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Home/The State of the Union/A Malevolent Decision That Will Kill Countless Yemenis

A Malevolent Decision That Will Kill Countless Yemenis

Yemeni child eats ready-to-use therapeutic food bag in 2017. Credit: UNICEF/USAID/Flickr

The Trump administration is moving ahead with the disastrous decision to label the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization:

The Trump administration is preparing to designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi insurgents a terrorist organization before leaving office in January, fueling fears the move will disrupt international aid efforts and upend United Nations-brokered peace efforts between the Shiite movement and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, according to several diplomatic sources.

The U.N. and international relief agencies have tried to dissuade the Trump administration from designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization, but the apparently imminent decision would give U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo another victory in his anti-Iran strategy as he visits Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates this week. Riyadh, which has been at war with the Houthis for over five years, has already designated the Houthis a terrorist organization and has been urging Washington to do the same.

Parts of Yemen are already suffering from famine, and millions more could experience the same if this designation goes ahead. The effect that this decision will have on the civilian population is horrifying to contemplate. That is why international aid organizations, the U.N., and virtually everyone that has been following the conflict in Yemen have been pleading with the Trump administration not to do this. It would be an exceptionally cruel and destructive act, and it also makes no sense on the merits.

Scott Paul of Oxfam reacted to the news earlier tonight:

We cannot forget about the ongoing disaster that our government’s support for the war on Yemen has created, and with this terrorist designation the U.S. is set to make an already appalling humanitarian crisis so much worse. Because most of Yemen’s population lives in Houthi-controlled territory, and the Houthis function as the de facto government, a terrorist designation amounts to full-on economic warfare against the people of Yemen. The FTO designation is the harshest measure that Pompeo could choose, and it shows that he is aiming for causing maximum harm for its own sake.

Yemen was already suffering from a reduction in imports last year as a result of the mere discussion of a Houthi designation. According to the U.N. humanitarian aid chief, imports dropped by 25% in November when reports first started circulating that this might happen:

Mark Lowcock, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said food imports to the impoverished Arab country plummeted by a quarter in November after US media quoted officials as saying that President Donald Trump planned to label the Iran-aligned Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organisation before his term ended. Food import numbers had not improved in December, Mr Lowcock added.

Now that the designation is going to happen, imports into Yemen will collapse because of restrictions on doing business with anyone tied to the Houthis and because of overcompliance by businesses and banks.

The Foreign Policy report characterizes this as a “victory” for Pompeo’s “anti-Iran strategy,” but like all other so-called Pompeo victories this one is empty and comes at a high price in the blood and suffering of innocent people. Designating the Houthis doesn’t hurt Iran in the slightest, but it will kill countless innocent Yemeni civilians as outside aid and trade are cut off. We know from other sanctions regimes that it is the sick, the poor, children, and the elderly that suffer most from these policies. The Houthis may be inconvenienced, but the designation will only make them more determined to fight on and reject any possible compromise. By labeling them as terrorists, the U.S. will be making it practically impossible for other parties to the conflict to negotiate with them. The war that the Saudi coalition and its proxies cannot win by fighting will drag on to the detriment of all except for the extremists and jihadists that have flourished in the chaos of the last six years. It is one of the grim absurdities of current Yemen policy that helping the Saudis to wage war on the Houthis has only strengthened the jihadist groups that actually threaten U.S. interests, and now the Trump administration is labeling the Houthis as terrorists when they have never posed and cannot pose a threat to the U.S.

The Trump administration has been warned many times for months that this designation is a terrible mistake that will kill tens of thousands if it is allowed to stand. Their decision to press ahead with such a cruel policy when they know what it will do to the civilian population is nothing less than malevolent. The incoming Biden administration must reverse this decision as soon as possible to limit the damage, and they need to announce their intention to do so as soon as the designation is made.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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