One day before the Inauguration, the Trump Administration added Yemen’s Houthi movement to a list of foreign terrorist organizations. It was just the latest, desperate attempt to hamstring President Joe Biden’s promise to end the war in Yemen.
While Trump proudly proclaims that he started no new wars, he also failed to end any of the existing ones while escalating others. The US sold $34 billion in weaponry and spare parts to Saudi Arabia from 2003-2019, and Trump also rushed through $290 million in bomb sales in December last year, despite documented Saudi use of US armaments to attack Yemeni civilians.
The unilateral Trump Administration decree also punishes three Houthi leaders by freezing their US bank accounts and preventing their ability to travel to the US. It appears unlikely, however, that any Houthi leaders have JP Morgan bank accounts or scheduled vacations in Hawaii.
Laurent Lambert, an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, says that Houthi leaders don’t suffer much from US sanctions. His students returning from Yemen say “Houthi leaders have been able to capture the city’s most expensive flats that had been left by the other administration—and the most expensive cars.”
In contrast, Lambert tells me from Qatar, “everyday people suffer.”
US sanctions freeze international bank transfers and insurance needed to facilitate trade. Since the Houthis run the de facto government in northern Yemen, Laurent says these US actions make delivering aid even harder. A lack of food, medicine, and other basics has already created what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Yemen already faces “large-scale famine on a scale that we have not seen for nearly 40 years,” according to Mark Lowcock, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs.
Who are the Houthis?
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. It is strategically located along the straits linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, sitting astride oil and other key shipping lanes. The Ottoman, British, and now US empires have all ruled Yemen at different times in history. Two of those were forced out, and the last is in the process of losing the Yemen War.
The opposition to foreign domination was once led by Marxists and is now led by political Islamists. The Houthis, whose formal name is Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), are a political Islamic party drawing support from Shia Muslims in northern Yemen. It formed in the 1990s and had periodic military clashes with pro-US dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Houthis have killed civilians as part of military campaigns but aren’t terrorists like Al Qaeda. “They have a nationalistic agenda; they are an organization for Yemen,” Lambert says. Al Qaeda has “a global agenda, as does the so-called Islamic State’s Caliphate, which started in Iraq, expanded in Syria, and tries to conquer territories in Africa.”
Lambert compares the Houthis to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is both part of the government and an armed militia. Like Hezbollah, the Houthis have negotiated with the ruling regime. Al Qaeda would never negotiate to form a coalition government. “Their global agenda is to take over,” Lambert says.
The Trump Administration ramped up pressure on the Houthis as part of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Iran does provide political support to the Houthis. The Pentagon claims Iran also provides weapons.
Lawrence Korb, former assistant Secretary of Defense, says Iran does not control the Houthi movement. Iran certainly gives it political and financial support, Korb tells me. But, for example, “Iran did not start the uprising” that resulted in the Houthis controlling half of Yemen.
While the Houthis are not Iran-controlled terrorists, neither are they Boy Scouts. Human Rights Watch accuses the Houthis of war crimes for indiscriminately firing artillery and missiles, killing civilians. The Houthis detain and torture critics, according to the HRW 2020 World Report.
“Houthis continue to harass and prosecute without legal basis academics, students, politicians, journalists, and minority groups, including members of the Baha’i faith,” according to the report.
In 2011, Yemenis rose up against the Saleh dictatorship, similar to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Washington and Riyadh cooked up a deal to remove the unpopular Saleh and install Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. But Hadi lacked the military support and political skills of Saleh.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia backed the Hadi regime. The two countries carried out brutal bombing campaigns, killing not only Houthi fighters but many civilians. They predicted quick victory, but things didn’t quite work out that way.
Hadi proved wildly unpopular and spent virtually all of his time living in Saudi Arabian luxury. Meanwhile, the Saudis and UAE made alliances with real terrorists, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a group best known for sending the “underwear bomber” on a Detroit-bound plane with the intention of killing hundreds of civilians. It has made common cause with the rulers of Saudi Arabia based on their shared, extremist interpretation of Islam and hatred of Shia Iran.
Meanwhile the UAE, unable to defeat the Houthis in the north, allied with the Southern Transitional Council, which calls for an independent Yemen in the south. As recently as April last year, the Council had taken control of the city of Aden, the seat of the Saudi-backed regime. A subsequent deal allowed the Saudi and Emerati-backed forces to retake control of the south.
In my opinion, the pro-US and pro-Saudi forces have lost the war politically because they’ve alienated many civilians with their indiscriminate bombings and support of a corrupt administration.
Yemen is yet another forever war that ultimately benefits purported enemies more than helping the people of the US. “The war on terror has completely failed over the past 20 years,” Lambert says.
The cumulative impact of wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan represent “probably the greatest strategic defeat of the US since the Vietnam War,” according to Lambert.
There is a narrow path to peace. If the US resumes participation in the nuclear deal with Iran, it could also open the door for peace talks in Yemen. Washington would have to apply strong pressure on Saudi Arabia. Tehran could then pressure the Houthis to start negotiations.
During his Senate confirmation hearings on January 19, Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, promised to “immediately” review the Houthi terrorism designation. He also restated Biden’s campaign promise to end US support for the Yemen War. He told the Senate, “The President-elect has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and I think we will work on that in very short order.”
I will have many disagreements with the new secretary of state. But if he delivers in this instance, I must give an appreciative nod to Blinken.
Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Erlich is an adjunct professor in International Studies at the University of San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.