By Isaac Schorr
Allah is Greater, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.”
So goes the slogan of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Founded in the 1990s by Shia Muslims incensed at U.S. and Saudi interference in the country, the Houthis — officially Ansar Allah, or “Supporters of God” — have been at war with the Saudi-backed Yemeni government since 2014. They’ve held the capital city of Sana’a since 2015, and today the territory they control houses 80 percent of the country’s population.
The Houthis claim to be fighting for a republic that will safeguard the rights and interests of the Yemeni people; a spokesman once declared that “Ansar Allah supports the establishment of a civil state in Yemen. We want to build a striving modern democracy.” Of their slogan, another spokesman explained, “We do not really want death to anyone. The slogan is simply against the interference of those [American and Israeli] governments.”
But their actions tell quite a different story. The group is known for indiscriminately firing rockets into populated neighborhoods in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which has backed the Yemeni government and is responsible for myriad abuses itself over the course of the conflict. Arbitrary detainment, forced disappearances, and torture have all been major parts of the Houthi playbook, and journalists, human-rights activists, and religious minorities have been the most common victims. Harassment and persecution by the Houthis and their allies have led to the near-extinction of the small Yemeni Jewish community; some of its members have fled while others have been forced to leave. Yemeni Bahá’ís have been arrested and convicted on charges of apostasy. Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi movement, has called them “satanic,” and like the Jews, they have been pushed out of the country. And while both sides of the Yemeni civil war have conscripted children, Human Rights Watch notes that around two-thirds of child-soldiers in the conflict have fought for the Houthis, some of them as young as eleven years old.
It is true that the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis is guilty of its own serious human-rights abuses. No party is innocent in this conflict, which has had devastating results: According to the United Nations, 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the war-torn country, half of whom are children, and 233,000 more have perished since the war began in earnest in 2014. What’s more, there are legitimate debates to be had over whether the United States should be involved at all, and if so to what extent. Even some Republicans broke with the Trump administration over its support of the Saudis, which has come in the form of arms sales and intelligence-sharing efforts.
Yet the Houthis’ record clearly justifies Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to designate them a foreign-terrorist organization last month, and none of the legitimate misgivings about U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war excuse the Biden administration’s move to rescind the designation.
In a speech at the State Department last Thursday, Biden signaled a less hands-on approach to the conflict. “We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” he announced. An anonymous administration official confirmed that this would also mean “terminating our intelligence sharing arrangement with Saudi Arabia regarding the war in Yemen.”
Given the dynamics of Yemen’s civil war, the new president’s stance is not altogether unjustifiable. The U.S.’s support for the Saudi-led coalition represents a liability to its image as a moral leader, and much more importantly to its deservingness of that image. But it’s also undeniable that one side of the war will eventually prevail, and that the U.S. and its allies in the region have a strong interest in ensuring that the Houthis are defeated. Giving Iran what Hudson Institute senior fellow Mike Doran calls “a perch on the Red Sea” and access to the Suez Canal is a recipe for regional instability. Moreover, the Yemeni people themselves will be better off if the Saudi coalition wins out, as a Houthi victory would likely provoke longer-term conflict and inflict more suffering on the population.
Setting aside the question of U.S. involvement, though, Biden’s decision to withdraw the foreign-terrorist designation Pompeo placed on the Houthis is a flawed one. By virtue of their attacks on civilian targets in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the Houthis obviously qualify as a terrorist group, and it is worthwhile to call them what they are.
Within the foreign-policy establishment represented in bulk at institutions such as the New York Times and the U.N., the Trump administration’s decision to do just that was immediately panned as a ghastly mistake bound to have horrifying humanitarian consequences. The Times announced that the designation would “all but certainly worsen the devastation” of Yemen’s ongoing famine, while insisting that “it is not clear how [it] will inhibit the Houthi rebels.”
The former charge, based on the claim that the designation would “chill humanitarian efforts to donate food and medicine to Houthi-controlled areas in northern and western Yemen,” was puzzling, given that Trump administration announced humanitarian workarounds in its designation statement:
The U.S. Department of the Treasury is prepared to provide licenses pursuant to its authorities and corresponding guidance that relate to the official activities of the United States government in Yemen, including assistance programming that continues to be the largest of any donor and the official activities of certain international organizations such as the United Nations.
It should come as no surprise that the U.S., the largest provider of humanitarian aid to Yemen in 2020, would move to ensure that designating the Houthis a foreign-terrorist group didn’t halt the provision of such aid. But for those who seek to take pressure off of the Houthis as part of an effort to cozy the U.S. up to Iran and reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the humanitarian argument was a convenient excuse.
As for the idea that it’s not clear how the designation would inhibit the Houthis, why shouldn’t the group be “cut off from financial support and other material resources that are routed through U.S. banks or other American institutions,” as the Times put it? Even if the group’s main source of support, Iran, operates outside the American financial system, officially closing its access to the system can’t hurt. And as the State Department’s page on the foreign-terrorist organizations makes plain, the designation “supports our efforts to curb terrorism financing and to encourage other nations to do the same” by heightening global awareness of the problem and sending a clear message to our friends and foes alike about the U.S.’s position.
Refraining from calling the Houthis what they are — Iran-backed terrorists — serves no purpose except to push the Biden administration’s ill-advised Middle Eastern agenda. Balancing principle with realpolitik in foreign policy is tough work. In the case of the Yemeni civil war, it is doubly so. But President Biden’s retraction of the Trump administration’s designation is indefensible both strategically and morally.