Only nine days before the end of the administration of US President Donald Trump, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Ansar Allah (Supporters of God) Houthi group in Yemen has been designated a "foreign terrorist organization" (FTO). While the Democratic President Joe Biden's administration has confirmed that it would directly review this decision, announcing in the last week of January 2021 that it would suspend "temporarily", and for a period of one month, some sanctions imposed on the group, the inclusion of the Houthis in the list of terrorism, and not removing them from it soon, would cast a shadow over the stalled political solution course in Yemen.

Expected repercussions for the course of the political solution

Following the announcement of the Houthis' designation as a "terrorist organization", serious concerns were raised about the possibility that the designation would have negative consequences for the peace process in Yemen, and that it might hinder United Nations (UN) mediation efforts and endeavours, given that it might push the Houthis away, make their positions more hard-line, and make negotiations and reaching understandings with them more difficult. Those concerns are also related to the legal impediments that this designation would create for the work of the peace mediators. With the restrictions that the designation would impose on material support, for example, providing negotiators with any facilities or services such as transportation and housing would become difficult, requiring special arrangements. If the effects of the US decision continue, it would be difficult to involve a group that is designated a “terrorist organization” in any government that would be established pursuant to any peace agreement later on. However, according to some analysts, some of those concerns are unrealistic, and others can be overcome. According to those analysts, the Houthi hard line towards peace is essentially existing, and it is not conceivable that the Houthis would go in their reaction as far as blocking all channels of communication with the world and refuse the negotiation and mediations. Besides, such a designation eventually remains an essentially political designation that can be adapted in such a way that it would not prevent the work of mediators or stop peace efforts. This was evidenced by the UN announcement on 24 January 2021 that the committee concerned with following up the implementation of the agreement to exchange prisoners and detainees between the Yemeni government, which is supported by the Arab Coalition, and the Ansar Allah group, has resumed its meetings in Jordan.

On the other hand, this designation may eventually be reconsidered by the US, which has already been announced by the Joe Biden administration. This may be one of the results of any approach to conclude a peace agreement in Yemen. Realistically, states often hold talks with entities designated as terrorist organizations. This is what happened, for example, with the Afghan Taliban Movement, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the US. On the other hand, this designation may give more power to the UN, given that it may enable the UN to propose negotiation to cancel the designation in exchange for political and military concessions by the Houthis.

Contrary to those fears, there is a chance that this designation would  serve the stalled political track in Yemen. Under the pressures of its negative results, the Houthis may find themselves motivated to reconsider their positions and make concessions. However, reaching this result would not happen automatically, being contingent on the change by the Houthis of their perception of the balance of power. So far, they believe that their opponents are about to collapse and surrender, and that confronting their opponents and the US only requires some resilience. They refer for the guaranteed results of resilience and resistance to Washington’s ultimate submission to negotiations with the Taliban after two decades of confrontation. A change in their said perception requires that the designation be accompanied by or result in some losses and some field and political pressures on them.

Strengthening the status of the legitimate government

The Yemeni internationally recognised government viewed this designation as a great political and moral victory for itself and for the Coalition to Support Legitimacy, and therefore declared that it welcomes the designation. It is believed in the government circles that its political position will become better with this designation, and that the designation would serve to weaken the international community's pressure on it, leading it to have a stronger negotiating position.

Accordingly, the Yemeni government considers itself the first beneficiary of this designation which constitutes a re-affirmation of its position as the only legitimate authority in the country. It would also strengthen its legitimacy internally and externally in the face of the Houthis, especially after the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement and the formation of the power-sharing government. It would also limit the serious deterioration of its popularity and serve to curb internal disputes, given that it constitutes a development in the US and international position and a re-recognition of the threat posed by the Houthis to regional security.

Weakening the Houthi group

From the very first moment, the US designation placed the Houthis in a weaker political position, causing them many losses. Therefore, it is natural that they expressed their objection to it and strongly attacked it. At the domestic level, continuing to designate them as a terrorist group would render them a less attractive political party that has no political feasibility in the long run. It would also embarrass their relationship with the social, political and economic actors and entities, especially those with external interests and dealings. Furthermore, it would contribute to the growth of a negative public mood towards them, and give important moral boost to their opponents and to people in the silent street who do not agree with them yet cannot stand up to them. However, their authority and the way they manage the country are not expected to be affected much, not only because of their power, but also because of the isolation in which they and the country in general live.

At the external level, their international isolation is expected to exacerbate and their activities in this regard is expected to become more complicated, even if the peace endeavours and the desire of the international community to end the conflict serve to reduce this isolation. Given Washington’s influence and power as the first global power, and the overlap of interests therewith, its decision may affect, to one degree or another, the positions of members of the international community, governmental and non-governmental, given that these would eventually find it embarrassing, and perhaps risky, to deal with a group that is designated by the US as a terrorist organization, especially if the Houthis demonstrate intransigence towards peace, and more importantly, if they seek to threaten international navigation and endanger international peace and security. This may convince the international powers influential in the Yemeni issue, for example, of the need to exert more pressure on the group and threaten to impose additional sanctions on it. In another related finding, this designation would undermine any plans by the Houthis to convert their authority over the areas they control into some kind of internationally recognised status.

In the context of their relationship with Iran, the Houthis, who enjoy a relative margin of independence from Tehran compared to the rest of the entities and groups associated with it, would find themselves forced to approach it and rely more on it. Tehran in turn would find in the developments an opportunity to increase its influence on the group and push it to adopt more radical approaches. However, Tehran may, on the other hand, face financial and political burdens due to this designation at a time when it suffers from a difficult economic situation, especially if matters end up affecting the group's resources and external dealings, or if it has to face obligations that exceed its capabilities. On the other hand, this designation is expected to limit the ability of other regional parties sympathetic to the Houthis to provide their facilities and services to them, and to provide them with media support at the same pace as before.

Conclusion

  • There are serious concerns that the designation by the US of the Houthi group as a "foreign terrorist organization" would have negative consequences for the political settlement process in Yemen, given that it might push the Houthis to radicalise more and hinder the UN mediation efforts. Those concerns are related to what this designation would create in terms of legal obstacles to the work of international mediators. However, some of those concerns may not be realistic, and others can be overcome. The Houthi hard line towards peace is essentially existing. Besides, such a designation eventually remains essentially political, and can be adapted in such a way so that it would not prevent the work of mediators. The Biden administration may reconsider this designation completely, which may lead to pushing the stalled peace process in Yemen forward.
  • While the legitimate Yemeni government believes that this designation constitutes a great political and moral victory for it, that its position at the international level would thus become better, and that the designation would eventually put it in a stronger negotiating position in the future, this designation is expected to put the Houthis in a weaker position, and cause them many losses internally and externally. Internally, it would make them a less attractive political party and would confuse their relationship with the social, political and economic personalities and entities, especially those with external interests and dealings. Externally, their international isolation would exacerbate and their activities become more complicated, even if the peace endeavours and the international community's desire to end the conflict serve to reduce this isolation. In the context of their relationship with Iran, Tehran would find in this development an opportunity to increase its influence over them, push them to adopt more militant trends, and bring them closer to it.
  • It seems that the administration of President Joe Biden has taken seriously the concerns of the UN and its organisations operating in Yemen about the consequences of designating the Houthi group a "foreign terrorist organization" for their humanitarian and relief efforts. That is why it recently announced that it would "exempt some transactions" in which the Houthis are involved from the sanctions resulting from their designation as a foreign terrorist organization. While such an approach is not a reversal of the Trump administration’s decision, it is consistent with the policy of reviewing the designation announced by the new administration. Certainly, the temporary exemption decision would push the UN and international organisations to double their efforts to pressure the Biden administration to cancel the designation decision permanently, although such a decision may ultimately be subject to more complicated political considerations.

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