its militants, and sold it in the black markets to finance its sabotage activities, the ‘war effort’ which prompted many of those organisations to suspend their activities.”

Mr Feierstein said the incoming US administration under Joe Biden would be able to reverse a potential terrorism designation of the Houthis, but this would not happen soon.

"An FTO designation could be reversed bureaucratically under a Biden administration. But with a lot on incoming president Joe Biden's plate, even getting to the point that delisting becomes a priority may take time and in that period of time, a lot of damage would already be done," he told The National.