The war-torn country of Yemen is in the midst of the largest humanitarian crisis in the world thanks in large part to a Saudi-led war fueled by American weapons. Now, as the war nears its six-year anniversary in March, any hopes for a diplomatic resolution have faded faster than the presidency of Donald Trump, whose outgoing administration recently announced plans to designate the Houthi rebels, the principal force battling both the Saudi-led Coalition and al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, as a foreign terrorist organization. The move effectively eliminates any ray of hope for the more than 24 million people struggling for survival amid war, siege, famine, and countless diseases and epidemics, according to the United Nations.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the State Department would notify Congress of its intent to designate Ansar Allah, known colloquially as the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization as well as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity. Of note is the fact Ansar Allah does not own a single company, nor does it own a single bank account outside of Yemen. In fact, ranking members rarely even travel outside of the country’s borders. Pompeo’s announcement was met with alarm by the United Nations, international aid groups, and diplomats who warned that the move would further inflame the situation on the ground, upend any hope for peace talks and exacerbate the country’s humanitarian crisis.
Predictably, Pompeo’s move treats Saudi Arabia as a victim instead of the perpetrator, and perhaps of no surprise to many historians, Saudi Arabia and the militant groups that it backs in Yemen appear to have already taken that message to heart. Since Pompeo’s statement was issued, Saudi warplanes have launched over 200 airstrikes targeting the Sana’a International Airport and the provinces of Marib, Sadaa, Hajjah, and Al-Jawf. Local prisoner exchange deals have stalled and UNICEF has announced plans to stop supplying some water pumps in Sana’a with fuel, according to the Sana’a-based Ministry of Water, who went on to say that the move could potentially harm up to four million people, including the many displaced people taking shelter in the city.
“Pure diplomatic vandalism”
The United Nations warned of major repercussions for international assistance to a country with a “growing risk of famine.” Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said of the designation, “What is the likely humanitarian impact? The answer is a large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years.” He added that exemptions to allow aid agencies to deliver supplies, as suggested by Washington, would not be sufficient to avoid a famine, adding “what would prevent it? A reversal of the decision.”
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric echoed that sentiment, warning that “The decision is likely to have serious humanitarian and political repercussions.” Dujarric was likely referring to the fact that the designation will likely dissuade third parties from engaging in any transactions with Houthi authorities for fear of U.S. prosecution.
It wasn’t just the UN that condemned the move either. David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee called the move, “pure diplomatic vandalism,” adding that “the last thing the Yemeni people need is further interruption of aid and economic flows.” The International Rescue Committee had already ranked Yemen as the top crisis in the world at risk of deterioration in 2021 and said that 24 million Yemenis are at catastrophic humanitarian risk following the designation of Ansar Allah. While the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the most active aid groups in Yemen, said that the U.S. must ensure sanctions do not block aid from entering “a country already in the middle of a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.” Save the Children warned that the measures could “threaten the supply of lifesaving food, fuel, and medicine,” and French aid group Action Contre la Faim (ACF) declared that the designation would have “an immediate impact.”
Not surprisingly, the decision will impact Ansar Allah-controlled areas of northern Yemen the most, but eh the effects will be felt across the entire country – delaying or even halting not only the import of food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods but commercial goods as well, according to the UN. Yemen imports 90% of its food items and the new designation is likely to slow or even stop imports at a time when thousands are at risk of famine. “The U.S. government’s action today is likely to tip the scale towards economic meltdown, famine, and death.” the UN said.
To compare Secretary of State Pompeo’s decision to that of Adolf Hitler’s intentional starving of Leningrad is no exaggeration. Hitler launched a brutal siege against the three million residents of Leningrad in 1941 in an effort to starve its civilians into submission in one of the most notorious and brutal crimes in history. In many ways, the State Department’s decision is much worse and sets a far more dangerous precedent. In fact, World War II’s Siege of Leningrad stands as a chilling reminder of the toll that the Trump administration’s decision could potentially have on the civilian population in Yemen, particularly the 13 million people who live in the north of the country.
Paving the way for an al-Qaeda Resurgence
The designation of the Houthis was predictably met with ire from the group’s allies and supporters in Yemen and abroad. It is being seen as an attempt to balkanize the country and subject its western half to the sort of perpetual famine and suffering endured by nearby Somalia.
There are also fears that the move will hamper the ability of the Houthis to combat Saudi-backed extremist forces in Yemen, especially al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and IS, allowing them to use Yemen and a launching group to plan and carry out terrorist operations inside the United States and the European Union, according to Yemeni security experts who spoke to MintPress. “The environment in Yemen will become more encouraging for the prosperity of al-Qaeda and IS after Washington’s decision against the Ansar Allah forces, who cleared most areas in the north country including al-Bayda province, a stronghold of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Houthi-led government in Sana’a, known as the National Salvation Government of the Republic (NSG) of Yemen said in a statement that Pompeo`s plan to designate Ansar Allah is an unprecedented act of hostility. They warned the international community and the countries sponsoring the peace process in Yemen of the consequences of the move, ”We have the will to defend our country by taking appropriate steps towards the American decision if it takes place including reciprocity,” the NSG said. The statement added that” The steadfastness of our people and their sincere bias towards the issues of the nation, particularly the Palestinian cause as well as the rejection of the normalization project, was not acceptable to the Trump administration.”
Even some of Yemen’s political rivals in the country have come out against the designation. General People’s Congress Party, the largest political party in the country and the party of Saudi-backed President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, said in a statement that the Trump administration’s decision will have major negative repercussions on peace and political settlement, and will complicate international efforts. The Nasserist Reform Organisation also strongly condemned the State Department’s decision, describing it as a hostile and irresponsible act aimed at serving the personal interest of presidents who struggle to stay in the White House. The Tribal Cohesion Council, the highest tribal body in Yemen said ”we consider [the United States] decision as a source of pride showing that Yemenis have become a challenge to them in the region” and called on tribal leaders to mobilize fighters.
What’s behind a designation?
The Houthis, for their part, have downplayed the impact of the decision, warning that it not only means that a peace deal can not be achieved but that the United States could now be directly targeted by the group.
The Trump administration’s assessment of the situation in Yemen, officials say, is flawed, as the Houthis have never threatened the United States unlike al-Qaeda, IS, or the Taliban. And unlike those groups, the Houthis are well-armed with ballistic missiles, drones, and gunboats and Houthi attacks on the Saudi-led Coalition have always been retaliatory and not preemptive.
Moreover, they warn, any U.S. military action against the Houthis under the pretext of fighting terrorism will serve to gain the group even more supporters in the Middle East, as it is one of the few left in the Arab world to stand in opposition to Washington’s support for Israel’s internationally-recognized theft of Palestinian land. The Houthis see that policy as a major driving force in the U.S. decision to designate them and maintain that it will serve to garner them even more popular support both inside of Yemen and across the Islamic and Arab world.
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a leading member of Yemen’s Supreme Political Council said in a series of tweets that “the Trump administration’s policy and actions are terrorist. We reserve the right to respond to any designation issued by the Trump administration or any administration.” He also called for the ”formation of independent investigation committees for each crime committed in the country.”
Ultimately, the decision to designate the Houthis seems aimed at stirring chaos in an already chaotic theater. It spurs on violence by using a political decision as a gruesome tactic to incite Yemenis against the Houthis by compounding the suffering of those in their midst. It is an alternative to the six-year-long failed attempt to take over the whole country by brute military force, despite the fact that that attempt has been fueled with billions of dollars worth of advanced weapons, intelligence information, and training, in addition to active participation in the blockade.
Feature photo | Houthi supporters chant slogans during a demonstration outside the closed U.S. embassy over its decision to designate the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 18, 2021. Arabic on posters reads: “America creates terrorism in the world.” Hani Mohammed | AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.