With less than two months left in office, the Trump administration appears determined to take actions that will severely undermine President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to reinject effective diplomacy into U.S. foreign policy after he takes office on January 20. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s mulling of a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation for Yemen’s dominant Houthi movement, Ansar Allah, is a case in point. This move could wreck the prospects of reaching a political resolution that could end the nearly six-year war in Yemen.
The idea of designating the Houthi rebel group as a FTO is not new. In 2017, then-national security adviser Michael Flynn accused Ansar Allah of being one of Tehran’s “proxy terrorist groups”. Washington formalizing this accusation now, however, could quickly exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crises, which the UN recently labeled the worst that humanity has witnessed in decades. For the Trump administration, this FTO designation would be a political maneuver aimed at undermining Biden and boosting the Saudi position in Yemen. Yet for Yemeni civilians, it would severely exacerbate their collective suffering that has been ongoing since the Arab coalition began operations against Ansar Allah in March 2015. This harmful impact could carry over into the post-Trump period because, as experts agree, reversing the effects of this designation could prove quite difficult for the Biden administration.
U.S. Move Carries Severe Humanitarian Consequences
Practically speaking, it can be difficult to imagine how foreign aid groups could help Yemenis in parts of the country, including the capital Sana‘a, that are under Ansar Allah’s rule. It is one thing to designate a fringe group a terrorist organization if it does not govern. But given that the Houthis largely constitute what amounts to the state in large parts of Yemen, including areas with significant population centers, such a designation would have dire implications for the millions of people in the war-ravaged country who depend on external aid. The U.S. government could theoretically make this designation with “administrative carve-outs” that could permit humanitarian organizations to continue their work in Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen (where 70 percent of Yemenis live) without violating U.S. law, which could subject such aid groups to sanctions or other forms of punishment for working with an FTO.
Regardless, it is difficult to imagine this FTO designation going forward without widespread fatal consequences for Yemenis, as it will only further stress their food insecurity and hinder their access to basic commodities that they depend on for survival. Even with waivers or “administrative carve-outs” designed to ease the harm that such a designation would inflict upon civilians, humanitarian organizations would have uncertainties regarding the legality of their work in Yemen. Financial institutions along with insurance and shipping companies would also have to contend with risks of violating U.S. law. Ultimately, designating Ansar Allah an FTO could severely disrupt the flows of trade and financial assistance to Yemen—to say nothing about the move derailing any prospects for serious diplomatic progress.
Additionally, any such move would be deeply counter-productive for the necessary task of identifying and supporting a political process that can bring members of all Yemeni groups to the negotiating table and end the country’s grinding conflicts. For all the assistance that Ansar Allah has received from Iran since 2015, they remain a Yemeni movement with a domestic political constituency and frame of reference. It is safe to conclude that Ansar Allah will play a role in any eventual post-conflict transition in the country. An FTO designation that denies the legitimacy of Ansar Allah as a Yemeni political actor will not only impede international organizations’ efforts to include them in peacemaking but is also likely to prolong the fighting between Ansar Allah and what remains of the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen.
Houthi FTO Designation is a Poor Diplomatic Choice
Ironically, given the Trump administration’s close alignment with Saudi Arabia, an Ansar Allah FTO designation may also rebound against Saudi interests vis-à-vis extricating themselves from Yemen. Months of fighting in Marib province have seen Ansar Allah make further gains and provided additional evidence, were any still needed, that Saudi Arabia cannot hope for any outcome in Yemen that resembles a military or operational success. For some time, the Saudi leadership has been searching for ways to disengage from Yemen in a manner that saves face and does not appear like a defeat. Saudi officials have engaged with Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, as well as in backchannel dialogue in Oman with Ansar Allah. Designating the Houthi group as an FTO would throw these processes into disarray and may prompt Ansar Allah to intensify the fighting, likely resulting in Saudi (and Saudi-supported) forces being drawn even deeper into an unwinnable war, as well as furthering the cycle of violence on Yemenis.
The impact of Trump’s administration designating Ansar Allah an FTO before he leaves office would be negative on multiple fronts. Currently, there are approximately 16 million Yemenis living under Houthi control and their survival depends heavily on external aid—the flows of which would decrease drastically if the U.S. makes this designation. This move would also put Biden in a more difficult position to direct his administration toward a more constructive role in helping the various actors in Yemen’s civil war achieve a diplomatic settlement by hindering any efforts to advance peace talks. Moreover, this designation would likely only push the Houthis closer to Iran, furthering this self-fulfilling prophecy about the Houthis being a “proxy” controlled by Tehran.
What U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East needs is not another terrorist designation or more sanctions. Rather, it requires a more creative form of diplomacy that has in recent years been absent from almost all Iran-related issues.
Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum. Working across the disciplines of political science, international relations and international political economy, his research examines the changing position of Persian Gulf states in the global order, as well as the emergence of longer-term, nonmilitary challenges to regional security. Previously, he worked as senior Gulf analyst at the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies between 2006 and 2008 and as co-director of the Kuwait Program on Development, Governance and Globalization in the Gulf States at the London School of Economics (LSE) from 2008 until 2013.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.