The Trump Administration is again considering designating Yemen’s Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization as part of a broader effort to put more pressure on the rebels and their ally and backer, Iran. The administration previously mulled the official State Department designation two years ago, but decided against it partly due to humanitarian concerns.
Their first impulse was the right one. The Houthis control most of northwest Yemen which is home to a majority of the country’s population of 29 million. By labelling the fighters foreign terrorists, the U.S. would impede aid organizations from operating in Houthi-controlled territory. Over 80 percent of Yemen’s population depends on some form of assistance, largely food aid. Any interruption to this will exacerbate what is already an ongoing humanitarian disaster.
Apart from making it harder for NGOs and aid organizations to assist Yemenis caught in the crosshairs of famine, disease, and war, what would designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization achieve? In short, very little. The Houthis are already isolated, their leadership is subject to existing travel bans, and the organization does not depend on the kind of international banking that would be impacted by the designation.
Rather than weakening them, the designation may strengthen the Houthis’ grip on much of northwest Yemen by reinforcing their narratives. A key element of their rhetoric — and this is not without some truth — is their self-portrayal as “defenders” of Yemen against foreign aggression and terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Houthis are sworn enemies of AQAP and the Islamic State in Yemen. They have denied these groups access to the territory they control.
Houthi spokesmen have pointed out the irony of the proposed terror designation: while they battle AQAP and IS, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have often turned a blind eye to both.
The battle for Marib
More significantly, the designation could scuttle ongoing informal negotiations between the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Renewed talk of the terrorist designation comes at a pivotal point for the war in Yemen.
The Houthis and those forces nominally allied with Yemen’s internationally recognized government are locked in a fierce battle for the Yemeni governorate of Marib. The governorate is home to oil and gas resources as well as the Safer refinery. The outcome of the battle for Marib has the potential to fundamentally alter the trajectory of the war. If the Houthis take control of Marib, there is little to stop them from consolidating and moving on to the neighboring governorate of the Hadramawt. If this happens, the already weak internationally recognized government will be irrelevant.
Conversely, if the government, with the aid of Marib’s powerful tribes, can stop the Houthis and deliver a rare military defeat, the Houthis may be more inclined to negotiate.
While the fighting in Marib is fierce and casualties are mounting on all sides, informal — but high level — talks between the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, and some of those allied with Yemen’s internationally recognized government are proceeding.
Riyadh knows that there is no military solution to the war in Yemen, which has cost the kingdom billions of dollars — at one point the Kingdom was spending an estimated $5 billion a month — and damaged its international image. The conflict is viewed both within and outside Saudi Arabia as Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s war. He ignored Yemen’s history of frustrating invaders and thought that the war would be short and sharp. Five years on, it has proved to be anything but. Now, with the possibility of a Biden victory in the U.S., which could spell the end of Washington’s support, there is more impetus to find some kind of resolution that will allow the Saudis to secure their border and minimize Iranian involvement in Yemen.
In addition to compromising these ongoing talks, a terrorist designation may result in the Houthis upgrading their ties with Iran. When the Saudi-led intervention began in March 2015, the Houthis’ relationship with Tehran was limited and remains that way despite what is suggested in the media. The Houthis are a notoriously insular and independent organization over which Tehran exercises no real control.
Nor do the Houthis depend on Iran for armaments. Yemen is awash in all kinds of weaponry. The Houthis buy what they need from Yemeni arms markets or, as is most often the case, they capture what they require from rival forces. Iran has provided the Houthis with financial assistance, technical expertise, and critical components for their largely indigenously developed drones and missiles. If the Houthis are boxed in by their designation as an FTO, they will almost certainly respond by enhancing their relationship with Iran.
A path forward?
The U.S. designated Lebanon-based Hezbollah as an FTO in 1997. The designation did nothing to stop Hezbollah from developing its capacity to fight and govern, all the while deepening its ties with and dependence on Iran. The Houthis are not Hezbollah, at least not yet. They depend on the support of a broad coalition of tribes based in northwest Yemen. This support will erode if the Houthis are seen to be taking orders from Tehran. Many Zaidi scholars already question what they view as a pernicious Iranian religious influence on some members of the Houthi leadership, while protests against Iranian influence and against Houthi abuses of power are growing in number and intensity.
While the Houthis continue to outfight their rivals on Yemen’s battlefields, they face growing economic pressure. They receive only limited financial aid from Iran. They raise most of their funds by taxing Yemeni citizens and businesses. These levies are a source of growing discontent. So if the organization increases them, it risks alienating many of those who offer (begrudging) support.
Designating the Houthis as an FTO will have little impact on their ability to continue fighting in Yemen, but it does risk forcing them into the arms of Iran and to start acting more like a terrorist organization. What constraints there are now on how the Houthis interact with NGOs and aid organizations could be compromised.
The U.S. should instead continue to encourage Saudi Arabia’s backchannel negotiations with the Houthis. At the same time, more pressure could be brought to bear on the Houthis by Oman and other regional powers. Saudi Arabia has the political and area expertise to curtail and possibly end the war in Yemen. Before Muhammad bin Salman’s rise to power, Riyadh’s foreign policy, especially with respect to Yemen, was cautious and conservative. It favored dialogue, financial aid, and direct payments to influential Yemenis over fighting. A return to this kind of policy will, in time, dilute the Houthis’ power while minimizing Iranian influence.
If such an approach had been taken instead of an armed intervention, Tehran’s influence would have remained minimal, and most importantly, countless lives would have been saved. This is not to say that Yemen would not have experienced instability and conflict. However, its interlocking wars are now sustained by inflows of money and weapons from foreign powers. Only when this ends will Yemen have a chance at regaining some kind of internal equilibrium.