One day before the inauguration of President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid a minefield for the incoming administration by designating the Houthis as terrorists; if not reversed quickly, the minefield will kill innocent people and hobble peace. While the State Department statement accused the Houthis of terrorism, it mostly justified the designation by repeating accusations by Saudi Arabia and its ally the Yemeni government that Ansar Allah attacked Aden Airport at about the time that a plane carrying government ministers landed. Neither the Saudis nor the Yemeni government provided evidence to back up the accusation, and Ansar Allah has not taken credit for the attack. The fact that the Saudis and their Yemeni allies are at war with the Houthis further colors the credibility of the accusations. However, given the Houthis’ history of using missiles against Riyadh and its allies, the accusations could be true. Nevertheless, such an attack would not fit the US Government’s own definition of terrorism.
State Failed to Follow its Own Rules
The U.S. Department of State defines terrorism as an activity that “(1) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure; and (2) appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, kidnapping, or hostage-taking.” However, the US definition of terrorism does not extend to military operations, even in a civil war, such as an attack on an enemy airfield. Only two days after the inauguration, the State Department has initiated a review of the Trump administration’s decision to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
Citing Saudi and Yemeni government reporting in addition to unnamed sources and otherwise, unidentified “multiple experts,” the State Department announcement offers an unsound basis for its designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization. It claims the attack on Aden Airport as the proximate cause of the designation, and also points to the failure of the Houthis to “distance themselves from the Iranian regime” as further proof of Houthi terrorism. Formal state designations of terrorism require a great deal of paperwork defining the legal reasons for the action and reviewing the political, economic, and humanitarian consequences of the action. During my term as Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism (1993-1995), I presided over the terrorism designation of Sudan. It took a lot of staff work and required approvals from numerous U.S. Government agencies, as well as prior consultation with the relevant Congressional committees. The designation process also required the Department of State to ascertain the humanitarian consequences of such actions. Judging from the anger that the announcement provoked among Congressional staffers from both parties, the Department made no effort to follow its own rules.
Right now and for all practical purposes, the Houthis are a de facto government administering half the territory and 80% of the population of Yemen. They seized power by coup in 2014 and since then have been at war with both the regular forces of two foreign countries and mercenaries in their pay as well as a rival internationally recognized Yemeni government. Riyadh organized an intervention with the UAE and originally Qatar that they called the Arab Coalition, asserting that a Houthi victory would lead to an Iranian proxy government in Sana’a. The Arab Coalition launched a military operation in Yemen, claiming that they would achieve success within two weeks. Iran, which until then had only a minimal relationship with the Houthis, escalated its involvement to military advising and technical support. For a relatively small investment, Tehran has now mired Saudi Arabia in a costly and fruitless six-year war. Qatar withdrew when the Gulf Crisis erupted in 2017. To complicate matters the UAE and Saudi Arabia have found themselves at cross-purposes in South Yemen, with the former supporting a separatist movement.
As occurs with other minefields, its first casualties will be innocent civilians. Humanitarian agencies will be afraid to continue working in the country as Yemen’s people face starvation and the multifaceted pressures of the pandemic. Although the U.S. Treasury Department issued regulations that would in theory allow humanitarian activity to continue, these regulations are complicated and experience indicates that the big humanitarian agencies typically shut down operations rather than find themselves at the fickle mercy of U.S. law. The 11th hour (literally) issuance of the Treasury regulations not only makes the U.S. look callous towards human suffering but also breaks with the agency’s practices of three decades. The designation of Houthis as terrorists will also hinder any diplomatic attempts to bring the fighting to an end. The United Nations spokesperson for the Secretary-General, Stephane Dujarric, expressed concern “that the designation may have a detrimental impact on efforts to resume the political process in Yemen, as well as to polarize even more the positions of the parties to the conflict.”
Was Biden the Real Target of the Designation?
Pompeo appears to have laid a minefield for the incoming Biden Administration. Putting Cuba back on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List reinforces that argument. Other actions by Pompeo in the Middle East lay additional obstacles to Biden’s announced intent to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran.
At the moment, the U.S. currently designates Iran, Syria, North Korea, and, as noted, Cuba as State Sponsors of Terrorism. One might ask why many other countries with a proven and often self-admitted record of terrorist acts do not find themselves designated as terrorists. In 2012 the U.S. removed the Iranian Mujahedin-e-Khalk (MEK) from the terrorism list despite MEK’s long history of terrorism in an attempt to pressure Iran. To rub salt in the wound, the U.S. then placed some of the MEK leadership in a “protected persons” list. U.S. policy designating one entity but not another as terrorists has long since lost all semblance of legitimacy and undermines American credibility. The logic and validity of the U.S. practice require serious reconsideration; a recommendation beyond the scope of this essay.
On January 12, the Pompeo State Department also put Cuba back on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, reversing an action taken by former President Barack Obama in May 2015. The Obama administration had reached an agreement to restore relations with Cuba months earlier, including a plan to boost travel and trade between the two countries. The State Department justification of the Cuba terrorist designation appeared even thinner and more illogical than that of Ansar Allah; it cited actions taken by Cuba decades earlier and an undefined “failure to fulfill its obligations” to the U.S. The announcement cites no specific act of terrorism by Cuba but adds the description “malign behavior”, a phrase that Pompeo regularly applies to Iran.
Both of these designations continue a pattern of increased sanctions against Iran by the Trump administration that will certainly complicate Biden’s declared intent to restore the JCPOA. Getting back to the status quo ante will require Biden’s State and Treasury Departments to undo scores of Presidential Executive Orders, many of which require notices with timelines. Pompeo knows that Biden and Iranian President Rouhani must restore the JCPOA before the Iranian presidential elections that are scheduled for June 18, 2021. Most observers expect an Iranian hardliner opposed to dealing with the Americans to win. Supreme Leader Khamenei, of course, will make the final decision, but those who want a restoration of normalcy in U.S.-Iranian relations would prefer a more pragmatic face on the other side of the negotiating table.
Undoing the Damage Takes Time
Anthony Blinken, the new Secretary of State, stated during his pre-confirmation interview with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he would “immediately” review the outgoing Trump administration’s labelling of the Iran-linked insurgents, fearing the move was worsening a humanitarian crisis. Blinken asserted that “at least on its surface, [the designation] seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table while making it even more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it.” Biden’s new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, ordered a review of the Houthi terrorism designation a few days after taking office.
He also indicated that the U.S. would stop support to the Saudi campaign in Yemen, emphasizing to the committee that the Saudis have contributed to what is by most accounts the worst humanitarian situation anywhere in the world: “The Houthis bear significant responsibility for what’s happened in Yemen, but the way the (Saudi) campaign has been conducted has also contributed significantly to that situation. And so our support should end.” Stopping logistical and intelligence support for the Coalition will complicate but not stop its operations. Forcing Saudi Arabia and the UAE to withdraw will require an enormous amount of diplomatic pressure as well. Putting words into action, the Biden administration has frozen for review the two large arms sales packages to the UAE and Saudi Arabia approved in the final hours before Trump left office. The UAE package, which includes 50 F-35 fighter jets, has a little direct relationship to the Yemen conflict. It appears to have been part of the deal for the Abraham Accords. The review will certainly consider a large number of other factors such as technology transfer and regional balance of power issues, but it also gives Washington some leverage over UAE policy in Yemen. The Saudi package, which includes $500 million worth of precision air-to-ground weaponry of the kind the Saudi Air Force has used extensively in the Yemen campaign, may well be the opening gun as the Biden administration tries to persuade Riyadh to stop its intervention.
Reversing the terrorism designations of the Houthis and Cuba was not included in President Biden’s first 17 executive orders signed the afternoon of his inauguration. Removing countries, organizations, and individuals from the terrorism list requires a process with numerous approvals and no small amount of paperwork, although there is scant evidence that Pompeo’s State Department did any more than just checkboxes. Given that Biden has pledged to bring the regular order back to the federal bureaucracy and Blinken’s professionalism, we should expect that they will follow all the procedures and produce a defensible argument. Furthermore, with the decimation of the upper ranks of American diplomacy over the last four years, compounded by the departure of the inordinately large number of its political appointees in key positions, there are simply not enough people in place to carry out the “regular order”. Although I expect it will ultimately lead to a reversal of the designation, that will take some weeks to complete. In the meantime, the administration did reverse some of the implementing regulations that will provide a small window to humanitarian organizations to continue working on relieving the largest and most critical human disaster in the Middle East.
Optimists believing that the Yemen civil war may soon come to an end need to temper their expectations. Many other foreign policy issues will vie for the immediate attention of Biden’s foreign policy team not to mention the myriad of domestic issues or the pandemic. In addition, a part of the US foreign policy establishment with some of our allies in the Middle East have launched a massive campaign to persuade President Biden not to reinstate the JCPOA, the nuclear deal with Iran. This may have an unintended consequence. Iran could well turn up the heat in Yemen to pressure Washington. Bringing the Yemen civil war to an end and forestalling an impending humanitarian disaster may, tragically, prove a bridge too far.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum. Previously he held positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political Officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.