On January 17, 2024, the Biden administration reignited tensions in Yemen, designating the Houthi rebel group as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” (SDGT). This move, reversing an earlier decision by the Biden administration itself, has drawn criticism from humanitarian groups and some foreign policy experts, while being praised by others who see it as a necessary step to curb Houthi attacks.
Shifting Sands in U.S. Policy
Just one month into his presidency in February 2021, President Biden revoked the Trump-era “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO) designation of the Houthis. This decision was made in recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, where millions of civilians are on the brink of famine due to the ongoing civil war. The FTO designation was seen as impeding the flow of essential aid to the country.
However, the Houthis have continued their offensive in recent months, launching attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, a vital shipping route. These attacks have raised concerns about the security of international trade and navigation. The Biden administration argues that the SDGT designation is a targeted measure aimed at deterring these attacks, while allowing humanitarian assistance to continue.
The Humanitarian Impact
The decision to designate the Houthis as terrorists has been met with criticism from humanitarian groups who argue that it will further complicate the already dire situation in Yemen. They warn that the designation could lead to sanctions that impede the delivery of aid and exacerbate the suffering of civilians.
“This designation will make it harder to get critical aid to millions of Yemenis who are on the brink of starvation,” warned Oxfam America’s senior humanitarian policy advisor, Abby Maxman. “It could also put aid workers at greater risk and limit their ability to operate in Houthi-controlled areas.”
Regional Dynamics and Escalating Tensions
The re-designation of the Houthis also comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region. Saudi Arabia, a US ally, is leading a coalition of Arab states in a military intervention against the Houthis in Yemen. The conflict has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, killing tens of thousands of civilians and displacing millions more.
Iran, which backs the Houthis, has condemned the US designation as “illegal” and warned that it will have “negative consequences” for the region. The move is also likely to complicate efforts to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Uncertain Path Forward
The Biden administration’s decision to designate the Houthis as terrorists is a high-stakes gamble. It remains to be seen whether this move will deter Houthi attacks or further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The long-term impact of this decision on the conflict and the broader regional dynamics is also uncertain.
- The distinction between the SDGT and FTO designations: While both designations carry significant consequences, the SDGT is generally considered to be more restrictive. It imposes broader sanctions on designated groups and individuals, including asset freezes and travel bans.
- The potential impact on US-Saudi relations: The Saudi-led coalition has been accused of war crimes in Yemen, and the US has faced criticism for its support of the coalition. The Houthis have also been accused of human rights abuses. The SDGT designation may further complicate relations between the US and Saudi Arabia.
- The role of the United Nations: The UN has been leading efforts to broker a ceasefire in Yemen and deliver humanitarian aid. The US decision to designate the Houthis as terrorists may complicate these efforts.
The situation in Yemen remains complex and volatile. The Biden administration’s decision to designate the Houthis as terrorists is a significant escalation that could have far-reaching consequences. It is important to continue to monitor the situation closely and to advocate for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.