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Terrorist Houthi militia responsible for Yemen humanitarian crisis: State Department

Published: Updated:

The United States recently designated Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia as a terrorist organization, a move criticized by the United Nations as having the potential to impact innocent civilians.

Officials in Washington will not budge, but they will ensure that needed caveats are put in place for humanitarian aid to continue to flow to the most vulnerable in Yemen.

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Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo moved to designate the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity.

On Thursday, UN Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock and UN food chief David Beasley issued their warnings during a Security Council meeting on Yemen. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres backed the call by his officials for Washington to reverse the designation, a UN spokesman said.

Asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson said that the US continued to support the UN Special Envoy’s efforts, “but we recognize that his efforts have been at an impasse for some time due in large part to Ansarallah’s refusal to engage with him productively.”

Read more: US to designate Iran-backed Houthis as terrorist organization: Pompeo

The designations will come into effect on January 19, Pompeo said.

Pompeo said the designations were intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors.

As for the years-long Yemen war, Pompeo voiced frustration with the “those responsible for obstructing peace” and calling for them to be held “accountable for their actions.”

Yemen’s Houthis continue to attack Saudi Arabia with rockets and missiles on a near-daily basis. The militia is trained, armed and funded by Iran.

What do these designations mean?

The designation freezes any US-related assets of the Houthis, bans Americans from doing business with them and makes it a crime to provide support or resources to the movement.

Pompeo, the top US diplomat, said the designation was meant to push a political track and return to dialogue “to the maximum extent possible.”

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo prepares to testify before a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing, July 30, 2020. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo prepares to testify before a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing, July 30, 2020. (AFP)

He said the political process had produced “limited results over several years,” which “compels us to look for additional means by which to change the behavior” of the Houthi militia.

Elana DeLozier, the Rubin Family Fellow in the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes the designation was “borne of frustration.”

“The [Trump] administration sees designation as one of the few tools left in the US toolbox capable of providing leverage against the Houthis,” DeLozier told Al Arabiya English.

“Not only is the designation aimed at targeting the Iran-backed militia, but the Yemeni government also hopes such a listing will grant leverage in negotiations, but also raises the cost of aligning with the Houthis,” DeLozier added.

On Thursday, a Houthi spokesman told Reuters that they would not walk away from peace talks with the UN and Saudi Arabia despite the recent designation, which was lauded by Riyadh and other Gulf states.

UN criticism

But the United Nations quickly condemned the move, with officials calling for a reversal to the designation and warning of a “famine” in Yemen.

When news first broke that Washington was considering the designation after the Yemeni militia continued to block attempts of achieving peace in the war-torn country, experts and members of the international community criticized it.

Inside Washington, Democratic lawmakers and officials also spoke out against the move.

Nevertheless, the US has pushed through and in a preemptive move anticipating blowback, Pompeo said he recognized the concerns that the designations would impact Yemen’s humanitarian situation.

An aerial view shows Aden's City in southern Yemen, November 30, 2010. (Reuters)
An aerial view shows Aden's City in southern Yemen, November 30, 2010. (Reuters)

But he announced plans to “put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.”

In a further explanation, Pompeo said the US was ready to work with the UN, NGOs and other donors in order to mitigate the risk of further deteriorating humanitarian problems.

Assistance from the US and other international organizations, including the UN, will continue to flow via waivers or licenses granted from the Treasury Department.

“The licenses and guidance will also apply to certain humanitarian activities conducted by non-governmental organizations in Yemen and to certain transactions and activities related to exports to Yemen of critical commodities like food and medicine,” Pompeo said.

However, DeLozier noted that the private sector imported 80 to 90 percent of Yemen’s food. “Banks will start refusing to do business with the Yemeni merchants until clear OFAC guidance is issued. The fear is that the Trump administration has not - and will not - do enough to stave off a potential famine before they leave office,” she said.

The State Department official said the US recognized the “grave humanitarian situation” in Yemen were planning to take certain actions to mitigate unintended humanitarian impacts when the designations take effect.

“But make no mistake: It is [the Houthis] that [bear] responsibility for the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” the official added. “We believe these designations will apply additional pressure on [the Houthis] to change [their] approach to the conflict.”

Read more:

US Treasury imposes sanctions on five Houthi militia officials

Why Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement should be designated as a terrorist group

- With agencies