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Washington’s Terror Designation of Houthis: Pressure Card or Complicating the Complicated?

Washington’s Terror Designation of Houthis: Pressure Card or Complicating the Complicated?

Monday, 23 November, 2020 - 06:30
Houthi militants shout slogans during a gathering on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen. (Reuters)

An US State Department spokesman stressed that Washington’s policy on Yemen has not changed.

The goals are firm, he asserted amid Yemeni debate and tensions over speculation that Washington was seeking to designate the Iran-backed Houthi militias as terrorist.

Some parties viewed the speculation as a form of pressure on Yemen, while others said it will only complicate an already complex situation.

Washington is still adhering to its mantra that there can be no military solution to the conflict, while the spokesman said that the Houthis’ actions reveal that they are not serious about peace.

Asharq Al-Awsat had on November 20 first reported about the raging debate within the State Department on whether to blacklist the Houthis.

The next day, Reuters interviewed Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan who said it would be “entirely appropriate” for the United States to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization.

“We all know much of their weapons and a significant part of their ideology comes from Iran. So they are certainly a foreign-backed terrorist organization,” he said.

The State Department told Asharq Al-Awsat that it does not openly discuss deliberations about designations or potential designations. This has not stopped US officials from making statements about the issue.

On November 11, US Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, met with Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman in Riyadh.

Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Abrams as saying that the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization is being discussed in Washington.

Abrams met with Saudi and Yemeni government officials “to discuss joint efforts to counter Iran’s aggressive and malign activities in the region,” read a statement by the US embassy at the time. He “emphasized that Iran’s destabilizing actions put US partners and the entire region at risk. He noted that Iran’s provision of lethal aid to the Houthis prolongs the conflict in Yemen and intensifies its humanitarian crisis, and he condemned indiscriminate Houthi attacks against Saudi cities and civilian infrastructure.”

The possible designation of the Houthis has raised concerns about the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

“If this is rushed through, we might see trade and financial flows dry up across Yemen, the diplomatic process blown up and the Houthis deciding they need to repay the favor by increasing the tempo of attacks into Saudi Arabia while turning to Iran for more support,” said Peter Salisbury, senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group, according to the Washington Post.

Yemeni activist Baraa Shiban countered these claims, saying: “The Houthis in the past year have already escalated their attacks against Saudi Arabia, while the Arab coalition strikes have noticeably decreased.”

“The international community does not have any real means to pressure the Houthis,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat. So there is nothing forcing them to make any security or military concessions or even any concessions towards peace.

This has been proven in the Hodeidah province where the militias have refused to remove the mines they have planted and in Taiz where they have yet to lift the siege, he remarked.

The United Nations, with all of its agencies, could not convince the Houthis to cease recruiting children, he added.

“Words on paper are all well and good, but the reality has proven that they cannot be translated into actions as demonstrated in the failure of all security and military agreements and all calls for calm. This is because the international community lacks the cards to pressure the Houthis,” he noted.

Shiban added that the Houthis meet all the criteria needed to be designated as terrorist.

If they are designated, then their removal from the terrorism list will be used as a pressure card in the future, “which is why I believe the blacklisting is a move in the right direction,” he explained.

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