On January 19, 2021, the administration of US President Donald Trump designated the Houthi group as a foreign terrorist organization. One month later, the Administration of President Joe Biden announced that it has officially revoked this designation as of February 16, 2021. However, Washington kept sanctions on three of the Houthi leaders. This paper reviews contexts of the American move, discusses messages intended to all parties involved in the Yemeni conflict, and analyzes the outcomes and reverberations of this move in the Yemeni landscape.

Background and context

The decision to revoke the Houthi’s designation as a terrorist organization is part of a review by the Biden administration of American policy in the Middle East. The new American administration has adopted a policy based on playing a bigger role in the region by using diplomacy and soft power. Samuel Werberg, the Regional Spokesperson at the US State Department, said to “Sky News Arabia” on Feb. 11, 2021 that the US is moving on all regional issues but the Yemeni issue is on the top of its priorities.

Washington says that it will adopt a bilateral approach that includes providing humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people and end conflict in Yemen through a negotiated peaceful settlement. The second track is based on a strong belief that there is no military solution to this conflict.

The decision to revoke the Houthis designation as a terrorist organization coincided with other steps such as an end to American support and intelligence sharing for offensive operations by the Arab Coalition in Yemen and the appointment of Timothy Lenderking as US Special Envoy for Yemen.

However, it seems that the decision to revoke the Houthi designation is not part of an independent and specific American plan to deal with the Yemeni issue. According to statements by President Biden, Lenderking and the State Department the US role is limited to support the UN initiative and any other efforts to end the war and bring concerned parties together.

Messages sent by the American decision

  • Mohammad Ali Houthi, one of the Houthi movement’s leaders, said on Feb. 12, 2021 on Twitter that Washington’s step is a recognition of the validity of the group’s position and the legitimacy of its war. More importantly, however, is that the Houthis and their Iranian backers think that the American move was the result of their military perseverance and a reflection of their superiority in the field. Moreover, the two sides understood such measure as an indication of the new American administration’s soft position towards them and bias against Saudi Arabia and its allies. Based on these messages, the Houthis considered the decision to revoke their designation as a terrorist organization a victory for them and a defeat for their opponents. Such messages enhance Houthis conviction that force is the key factor. This does not only make the Houthis more obstinate towards peace efforts but also encourages them to escalate militarily.
  • As for US allies, the decision by the new American administration showed that Washington does not take threats by the Houthis and Iran seriously, rather it is lenient towards the two. The American decision will add some chill to Washington’s ties with its regional allies and put those allies in a state of anxiety and apprehension towards the Biden administration’s policies. The Biden administration realizes the frustration and concerns by its allies in the Arabian Gulf as a result of such messages. Therefore, senior officials in the American administration, including President Biden himself keep reiterating that they realize Iran’s negative role and Washington’s commitment to protect its allies.
  • Such a step leaves the impression that the new American administration is confused and lacks the ability to understand reality and make sound assessments. The Biden administration has justified its decision by arguing that the designation of Houthis as a terrorist organization will affect the humanitarian situation in Yemen. Such concerns, however, are overestimated and reflect a misunderstanding of what is happening in Yemen because the Houthis are responsible for the humanitarian crisis in the country. The Houthi movement has not cooperated properly with global efforts to confront this crisis. The UN group of experts on Yemen had accused the Houthis of manipulating, confiscating and diverting humanitarian aid and using it as a political tool by giving it to their supporters or to attract new supporters. Moreover, the UN warns that the Houthis attack on Marib threatens to displace more than 1 million people. Revoking the Houthi designation without receiving anything in return raises the question about the efficiency of decision-making in this administration. In addition, revoking the designation of Houthis sends a message that Biden might return to Obama’s hesitant and weak policy. According to the Washington Post, Biden’s critics in Washington are already recycling their Obama-era attacks of appeasement and weakness.

Consequences of revoking the designation on the Yemeni crisis

1. Political track

A number of analysts and politicians think that the Biden’s administration revoking of the terrorist designation for Houthis is an important step or at least useful to end the conflict in Yemen. This view is strongly shared by the UN envoy to Yemen who and the UN have opposed the Trump administration’s decision at the time. There was active American diplomacy in Riyadh and a number of regional capitals and the appointment of a special American envoy to Yemen in the wake of Washington’s announcement of its intention to revoke the designation. Lenderking and US Ambassador to Yemen Christopher Henzel met with Saudi, Yemeni and Omani officials. Lenderking also met with UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths. There were also reports that Lenderking met in Muscat with the head of the Houthi’s negotiating team.

“We do have ways of getting messages to the Houthis and we are using those channels very aggressively,” Lenderking told a State Department briefing mid-February. There are also reports that Washington is using Oman and Qatar as two channels to communicate with the Houthis. In an interview with American Channel “PBS”, Lenderking said the Houthis “have sent messages indicating that they are prepared to do the heavy lifting for peace.”

Some sources in Sana’a suggested that the Houthis are working on amending or developing a peace initiative they have already proposed. However, there is no confirmation by this group in this regard or whether they are just trying to respond to any proposals they have received in this regard either.

And yet, until now, there has been no evidence to suggest that the U.S step and subsequent movements had positively affected the progress on the political track. On the contrary, the U.S move has not been positively received by the Houthis as they have interpreted it as a kind of appeasement to them. This, in fact, has emboldened them to seek more concessions and have become even more entrenched regarding return to the negotiating table. Even though, the Houthis regarded the U.S decision on the revocation of the designation of the group as a terrorist organization as a positive step for peace, and suggested that they would positively deal with it and other similar steps. They also requested that the war should be ended and siege against the country should be lifted. Another sign of the Houthis’ increasing tougher stance was when Griffiths announced the failure of the latest round of negotiations for prisoner exchange between the Houthis and the Yemeni government in Jordan’s capital, Amman. That failure was due to the Houthis’ refusal to include some journalists and political figures detained in the group’s prisons in the exchange lists.

2. Military track

Not only has Biden Administration’s decision to revoke the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization encouraged the group and frustrated its opponents, but has also contributed to the escalation of military activities and hostilities in the country. As much as the Houthis regarded Washington’s decision to remove the group from its list of terrorist organizations, and to stop the support for the Saudi-led military campaign in the country as a victory for them, they saw in that decision a good chance to enhance their gains on the ground. The U.S move has emboldened them to intensify their military operations. The Houthis’ launched their largest and fiercest military attack to seize Marib and intensified its attacks against Saudi Arabia as well in the wake of Washington’s step.

The Houthis have probably felt a serious international orientation towards peace in Yemen particularly after the EU’ decision that called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. Therefore, they simply wanted to go to the negotiating table with a more favorable position with Marib under their control. They also wanted to escalate further to enhance the U.S belief that there is no military solution to the Yemeni conflict, and shake Washington’s trust in Saudi Arabia and its allies’ military capabilities.

In contrast, as much as Saudi Arabia and its allies needed more pressure on the Houthis to make up the moral damage caused by Washington’s latest decision, they were forced to face the Houthi’s military escalation. Today, there are more Arab air assets involved in the battles in Yemen, as Saudi Arabia continues to launch land and air attacks against Houthi targets in Sa’ada in North Yemen where fighting has stopped relatively for a long period of time. “Despite this, we will still deal with the Houthi militia as a terrorist organization and address its threats with military action," said Abdullah Al-Mouallimi, the kingdom's permanent representative to the United Nations. Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman reiterated (on Twitter on 18 February 2021) the kingdom’s firm support for Yemen’s legitimacy politically and militarily in the fight against the Houthi militias on all battlefronts.

What is next for Washington?

As yet, Washington has not had a plan to compensate for the loss of the card of designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization that could have been used as a bargaining chip and a pressure card on the Houthis. Washington does not even seem to have a plan to take advantage of that decision to reduce tensions and military escalation in the country either. At best, it seemed to be merely a gesture of good well designed to encourage the Houthis to join peace negotiations.

While the U.S administration reaffirmed that it would closely monitor the Houthi activities, keep up pressures on the group’s leadership, and set new goals for the sanctions imposed on it, Washington does not seem to have an answer to what it will do if the group continues to escalate the situation, threaten maritime navigation, and undermine the political process. The U.S special envoy for Yemen, Lenderking, shied away from directly answering what alternative paths the US could pursue if the Houthis refuse to halt their violations. However, there are doubts that the Biden administration will go so far as to take the necessary action in this regard as this is already reflected on its position on the Houthi continued attack on Marib. Washington has only denounced that attack, considering it as a noncompliance with peace and violation to efforts to end war, and calling on the Houthis to stop all military operations. And yet, and after the U.S statement, the Houthis reaffirmed their escalation of military actions “until the liberation of every square inch” of their occupied lands, as they put it.

It is still unclear how the Biden administration can address the overlap between Iran’s question and the Yemeni conflict. Tehran won’t allow the U.S decision revoking the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization to have a positive impact and soften the group’s stance in the future as Tehran tends to use Yemen’s war as a bargaining chip in any potential negotiations with the U.S. It needs the Houthis to keep adopting a tough stance on peace and continue their missile and drones’ attacks as a means of pressure to lift sanctions imposed on their backer, Iran.

Conclusions

  • Washington’s decision to revoke the designation of the Houthi group as a terrorist organization came within the contexts of a new U.S approach to Yemen’s issue. The Biden administration suggests that this new approach is based on two tracks: provision of humanitarian aid and the end of the conflict through a negotiated settlement by supporting relevant U.N peace efforts. However, the U.S move has not yet positively reflected on the ongoing peace process in the country. On the contrary, it has helped the renewal of military escalation. This absolutely came as a result of the messages that decision has already signaled to the various parties to the conflict. According to observers, the decision has shown the U.S leniency towards the Houthis and their Iranian supporters and bias against Saudi Arabia and its allies.
  • It seems that the Biden administration has not carefully considered the outcomes of such a step nor has it based the initiative on a plan to serve the political process and end of military escalation. Moreover, there is, as yet, no clear vision of the approach the U.S should pursue if the Houthis choose to continue military escalation and refuse to join peace talks. It is difficult to expect much from this administration should it continue pursuing the Obama administration’s reluctant and weak policy in Yemen. The final conclusion of this paper is that the U.S step has made the Yemeni landscape more complicated than ever, and made the position of internationally-recognized government even harder.

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