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US Designation May Be First Step Toward Houthis’ Delegitimization – Analysis


By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami*

In the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has revealed the administration’s intention to designate the Houthi militia in Yemen as a terrorist organization and to place the group and several of its leaders on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) blacklist. The outgoing secretary of state said the new designation would come into force on Jan. 19.

This decision aims to punish the Houthi movement for its crimes, including murder, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, the destruction of the country’s infrastructure, the military conscription of children, impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid, and catapulting the country into one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern history. In addition, this starvation siege has led to poverty and diseases spreading among the Yemeni people.

Though the US decision is belated, it has long been a demand of all the Yemeni people who have suffered because of the 2014 coup staged by this terrorist militia against the legitimate government and its hijacking of state institutions. This designation comes after years of the international community’s deafening silence on the Houthi militia’s domestic and regional crimes.

The decision is also consistent with the demands of the legitimate Yemeni government, which has repeatedly called on the international community to punish the Houthi militia for the crimes, devastation and slaughter it has committed, and to push it to relinquish its destructive agenda, which has not only been detrimental to Yemen, but also posed a direct threat to other regional countries, especially its neighbors.

There is no doubt that, if this US decision comes into force on Tuesday and the incoming administration complies with it, it will be followed by subsequent steps. It will be a massive source of pressure on the Houthis and will boost regional and international efforts to settle the crisis in Yemen. The Houthi militia has so far played a significant role in obstructing attempts to achieve peace.

The US decision will result in the Houthi militia being besieged and isolated from its regional and international sponsors, and it will cut off its sources of funding and weapons from Iran, including the transfer of missiles, drones and other deadly weapons. This designation will also impact the movement of Houthi leaders, who have previously shuttled freely between countries.

In addition to the Houthi militia facing the aforementioned ramifications, its designation as an SDGT group will officially result in it being acknowledged as a rogue actor and a party that is unfit to establish any diplomatic relations or conclude any agreements with. In Yemen itself, the US designation will grant the Yemeni people the legal justification to counter the Houthis, who have led the country into a dark and terrible tunnel, endangering its unity, security and stability.

The US designation will also constitute a significant step toward stopping the Houthis’ cross-border terrorism, which could extend to other countries. However, we sincerely hope that this belated US decision is implemented on the ground as soon as possible to put an end to the terrorist acts committed by the Houthi militia.

In recent months, the Houthis have begun to look for international legitimacy by coordinating with their sponsors in Tehran, which in October appointed an Iranian ambassador to Sanaa. This was followed by the Houthis appointing an ambassador in Syria. However, with the Houthi militia designated as a terrorist outfit, its concerted diplomatic efforts to gain international recognition may fall apart.

The US designating the Houthi militia as a terrorist outfit will result in many countries and companies fearing American penalties because of their ongoing cooperation with the militia.

In light of this US decision, the legitimate government in Yemen now needs to redouble its efforts and take a host of steps to ensure the objectives behind Washington’s designation are met, while preventing further potential harm being inflicted on the Yemeni people. The steps the legitimate government can take include: Offering ways to calm public concerns over the possible adverse ramifications of the US decision on the Yemeni people; reconditioning roads and airports in liberated areas; finding alternative ways to distribute international aid; resolving the internal differences among parties opposed to the Houthis; coordinating with the US and the Arab coalition to monitor the borders and ports; and preventing the smuggling of arms and military equipment to the Houthis.

There are real concerns that this US decision will impact future humanitarian relief operations, primarily because of retaliatory actions from the Houthis. However, it seems that these concerns are not justified, as the US State Department said it will introduce licenses to allow humanitarian aid and imports to continue, and the US will work with officials from the UN and nongovernmental organizations to mitigate the ramifications of this decision on the Yemeni population.

This will ensure the distribution of humanitarian aid in areas controlled by the Houthi militia, meaning that it will not be able to seize the aid or impede the sale of imports in Yemeni markets, as it has done in recent years.

The US decision can be interpreted within the context of the Trump administration’s efforts to increase the pressure on Iran by imposing sanctions on the militias linked to it, especially the Houthi militia, which has continued to receive generous support from the Tehran regime. Over the past six years, the Houthis have repeatedly proved their full compliance with Tehran’s agenda and its projects in Yemen and in other countries across the region.

If the incoming Biden administration complies with this designation, the US will inflict a new blow to the Iranian regime and increase the number of Iranian proxies and entities already on the terrorist blacklist, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, Bahrain’s Al-Ashtar Brigades, and Iraq’s Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, and Al-Nujaba militias. This latest US designation could open the floodgates for similar designations of other militias backed by Iran, which continue to play a dangerous role in undermining regional security and stability.

In conclusion, it could be said that placing the Houthi militia on the terrorist blacklist is the first step toward delegitimizing and weakening it, thus putting an end to the suffering of the Yemeni people. However, this ultimately depends on the extent to which the incoming Biden administration is convinced of the designation’s effectiveness in ending the Yemeni crisis.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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