There is no greater humanitarian emergency in the world today than Yemen, a country that has been torn apart by a six-year civil-turned-proxy war in which all of the combatants have engaged in war crimes. Parts of Yemen such as Hajjah, Amran, and Al-Jawf have already been experiencing pockets of famine. Last November, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the entire country was in “imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.”
The Trump administration’s January 10 designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization is highly likely to push the poorest country in the Arab world deeper into misery — all at the high cost of sullying Washington’s reputation.
THE ILLOGICAL LOGIC BEHIND THE DESIGNATION
In Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s own words, “The designations [of the Houthis] are…intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign, and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors.” The designation is also an extension of the administration’s overall maximum pressure strategy, one meant to punish Iran until it agrees to negotiate to a maximalist US policy demands. How a last-minute decision to isolate the Houthis — a brutal but unavoidable part of Yemen’s political and social fabric — is supposed to accomplish either of these objectives is left unsaid. The Houthis, after all, don’t use normal banking channels, so the financial impact of these sanctions will be limited at best. Indeed, the result is likely to be quite the opposite of what Pompeo espoused: more hunger, more deaths, and more war.
Some will argue that designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization will provide the UN-accepted Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition with additional leverage at the negotiating table. But this is faulty reasoning because it ignores the reality that hardliners in the Houthi movement, who believe fighting is the best way forward, will use the US designation to lobby against diplomacy.
There is little doubt that the Houthis have committed unspeakable crimes in the course of Yemen’s civil war. The organization has at times blocked humanitarian shipments in order to extract concessions on unrelated issues and have reportedly attempted to divert food and medical assistance to their supporters. Yet the fact remains that the Houthis control approximately 70% of Yemen’s population, which means UN and international humanitarian organizations seeking to deliver assistance to the vast majority of the country’s people have no choice but to deal with the group in some capacity. Designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization will criminalize any contact with them, and these essential humanitarian organizations will be unable to continue their operations in the areas that desperately need their assistance. In other words, Yemenis hemmed in by Houthi restrictions on the ground and a large-scale Saudi-led blockade in the air and at sea are now also forced to contend with US-imposed restrictions.
The US State Department’s assertion that humanitarian shipments will be exempted from sanctions associated with the terrorism designation is positive rhetoric — and not really enforceable. For example, those exemptions do little if the humanitarians delivering assistance to Houthi-controlled territory remain petrified of being held criminally liable for their work. US criminal penalties associated with providing material support to terrorist organizations range from asset freezes to 20 years in federal prison. Those found to be working with a US-designated group directly or indirectly are at high risk of being iced out of the US-dominated financial system, a death sentence for the reputation and balance sheets of any respectable business or non-profit organization. As discovered first-hand in Iran and Venezuela, the deterrent effect of US sanctions and criminal prosecution are often more powerful than humanitarian or economic carve-outs. Financial institutions are extremely conservative and risk-averse; no compliance risk officer worth his or her salt is going to recommend their employer sacrifice access to the US market in order to operate in Yemen, a country with minimal economic potential.
Some will argue that designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization will provide the UN-accepted Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition with additional leverage at the negotiating table. But this is faulty reasoning because it ignores the reality that hardliners in the Houthi movement, who believe fighting is the best way forward, will use the US designation to lobby against diplomacy. Diplomats such as UN special envoy Martin Griffiths could also be subjected to sanctions for the very act of meeting and corresponding with Houthis representatives during the course of his work, undercutting the very purpose of his job. As Griffiths said himself in his January 14 briefing to the UN Security Council, “We fear that there will be a chilling effect on efforts to bring the parties together.”
LABELING IS COUNTERPRODUCTIVE TO ENDING YEMEN’S SUFFERING
The United States should be extricating itself from Yemen’s civil war, a hellish conflict where no discernible direct national security interest is at stake. The Obama administration’s ill-thought out decision in 2015 to provide Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates military, diplomatic, and intelligence support has proven to be a mistake of unprecedented proportions (former Obama administration national security officials have since acknowledged how unwise the policy has been). The Trump administration’s decision to continue that support was just not a bad policy decision but one that has stained Washington’s hands with some of the most heinous war crimes imaginable; exposed some US officials to legal jeopardy; and pulled the United States into one of the Middle East’s bloodiest conflicts at a time when Washington should be repositioning itself out of the region and reassessing its entire foreign policy.
For the United States, Yemen’s civil war is the very definition of an intransigent conflict where the combatants are all culpable for war crimes and the only good forces on the ground are the Yemeni people themselves. The incoming Biden administration has promised to correct one of Washington’s costliest foreign policy mistakes by ending US involvement. It is a promise President-elect Joe Biden must keep.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at Newsweek.