US review of Houthi terrorist designation raises questions

Yemeni analysts said that Washington’s potential reversal of the Houthi designation is likely to send a negative message to the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led Arab coalition

Statements by Antony Blinken, US President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, announcing the administration’s intent to reconsider the listing of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, have rekindled speculation about possible shifts in Washington’s position on Yemen.

Yemeni analysts said that Washington’s potential reversal of the Houthi designation is likely to send a negative message to the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led Arab coalition, and could take the Yemeni issue back to the stage it was at during the period of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose positions, analysts say, provided a cover for the Houthis’ activities.

Blinken’s statements during his congressional confirmation hearing were marked by ambiguity and incomplete political vision regarding the hot issues of the Middle East, especially the Yemen war, as he revealed that the new administration intends to halt US support for the war in Yemen, even if “the Houthis bear significant responsibility for what’s happened in Yemen.”

Blinken’s comments came hours after the US designation of the Houthis went into effect. The decision was met with UN and European objections under the pretext of potential humanitarian repercussions, despite the US exempting the United Nations and international relief organisations from the sanctions, as stipulated in a statement published on the US Treasury’s website.

“Houthi commanders need to be held accountable, but designating the whole organisation will only inflict more suffering on Yemeni people and impede diplomacy critical to end the war,” Biden’s pick for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, wrote on Twitter.

Lawyer Mohammed Allaw, president of the Maonah association for human rights and migration, said Blinken’s statements are not surprising given the new Democratic administration’s priorities, which include pressing to settle problems of the Middle East through political solutions and negotiations.

“Blinken did not object to the Houthis’ designation as a terrorist group that deserves in principle to be listed as such, as he linked his position to fears that the designation would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis after pressure from some European and Arab countries, either allied or friendly to the Houthis. These countries have raised this issue to spark fears,” Allaw told the Arab Weekly.

Allaw pointed out, “Some countries, organisations and groups that fall within the orbit of Iranian interests are behind the undeclared but well-orchestrated move to try to pressure Washington to cancel its decision to designate this group as a terrorist organisation, due to the fact that the decision tightly restricts the Houthis and their internal and external movements.”

Allaw did not rule out the presence of “wings within the Yemeni government that support the cancellation of the designation and want to continue exploiting the conflict for their personal interests, and have for years expressed a stance against the listing of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, and have in fact visited the US for this purpose, and this includes leaders in the legitimacy camp.”

He expected that “any request to review the designation decision will take a long time and will follow complicated procedures to address the reasons that necessitated the issuance of the decision, which are quite many, and the Houthis will not be able to abide by or implement them (…), and that the Arab coalition countries will exert pressure to maintain this decision valid.”

There are expectations that the new US administration’s stance on the Yemeni file will nudge closer to the European position that presses for an end to the war and pushes the concerned parties towards a political settlement based on the peace efforts of UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths.

While the European vision sees the Yemeni file as part of the dialogue with Iran and the implications of the nuclear deal, observers believe that the new US position on the Yemeni crisis and the means of its settlement are likely to be more complicated.

This settlement may take longer than expected, given the Biden administration’s general foreign policy orientations that still include many reservations about Tehran’s nuclear activities, and the connected concerns about protecting the security of Israel and Washington’s allies in the region.

Washington needs to reconcile its desire to end the war with the need to protect its interests and the strategic interests of its allies in the region in a way that curtails the expansion of Iranian influence.

US policy has wavered over the past few years between supporting Europe’s humanitarian vision and calling for political negotiations between the Yemeni parties, on the one hand, and supporting the Arab coalition on the political and military levels, on the other hand. But the coming period, Yemeni analysts say, may see a return to the basis of a settlement adopted by the administration of former President Barack Obama in its final stages.

This vision, which is expected to make a clearer come-back, centres on the initiative of Kerry, who has once again returned to the fore as a special envoy.

Informed political sources confirmed to The Arab Weekly that the proposals adopted by Kerry in 2016 during unannounced consultations in the Omani capital, Muscat, which at that time were rejected by the Arab coalition and Yemen internationally recognised government, were again included in Griffiths’ initiative known as the “Joint Declaration.”

The initiative includes confidence building and ceasefire mechanisms between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, as well as transitional period arrangements that Yemeni observers believe would grant the Houthi militias the right to keep their political and military gains and participate in running the state.

The Houthis have succeeded in exploiting Yemen’s humanitarian crisis to exert pressure on the international community, in addition to threatening to target Western interests in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait.

The latest Houthi signals in this direction came through the leader of the group, Mohammad Ali al-Houthi, who hinted at planning to disrupt international trade lanes in response to the group’s listing as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department.

Houthi wrote on Twitter, “We will study notifying the Supreme Political Council and the Yemeni government about considering the use of our sea lanes as territory belonging to the Republic of Yemen and that should be exploited as such.”