A decision to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a “terrorist” organization appears to be the Trump administration’s coup de grace to the group’s regional ally, Iran, but there are now real fears the move may have a devastating effect on millions of Yemenis who are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
Houthi rebels took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and around 70% of Yemenis live in areas under their control.
The group runs a de facto state in this territory, which includes monitoring financial institutions and coordinating with international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide food and other aid to Yemenis.
The impending designation of the Houthis by the United States has worried these NGOs – will they continue to be able to deal with a “terrorist organization”? And if not, will that mean stopping aid sent to Yemen?
“The designation threatens to further reduce the space and access we need to provide humanitarian assistance,” said Abeer Etefa, World Food Program spokesperson for the Middle East.
“The humanitarian response does not work in a vacuum: we work with banks, traders and carriers, which in turn have links with global insurers and so on. Life has become more difficult for millions of people who are already struggling to survive.
Fears of famine
The argument put forward by opponents of the Houthi terrorist designation is that the move will impose difficult bureaucratic and legal barriers to work in Yemen.
The country imports 90 percent of its food and aid organizations are already struggling to help Yemenis in need.
While outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the United States will license NGOs working in Houthi-controlled territory, the fear is that the situation is already so dire that any further obstacles will only be ” exacerbate the slide into potential famine in Yemen.
Humanitarian aid is not the only area that will potentially be affected. Anyone who trades in Houthi-controlled territory can run the risk of legally falling under the control of the United States, and the same can be said of anyone who conducts financial transactions in those areas.
It could therefore plunge the Yemeni private sector into an even greater crisis than that caused by nearly six years of war, pushing even more Yemenis into poverty.
“Many NGOs and businesses will ask their legal teams to assess whether working in Yemen exposes them to prosecution for materially supporting the Houthis simply by operating in areas they control,” Peter told Al Jazeera. Salisbury, Senior Analyst in Yemen for the International Crisis Group.
“Many will conclude that the legal risks outweigh the benefits and stop work. Traders are already telling us that they will have to shut down. “
Effect on the war in Yemen
Pompeo presented the designation as an attempt to “achieve a peaceful, sovereign and united Yemen, free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors”.
The implication is that the decision will hasten the demise of Houthi control over Yemeni population centers and strengthen the Yemeni government in its quest for victory in the country’s civil war.
Critics argue that this is unlikely to be the case and that the designation could instead serve to further widen the gap between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, and make it more difficult for successful peace negotiations.
“[The Houthis] are militarily in the vanguard and feel like they are winning the war, ”Salisbury said.
“They will use the designation and its humanitarian fallout as propaganda for their war effort… I am extremely pessimistic that we will see peace in Yemen in 2021. It is clear that the gap between the different parties is too big to be bridged at the right now, and I’m afraid we have to start seeing the war in Yemen as a chronic long-term conflict like those in Somalia or Afghanistan – with major famine to a good extent.
Despite these fears, the American designation of the Houthis was welcomed by many Yemenis opposed to the group. The Yemeni government and its supporters in the Saudi-led coalition have long demanded that the Houthis be treated as an international pariah and said the movement’s crimes have been ignored.
More recently, the Yemeni government accused the Houthis of being behind a December 30 attack on Aden International Airport that killed at least 25 people. Opponents of the Houthis say the group is basically behaving like a terrorist group, and that the interests of Yemeni civilians are best served by their immediate downfall.
They also point out that NGOs and businesses have complained about Houthi restrictions and corruption in the past, and continuing to do business through Houthi channels will only prolong their rule.
“The Houthis have repeatedly shown that they are prepared to put Yemenis at risk to achieve their goals,” said Baraa Shiban, former member of the Yemen National Dialogue Conference. “They are ready to blow up the homes of their opponents, persecute minority groups, crush dissidents and terrorize local communities. They have to face the consequences of their actions.
“The international community has not been able to exert viable and effective pressure on the Houthis because they have no power to pressure them,” added Shiban. “This designation could possibly be used as a way to force the Houthis to compromise, although there is no guarantee.”
But the United Nations sees it differently. UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said the US decision “would have dangerous humanitarian and political repercussions.”
“We are concerned that the classification has a negative impact on imports of food and other commodities at a time when more Yemenis are starving,” Dujarric said.