GP Insights # 459, 16 January 2021
On 10 January 2021, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the Houthis a "foreign terrorist organization". The designation will come into effect from 19 January, a day before Joe Biden takes charge as the US president. He stated that the "designation is an attempt to achieve a peaceful, sovereign and united Yemen that is free from the Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbours."
On 14 January, the United Nations and other aid organizations that work in Yemen called the decision as a step backwards in a country that is torn by six years of war and poverty.
On 11 January, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson denounced the designation and termed it as a move that would end as a failed decision. Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned the decision for reflecting “utter contempt for peace”, and said it will worsen the situation in Yemen.
What is the background?
First, the ongoing war. Yemen, the most impoverished Arab country, is in the midst of a civil war between the government and the Houthi rebels since 2014. While the government is supported by the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and UAE, the rebels are backed by Iran and its militias.
Second, the US role in the Yemen war. The US has been involved in Yemen since the Obama presidency. The US military was directly involved in the airstrikes targeting certain suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists and their camps. According to Airwars, an independent monitoring group, between 2017 and 2018, the airstrikes peaked, which claimed the lives of at least 86 civilians. The Trump administration has mostly depended on and supported the Arab coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia, for achieving its objectives in Yemen.
Third, the US's internal divide between the White House and Congress over the war in Yemen and the US's role. Trump has substantially increased the sale of arms to the Arab coalition countries, despite strong demand from the Congress to cut ties with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, in 2019, the Trump administration managed to circumvent the Congressional review regarding major weapons sales worth USD eight billion, by declaring an emergency over Iran.
Fourth, the Trump administration's policy against Iran. The decision to designate Houthi militia as a terrorist organization is a part of Trump's 'maximum pressure' policy.
Fifth, the Houthis's resilience in the civil war began six years ago; they have gained support from Iranian militias, and are no closer to being defeated.
What does it mean?
First, the cascading ill effects. The UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock addressed the UNSC on 14 January, and warned that the designation is "likely to lead to large-scale famine on a scale that the world has not seen for nearly 40 years." The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also expressed concerns about the humanitarian crisis that would unfurl due to the US's move. The Houthis control approximately 70 per cent of Yemen and are a de-facto authority. Several NGOs and aid organizations serving in the country coordinate with the rebels to supply food and basic needs.
Second, the move plays into the expectations of the Arab coalition. The Arab coalition supports the internationally recognized Yemen government against the Houthis and its ally Iran. The GCC welcomed the US move to designate the Houthi militia as a terrorist organization.
Third, the pressure on the Biden administration. Many US lawmakers have called upon Biden to reverse the designation order, citing humanitarian crisis and famine. However, it would not be easy for the Biden administration to reverse it.