The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it is redesignating Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, while pledging to minimize harm to civilians in Yemen. The move comes amid an alarming rise in Houthi attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, prompting U.S. strikes on Houthi military facilities.
Escalating Houthi Attacks Prompt U.S. Action
On Monday, the U.S. launched retaliatory strikes on three Houthi military facilities after two remote-controlled boats filled with explosives targeted a commercial ship off the coast of Yemen over the weekend. While the ship suffered only minor damage, U.S. officials warned it could have been disastrous.
Over the past several months, the Iran-backed Houthis have stepped up drone and missile attacks on both military and commercial vessels sailing in the Red Sea near the coast of Yemen. According to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, there have been over 275 reported maritime incidents in the Red Sea area in the past year alone.
“These are some of the most serious attacks we’ve seen, and show clear contempt for commercial shipping and international norms,” said Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh on Monday.
|Reported Maritime Incidents
*Table shows number of reported maritime incidents in the Red Sea per month over the past year. Data source: White House Press Secretary
Biden Administration Redesignates Houthis as Terrorists
Citing the need to “deter further egregious terrorist acts that undermine the stability of the region,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Tuesday that Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthi rebel group, would again be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
The Trump administration first labeled the Houthis as terrorists during its final days in office in 2021. The Biden administration had reversed that designation, citing humanitarian concerns. However, ongoing attacks on civilians and commercial interests have prompted the White House to rethink that decision.
“The profoundly troubling developments stemming from Ansar Allah’s terrorist acts leave no doubt that this group deserves the heightened attention afforded to terrorist organizations,” said Blinken in a statement Tuesday.
While the terrorist designation does not directly authorize military force, it does allow the U.S. to impose sanctions on the group in an effort to cut off financial and material support. The U.S. Treasury Department has already announced sanctions on several companies accused of providing support to the Houthis.
Concerns Over Humanitarian Impact
Even as it promises continued strikes on Houthi military assets, the Biden administration insists that it remains committed to supporting the people of Yemen. The country has faced an unprecedented humanitarian crisis over 8 years of civil war between the Houthis and Yemen’s internationally-recognized government.
U.S. officials have pledged that newly announced sanctions will seek to minimize harm to civilians, even as the terrorist designation threatens to hamper aid groups’ work in Houthi-controlled areas. Several prominent humanitarian organizations have already expressed deep concern over the move.
“Any disruption to lifesaving aid operations and commercial imports could be measured in Yemeni lives lost,” said David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee.
With over 80% of Yemen’s population reliant on some form of humanitarian assistance, even small disruptions in aid could have catastrophic effects. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has announced the creation of a “white list” to exempt key imports and aid groups from restrictions, but logistical complications remain likely.
Source: USAID Press Release, January 2024
|2021 Total Aid
|2022 Total Aid
|2023 Projected Aid
|Water, Sanitation and Hygiene
|Shelter and Relief Items
What Comes Next
While the Biden administration continues to stress that its actions are focused on deterring Houthi attacks, some analysts warn that the terrorist designation and retaliatory strikes could instead escalate the conflict.
Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yehia Sare’e has already vowed to respond to U.S. strikes with “prompt and appropriate” measures. With Houthi forces in control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa along with large portions of the country, opportunities for dangerous confrontation remain.
There is also concern that the latest moves against the Houthis may derail slow-moving negotiations to extend an existing truce between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia originally brokered by the UN in April 2022. That fragile truce has led to a 60% decrease in casualties in Yemen. Allowing it to unravel could unleash even worse violence, experts say.
Ultimately, while the U.S. actions against Houthi forces may bring a temporary lull in attacks, finding a political solution to the underlying conflict will be key to securing lasting stability and averting further humanitarian disaster. But after years of stalemate, peace still remains elusive.
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