Mohamad Bazzi (@BazziNYU) is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, where he was the lead writer on the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath. He is a non-resident fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
(CNN)In one of its final foreign policy acts before leaving office, the Trump administration is considering designating Yemen’s Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization. The move is part of President Donald Trump’s and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s campaign to impose more sanctions on Iran and its allies in the Middle East—and to create new hurdles that would make it difficult for the incoming Joe Biden administration to resume negotiations with Tehran.
Mohamad Bazzi But beyond the geopolitical maneuvering, this designation could prolong Yemen’s brutal civil war and drive millions of Yemenis into starvation. Yemen is already facing what UNICEF calls the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with around 80% of the population—more than 24 million people—needing food and other aid. On November 20, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warned that Yemen was “in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades.” He added, “In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost.” If the Trump administration goes ahead with designating the Houthi rebels as terrorists, the UN and many international humanitarian groups likely would stop delivering aid to Houthi-held territory in Yemen for fear of running afoul of the United States. The Houthis, who are allied with Iran, control major territory in Yemen that is home to 70% of the population, including the capital, Sana’a, its airport and a major seaport in the city of Hodeidah. Read More The Yemen war has been a complex conflict for years, but it escalated dramatically in September 2014 when the Houthi militia, whose base of support is in the country’s northwest, marched into the capital. The Houthis continued toward the southern city of Aden and forced Yemen’s internationally recognized government to flee to Saudi Arabia. By March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of Washington’s closest allies in the Arab world, intervened in the war with massive air strikes and a blockade of Houthi-controlled areas. The Saudis and Emiratis received weapons and intelligence support from the Obama administration. Biden's chief foreign policy appointment: his running mateSince taking office in 2017, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he wants to end US involvement in foreign wars, especially in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But that desire to extract the US from foreign conflicts hasn’t extended to Yemen, where the Trump administration has tried to appease Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have bought billions of dollars in US weapons. Trump’s policies prolonged the suffering of millions of Yemenis and fit into his administration’s obsession with countering Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Trump and his advisers blamed the war on Iran and its support for the Houthis, ignoring war crimes by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which could implicate US officials who continued to sell weapons to the two allies. (The Saudi-led coalition insists that it has not committed war crimes in Yemen, but its internal investigations were found lacking by human rights groups. In September, a panel of UN experts found that all sides in the conflict, including the Houthis, were implicated in potential war crimes.) Trump’s policy also ignored the fact that Iran stepped up its support to the Houthis after Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened in Yemen’s civil war. Despite international criticism and growing evidence of war crimes, Trump continued to support Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is a major proponent of the Yemen war. In 2019, Trump used his veto power four times to prevent Congress from ending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies.The terrorism designation is another misguided Trump administration policy that would add to the misery of millions of Yemenis. Beyond the moral reasons for Washington to help end Yemenis’ suffering, the US should be pushing the Houthis and their opponents to reach a peace deal that would ultimately reduce tensions between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization is likely to make the group more intransigent and to drive it closer to Iran. Even without the terrorism designation, food, medicine and other aid to Yemen has been slowed not only by the war, but also by crippled infrastructure and Houthi attempts to levy a tax on international aid. Because of constraints imposed by the Houthis on humanitarian work, Washington has already cut nearly half of its assistance to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen this year. In 2019, US aid amounted to more than $700 million. Joe Biden faces a key decision on Venezuela The UN also decreased its food rations to millions of Yemenis because of reduced aid from the US and other donors. If the terrorism designation is finalized, Washington would immediately stop its remaining aid to Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen. US citizens or companies can be prosecuted for providing “material support or resources” to a group that is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Foreign individuals and organizations who deal with a designated group can also face US economic sanctions and possible prosecution. The State Department could issue exemptions that enable government agencies to continue operating in Yemen, while the Treasury Department could issue licenses that allow Americans and other individuals to deliver aid to Houthi-controlled areas, without running afoul of US sanctions. But these waivers could take months to prepare, creating delays in delivering food and other aid needed to stave off famine in many parts of Yemen. A terrorist designation would also have a ripple effect beyond hampering the work of UN and humanitarian groups: it would dissuade insurance, commercial shipping and trade firms from operating in Yemen because they be would afraid of violating US laws. As a result, it would become far more difficult and expensive to ship crucial supplies into Yemen, which is almost entirely reliant on imported food. The threat of sanctions or US prosecution could also devastate shipments of medical aid and other supplies intended to shore up a healthcare system that has been devastated by years of war and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic. The new secretary of state in the Biden administration could revoke the terrorism designation against the Houthis, but the process is cumbersome and could take months. It’s also unlikely to be a top priority of the new administration, which could be worried about being portrayed as “soft” on terrorism. Get our free weekly newsletter
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The full scope of suffering in Yemen has gone partly unnoticed because of an unreliable death toll. In early 2017, the UN largely stopped updating its estimate of civilian deaths when the toll reached 10,000. In October 2019, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, an independent monitoring group, issued a report detailing more than 100,000 deaths since the war began in 2015. On December 1, a UN agency provided a far higher estimate, saying that 233,000 had been killed. That projection includes 131,000 deaths from “indirect causes,” such as food shortages, damage to Yemen’s infrastructure and health crises like a years-long cholera epidemic.If the Trump administration goes ahead with its plan to designate the Houthi militia as a terrorist organization, Yemen will suffer more severe food and medicine shortages. That will lead to more hunger, disease and misery—and more deaths from indirect but ultimately preventable causes.