A Peace-Maker’s Case for Designating the Houthis
When the facts change, it is incumbent on us to reconsider our opinions. In 2020, when the Trump administration designated the Houthi movement in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization, I raised my hand to object, penning a letter to then-Secretary Pompeo with a group of my colleagues . The letter, which was ultimately signed by nearly 100 former U.S. diplomats and military officers, argued that a designation would do little harm to the Houthis but would endanger the well-being of millions of innocent Yemeni civilians. Unfortunately, things have changed. The past year has demonstrated that the Houthis will not return to the negotiating table until they accept that there is no alternative to a political resolution.
The civil war in Yemen is well into its eighth year with no end in sight. It is imperative that the United Nations, with the United States and other key powers in support, do more to end the suffering and begin the long process of rebuilding and reconstructing Yemen. But that work cannot begin until there is a common understanding of what the obstacles are to achieving a peaceful resolution. In particular, what tools can and should the United States use to pressure the Houthis and overcome their resistance to negotiations?
Unfortunately, much of the recent analysis in Washington misinterprets the facts on the ground as well as the state of efforts needed to end the conflict. In a particularly ill-timed report, Bruce Riedel asserted that, “the Houthis have won the war in Yemen, defeating their opponents in the civil war, the Saudis who intervened in the war against them, and the United States, which backed the Saudis.” Unfortunately, the article came out nearly simultaneously with reports that the Houthis had suffered a significant military defeat in Shabwa governorate and were losing ground in the strategically important Marib governorate. Their “victory” in the conflict is far from decided. Nor should the United States view with equanimity the potential for a Houthi military victory. As a member of Iran’s “axis of resistance,” uncontested Houthi control of Yemen would pose an enduring challenge not only to the well-being of the Yemeni people but also to vital U.S. interests, including stability in the Arabian Peninsula, freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb, and even to Israeli security as the Houthis expand their missile and drone capabilities to reach as far as southern Israel.
Similarly, Daniel Kurtzer and Merlin Boone argued
[T]he United States and the United Nations need to intensify engagement with the Houthis that demonstrates the resolve to prevent a Houthi takeover of Yemen, on the one hand, but a willingness to include the Houthis in a political settlement process, on the other.
Strikingly, they call for eliminating all other Yemeni parties to the conflict from the negotiations, leaving the Houthis and Saudi Arabia as the only “key stakeholders and primary warring parties within the diplomatic process.” In doing so, Kurtzer and Boone mischaracterize the nature of the civil war and ignore the Biden administration’s efforts to engage the Houthis, while also denying agency to all non-Houthi Yemeni factions in determining the future of their state and society.
Undoubtedly, the fundamental requirement and central aim of U.S. policy remains bringing the Yemeni parties to the conflict back to the table to negotiate a peaceful end to this devastating war. Thus, there was broad support for President Joe Biden’s early announcement that U.S. policy would emphasize diplomatic engagement and support for the U.N.-led negotiating process, while urging an end to the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive military operations in Yemen. Despite the hopes that this new diplomatic push would yield a positive outcome, it did not. Since the president’s announcement, Riyadh has consistently announced it was prepared for a ceasefire to and support the U.N. diplomatic initiative. By contrast, the Houthis have used the intervening year to double-down on their military aggression within Yemen, particularly in the strategically vital Marib governorate and neighboring regions. Beyond that, the Houthis have used missiles and drones provided by Iran to target civilian facilities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as to engage in piracy in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb. The recent military setbacks inflicted on the Houthis in their campaign in Yemen have led them to lash out even more aggressively against those, especially the United Arab Emirates, who they see as responsible for their military failures.
Clearly, the party that has steadfastly refused to pursue a path of peace over the past year is the Houthis. Unfortunately, the United States has few tools available to influence the Houthi position. There is no option for U.S. direct military engagement in the conflict, nor should anyone advocate such a strategy. While U.S. special envoy Tim Lenderking and U.N. special envoy Hans Grundberg have met with Houthi representatives in Oman, seeking to incentivize their return to the negotiating table, these discussions have not produced a positive result. It’s clear that the Houthi interlocutors sitting in Muscat have little influence over senior Houthi decision-makers who are located in the capital, Sana’a, or in the Houthi homeland in Sa’ada. The real Houthi powerbrokers and decision-makers are beyond the reach of international negotiators.
Recent reports have surfaced that the Biden administration is considering restoring the designation of the Yemeni Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization. This news has stirred familiar concerns and opposition among humanitarian organizations and many commentators, who argue that designation will do little to harm the Houthis, who neither travel nor have financial interests outside of Yemen, but will threaten potentially millions of innocent Yemenis who depend on relief agencies and legitimate enterprises whose operations may be paralyzed by a designation. Indeed, these are serious concerns which I raised myself in the letter to Pompeo nearly two years ago.
But, in the absence of other viable options to pressure the Houthis to abandon their military campaign and seek a peaceful, political outcome to the war, it would be foolhardy not to consider the possible use of a terrorist designation as a tool in America’s kit. The Trump administration’s 11th hour decision to designate the Houthis was scattershot and done with scant regard to the potential for collateral damage. The Biden administration need not repeat those errors. If the administration decides to pursue the option, it should discuss the terms of the designation with international humanitarian organizations, banks, commercial enterprises, and others who might be affected by it to ensure that it’s crafted in a way to minimize unintended consequences. While the designation would still lack tangible, immediate effect on Houthi leadership, it would nevertheless send a powerful, symbolic message that delegitimizes the Houthi movement as a participant in Yemen’s political future. Moreover, with the United Arab Emirates having taken a seat as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. should use the opportunity to bring the issue to the United Nations and seek broad international condemnation of the Houthi destructive campaign. Such an international statement would be much harder for the Houthis or their patrons in Tehran to ignore.
There is no debate either in Yemen or in the international community, that the Yemen conflict must be brought to a peaceful conclusion through a negotiating process. Moreover, the international community can play a helpful role in achieving that objective. But the starting point has to be a willingness to recognize the basic facts on the ground. That means addressing specifically, and with the tools that we have, the issue of Houthi intransigence and resistance to negotiation.
Gerald Feierstein is senior vice president and distinguished senior fellow for diplomatic engagement at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, Feierstein was a career foreign service officer and served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013.