One year ago, the U.S. State Department removed the terrorist designation from the Houthi rebels who are fighting a civil war in Yemen. The move reversed the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation of the Houthis imposed late in the Trump administration. The change was explained by Secretary of State Antony Blinken as necessary to ensure the continuation of humanitarian aid into Yemen. Although the U.S. move was supported by some international aid organizations and had some bipartisan support in Congress, others felt it was a mistake.
Last week, amid heightened concerns over escalating Houthi terror activity, including a drone and missile attack on the United Arab Emirates, President Joe Biden suggested that he was considering reinstating the Houthi FTO designation. The UAE is a key U.S. ally and a partner in the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war against the Houthis, themselves backed by regional rival Iran.
The Houthis are, and have always been, a terror organization. For proof, one need go no further than the Houthi motto: “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.” Like the hurried, stumbling U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the error of the administration’s Houthi “redesignation” idea should have been apparent from the outset. And the wishful thinking of a meaningful humanitarian payoff naively seemed to rely on Houthi goodwill and appreciation for U.S. generosity – which never happened.
The increasingly fraught situation in Yemen has generated bipartisan frustration in Congress. And that’s the thrust of a letter 14 Republicans and three Democrats sent to Biden last week, asking that the Houthi terrorist designation be reinstated. The letter urged the move, noting the importance of the strategic alliance with UAE and the need for the United States to “reiterate our commitment.”
While we support the reinstatement of the FTO designation on the Houthis, we cannot ignore the possible impact of the move. Aid groups have expressed concern that the terror redesignation and resulting cut-off of relief funding could have a very serious impact on millions of Yeminis who are on the brink of starvation. But it isn’t at all clear that current relief efforts were actually being distributed widely and fairly by the Houthis. Indeed, most agree they were not.
The Yemen crisis will not be solved based upon the proper designation of the Houthis. And the path toward peaceful resolution in Yemen is not at all clear. But mounting concern about Houthi aggression and Iran-backed terror has prompted increased engagement, discussion and possible cooperative regional anti-terror activity and security cooperation between the UAE and Israel. Those promising prospects were spearheaded by multiple engagement efforts between Israeli and Emirati leadership over the past several weeks.
The Biden administration should correct its mistake regarding the Houthi designation along with whatever steps need be taken with the reinstatement of the Houthi FTO status, and do what it can to encourage and help cultivate the seeds of security cooperation among those in the region who are the immediate targets of Iran-funded terror.