The mistake of designating the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization

Houthi fighters man a machine gun mounted on a military truck as they parade during a gathering of Houthi loyalists on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen July 8, 2020. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

One of Donald Trump’s first foreign policy decisions as president was authorizing a Navy SEAL raid in Yemen. That operation, which he signed off on over dinner, was poorly planned, risky, and rushed. The result: several dead Yemeni civilians, including 10 children, and one dead U.S. soldier.

Now, as President Trump prepares to leave office, he looks poised to make another unforced error in Yemen. This time the Trump administration is seeking to designate the Houthis, a local militia group that has seized power in the country’s northern highlands, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. That would be a mistake. Designating the Houthis would be bad for Yemeni civilians, bad for peace talks, and, ultimately, bad for U.S. national security. It would also box-in President-Elect Biden before he even takes the oath of office, although perhaps that’s part of the attraction for exiting Trump officials.

For much of the past six years — under both the Obama and Trump administrations — the United States has been complicit in Saudi Arabia’s brutal and bloody war in Yemen. The U.S. trained Saudi pilots, sold the kingdom billions in weapons, and performed mid-air refueling for Saudi jets on bombing runs to Yemen, a shocking number of which resulted in civilian casualties. The U.S. bears at least some responsibility for those deaths.

When Saudi Arabia announced the start of the war — what it called “Operation Decisive Storm” — it did so not from Riyadh, but rather from Washington, D.C., signaling the importance of U.S. support. The U.S. reciprocated that same evening by announcing the formation of a joint intelligence cell in Riyadh. Saudi officials told the Obama administration the war should take about six weeks. It is now in its sixth year.

Along the way, the dead have piled up faster than international organizations can count. The United Nations, which gave up all hopes of comprehensive casualty figures years ago, calls Yemen simply “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The tragedy, of course, is that the crisis is entirely man made.

Like the Saudis, the Houthis have bloody hands in Yemen. They have disappeared opponents, tortured prisoners, and used sexual violence as a weapon of intimidation and control. The Houthis are also supported by Iran, which has shipped the group missile components in violation of U.N. sanctions and, just last month, dispatched an ambassador to Houthi-controlled territory, effectively recognizing the group as a nation-state.

It is the Houthis’ ties to Iran that is behind the Trump administration’s last-minute push to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization. President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — encouraged strongly by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Saudi Arabia — believe that a hardline approach from the U.S. will force the Houthis to compromise or capitulate. There are several problems with this approach, most notably, that it won’t work.

Designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization would ban its members from traveling to the U.S. and freeze the group’s financial assets. But three of the Houthis’ top commanders, including the group’s leader, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, are already under U.N. sanctions, which include an international travel ban and an asset freeze. I served for two years — from 2016 to 2018 — on the U.N. panel that monitored these sanctions in Yemen. What we found: The Houthi leadership largely doesn’t travel abroad and the group doesn’t have international assets to freeze. Indeed, U.N. sanctions, which targeted the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, actually had the unintended consequence of strengthening the Houthis. The sanctions weakened Saleh, who did have international assets to freeze, depriving him and his networks of much-needed cash, ultimately undermining him to the point that the Houthis could kill him and consolidate their control in the north.

In Yemen, sanctions hurt the wrong people. The Houthi leadership is largely insulated from shortages in food and medicine. Yemeni civilians are not. Placing the Houthis on the terrorist list would effectively cut off humanitarian aid to the roughly 16 million people who live under Houthi control, many of whom depend on outside aid to survive. (Several humanitarian organizations wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo on November 16, urging him to reconsider the designation.) If Pompeo presses forward with the designation anyway, the U.S. will be directly responsible for what is likely to be hundreds of thousands of preventable civilian deaths in Yemen.

A terrorist designation would also further hamper peace talks. The U.N. has not had much luck — it is on its third special envoy in six years — getting the various sides in Yemen’s multi-faceted war to reach an agreement. But labeling the side that is currently winning on the ground a terrorist group is unlikely to provide a breakthrough.

Ultimately…this move is bad for U.S. national security.

Ultimately, however, this move is bad for U.S. national security. At a time when the U.S. is drawing down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to end wars, it should not be venturing abroad in search of new enemies.

The Houthis are a domestic insurgency not a global terrorist organization, and no one — particularly not the secretary of state — should conflate the two. There is also an element of self-fulfilling prophecy with such a designation. Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen in early 2015 because it was worried that the Houthis were an Iranian proxy. They weren’t, but after nearly six years of war, the Houthis and Iran are closer than ever, exchanging ambassadors and battlefield lessons.

The Houthis haven’t targeted Americans in terrorist attacks, but that could change following a U.S. designation. Already this week, the U.N. and other aid organizations pulled out more than a dozen American workers from Houthi-controlled territory. The U.S. is turning an adversary into an enemy. After nearly two decades of combatting terrorism around the world, the U.S. should be looking to narrow the scope of the groups it targets and designates, not widen it.

Yemen doesn’t need another terrorist designation. It needs the sort of creative and proactive diplomacy that went missing in action under the Trump administration.