The Trump administration is reportedly contemplating designating Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia as a terrorist organization, igniting a debate over whether or not such a label will bring the protracted war to a faster end.
According to the Middle East-focused news and analysis site Al-Monitor, designating the Houthis as terrorists would “make it illegal for U.S. citizens to provide money or other material support to the group” – potentially ratcheting up enough pressure to make the Houthis behave “the way the U.S., Saudis and others want them to.”
The potential classification is part of the White House’s wider effort to crack down on Iranian activities that it says contribute to destabilizing the region. The US would then be able to freeze Houthi-connected financial assets, impose penalties on anyone deemed to be providing “material support” to the group and prosecute individuals considered to be backing them.
For more than three years, the international community has been unsuccessfully trying to orchestrate an end to the bloody war in Yemen, waged between a Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Iran-aligned Houthi insurgency group. The conflict has left more than 11,000 dead, tens of thousands more wounded and spiraled into a humanitarian catastrophe.
Del Wilder, a counterterrorism specialist, and former US government operative said that the designation would merely be stating the obvious.
“Everyone knows they are terrorists and that they’re controlled by Iran, which itself is a ‘terrorist organization,’” he said. “But until there is regime change in Iran the Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas, and others will continue to go about the business of committing acts of terror and disruption.”
Yet James Williamson, a retired Army special operations colonel and founder of OPSEC, a non-partisan advocacy organization focused on protecting national intelligence assets, noted that such a designation would likely do no harm, but would be more a “symbolic gesture than actually having a measurable impact.”
Kamran Bokhari, a specialist on the geopolitics of the Middle East with the University of Ottawa's Professional Development Institute, concurred that the designation was not likely to make much difference.
“Look at the number of declared terrorist entities, yet they continue to operate and the conflicts they engage in continue,” he said. “Like sanctions, these designations assume the key stakeholders will actively work to isolate the groups in question, which rarely happens.”
However, others say that designating the Houthis as terrorists would have a detrimental impact.
One official from Oman, a “neutral on foreign policy” country in the region which allows Houthi leadership to seek refuge in its capital Muscat, expressed concern to Fox News that the designation would hamper peace talks and provide no solution to the crisis.
In Afghanistan, for example, the U.S. has refrained from formally characterizing the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization to keep all pathways open for peace talks and a political settlement to that long-running conflict.
It also remains unclear exactly how broad Iranian popular support is for the Houthis, potentially limiting blowback on the Tehran government.
Furthermore, aid groups have expressed concern that the terrorist insignia would then require them to jump through extra hoops and seek extra permissions to operate in such areas
Mohamed Abdel Salam, the spokesman for the Houthis, who are known officially as Ansar Allah -- “Helpers of God” – acknowledged the group's Iran ties to Fox News in an exclusive in late July, but dismissed claims Iran was arming and funding them. He accused Saudi Arabia and its allies of “exaggerating” Iran’s influence as propaganda to justify their military intervention.
“This was used by Saudi Arabia and its allies as justification to convince the west that Yemen became another Iran or part of Iran. But we don’t deny that we have contact with Iran. We don’t deny that we have injuries and patients, Yemeni patients, receiving treatment in Iran,” Salam asserted. “We don’t deny that we have satellite channels being operated from Beirut but this doesn’t mean this is an Iranian influence. This is a result of the Saudi handling or neighboring countries headed by Saudi. When they close all doors to Yemenis, Yemenis went to other doors and knocking.”
Tehran has denied involvement in arming the Shiite-aligned Houthis.
Salam also insisted that the political “solution” to ending the war was a “new presidency or transitional government” in the form of a committee that “represent all sectors of society and combine and are accepted by all parties.”
However, Yemeni officials have contended that the U.S. withdrawal from the controversial Iran nuclear deal has lessened the Houthis' ability to maim and kill, drawing down the bloody conflict, and that the current Yemen government is indeed elected and legitimate, and is waiting to return to the capital of Sana’a, which continues to be occupied by the Houthis.
The U.S. role in the Yemen war has come under renewed scrutiny in recent months, following the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi operatives in their Istanbul consulate. On Friday, U.S. and Saudi officials agreed that the United States would no longer take part in refueling operations. In their statement, the Kingdom said that the U.S. cessation was a result of the Saudis having improved their own “military professionalism and self-sufficiency.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that the U.S. would continue to work with the Coalition in “building up legitimate Yemeni forces to defend the Yemeni people.”
The Pentagon has claimed that Saudi Arabia has undertaken measures to better its air operation, especially in the wake of a botched Aug. 9 strike that claimed the lives of over 40 Yemeni children in Houthi-controlled areas.