The Biden administration plans to remove Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the list of foreign terrorist organizations as early as Friday in an attempt to reverse a last-minute move by the Trump administration and strengthen President Joe Biden’s new approach to the conflict in Yemen.
In mid-January, just days before Biden took office, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced President Trump’s intention to label the Iranian-backed Houthi movement in Yemen a “foreign terrorist organization”.
The Houthis, formerly known as Ansar Allah, are an armed rebel group led by Zaydi Shia (a minority in Shiite Islam) who have been waging a civil war against the Saudi Arabia-backed government of Yemen since 2014. This civil war turned into an international March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and some of its allies in the Gulf decided to intervene militarily in the civil war and wage war against the Houthis. Meanwhile, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional enemy, has supported the Houthis.
Critics said the move was an attempt by Pompeo to violate Iran by punishing one of its deputies and a caste in the incoming Biden government as it walked out the door, but Pompeo really seems to believe the decision was the right one.
Pompeo’s hopes are soon dashed.
NEW: The Biden administration will today announce the revocation of the FTO designation for the Houthis from two sources.
Reverses a last-minute move by the Trump administrator and could make it easier for humanitarian aid to reach those most at risk.
– Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) February 6, 2021
According to three people familiar with the decision, the Biden government will withdraw the designation of a foreign terrorist organization – known as the FTO – from the rebel group as part of its new strategy to deal with the Yemen war. Two of the sources said the State Department had officially notified Congress of its decision.
Speaking on Thursday, President Joe Biden said the US would seek an elusive diplomatic solution to the conflict that would require the Houthis to reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia, regional actors, and possibly the US.
The Biden administration then moved quickly to revoke the FTO label: It would be bad policy for the US to negotiate with a terrorist group.
But there is another reason: it might help Yemen’s most vulnerable. The war killed approximately 233,000 people, mainly from indirect reasons such as lack of food, water and health services, while an additional 24 million Yemenis need help to stay alive and fight off diseases like cholera.
Trump’s labeling of the Houthi rebels as terrorists made this aid difficult to deliver. Put simply, in order for aid groups to provide assistance, they would have to negotiate with Houthi members who control much of Yemen’s territory. However, US law essentially says that no aid organization can do business with terrorists, even when it comes to providing life-saving assistance to those in need
There is a workaround for the US to grant exemptions to certain aid teams, but the Trump administration hastened its decision before working on and implementing an effective plan.
With the removal of the FTO designation and the removal of the Houthis from the State Department’s list, non-governmental organizations will be able to resume operations without any hindrance.
“This decision has nothing to do with our view of the Houthis and their reprehensible behavior, including attacks on civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens,” a State Department official told me on condition of anonymity.
“Our action is entirely due to the humanitarian ramifications of this short-term appointment by the previous administration, which has since made it clear to the United Nations and humanitarian agencies that they would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” the official said, adding that the US remains committed to protecting Saudi Arabia from further Houthi attacks.
Activists and humanitarian groups praised the government’s decision.
“This purely counter-productive label had caused months of uncertainty as aid agencies, banks and importers of critical goods such as food and fuel remained in the air,” said Scott Paul, Policy Advocacy Director, Oxfam America. “As the Biden government has made clear, it is the humanitarian consequences of the designation, not the behavior of the de facto authorities, that justify this reversal.”
With the new policy, the Biden administration overturned a notable national security decision by Trump, set the US on the path to a diplomatic solution in Yemen, and potentially ensured thousands of Yemenis received the care they need.
It shows how fast Biden’s team is moving: in just two days, the new administration has triggered a significant change in America’s role in the Yemen war.
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