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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 January 2021

Explained: why the US is considering Houthi terror designation

Blacklisting the Iran-backed Yemeni rebel group was first raised more than two years ago, but may now become reality

The Trump administration is considering the designation of Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels as a foreign terror organisation, more than two years after initially floating the idea.

While some members of the group have been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department, a designation would apply to all its members.

This would have "chilling" consequences on aid supplies that the Houthis largely control and the social, economic and civil institutions in their territories.

In the US, the move is also seen as an expansion of Mr Trump's maximum pressure campaign on Iran, which included sweeping sanctions on Iranian officials and government bodies.

So why has it taken so long for the Houthi topic to be raised again, and will it really happen?

Diplomacy failure

Yemen is struggling to handle overwhelming humanitarian crises sparked or exacerbated by the Houthi takeover of Sanaa and the ensuing military fallout.

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

Proponents of the plan say all political and military options have failed to sufficiently weaken the rebels, who by some estimates control a third of Yemen’s most populous territories and have key economic institutions in the north.

The US and Yemeni governments might feel that they are out of other options, experts say, with less than 40 days remaining for the Trump administration.

But critics believe a terror designation would effectively sentence thousands of Yemeni civilians to death, as they depend on imports for basic commodities such as wheat, flour and rice.

It would also strengthen the rebels' ties with Iran.

“The assumption that this will bring the Houthis, who argue they have been fighting a 16-year war through periods of deep privation, to the table willing to make big concessions is a real leap,” said Crisis Group senior analyst Peter Salisbury.

"It is not what I expect would come out of an FTO designation.

“However, one of the reasons this option is being seriously considered is due to a frustration at the seeming lack of alternative options."

It is like going to the doctor with an infection in your leg and rather than treat it, he decides to amputate it

Peter Salisbury

But what a designation does is affect millions of lives in an even more catastrophic, devastating way in the short term.

“It is like going to the doctor with an infection in your leg and rather than treat it, he decides to amputate it,” Mr Salisbury told The National.

“It is the most drastic option that does more damage than good.”

But the Yemeni government has been urging the US to make the move, calling it an "urgent and necessary" first step in resolving the crisis.

"The Houthis' terrorism will not stop at the borders of Yemen, but will encompass the entire region and cause harm to the entire world if it was not designated a terror organisation," Minister of Information Muammar Al Eryani said in November.

His and the government's position is that prolonging the FTO designation reflects the international community's silence towards the conflict in Yemen.

The last days in office

Long-time Yemen watchers have a few simple explanations as to why the matter is only now being seen as a viable option by the Trump administration.

One reason could be to create the largest effect over the shortest possible time.

“This decision is fairly easy to implement and very difficult to roll back,” Mr Salisbury said.

Charities are critical of the move, saying it would make it logistically impossible to deliver lifesaving assistance to the 24 million Yemenis, or 80 per cent of the population, who rely on it.

A step like this could also render the middle class in the food and water-scarce nation obsolete.

“The biggest issue is the impact on trade,” said Alia Eshaq, public policy expert and founder of the Mashora Group in the UK.

"With northern, Houthi-controlled Yemeni territories largely reliant on imports, nobody will want to deal with Yemeni traders and businesses.

“Private-sector actors and businesses would become a no-go and too high-risk to deal with.”

Imported essentials would become even harder to access and poverty levels would soar as less money circulates and remittances dwindle.

“Every single transaction coming from abroad and into banks in Houthi-controlled areas will be scrutinised,” Ms Eshaq told The National.

"People will be very hesitant to transfer cash to relatives inside Yemen and businesses will no longer have foreign partners to rely on."

In November 2019, the Houthis and the Yemeni government agreed that commercial fuel companies would pay a tax for fuel imports and Customs fees that would flow into an account at the Central Bank in the strategic port city of Hodeidah.

In May this year, about $180 million was withdrawn from the account to fund "Houthi war efforts", Human Rights Watch said.

This while at least 100,000 Yemeni children younger than 5 already suffer from malnutrition.

Human Rights Watch said it was just one demonstration of how civilians' fate is determined by more powerful forces.

Policymakers might feel that the long-term benefits of designating the Houthis a terrorist group outweigh the short-term effects.

But the immediate survival prospects of an entire generation should require consideration.

Updated: December 14, 2020 03:54 AM

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