The U.S. will lift the designation that Yemen's Houthi rebels are a terrorist organization on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced, after humanitarian groups warned the legal label would all but halt aid into the war-torn country that has been teetering on the brink of famine.
The decision, which was first announced a week ago, is moving forward despite a wave of recent violence by Houthi forces, including an attack on an international airport in Saudi Arabia.
President Joe Biden has vowed to end the war in Yemen, where the Houthis toppled the government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their coalition. Starting under the Obama administration, the U.S. has supported that coalition with major arms sales, intelligence support, midair refueling and diplomatic cover despite accusations it has committed war crimes.
The Houthi rebels, increasingly backed by Iran, seized power in 2014 and now govern over some 80% of Yemeni civilians. Their forces have also been accused of breaking international law, including by stealing international food and medicinal aid, smuggling weapons into the country and attacking civilians, including in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
In a statement Friday, Blinken said he would reverse the 11th-hour move by the Trump administration in "recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen," where 24 million people rely on foreign aid to survive, according to aid groups. Years of fighting have caused sky-high inflation, food and medicine shortages, outbreaks of cholera, severe malnutrition, starvation and now a silent sweep of cases from the coronavirus pandemic -- altogether claiming an untold number of lives.
The United Nations warned Friday that up to 400,000 children could die of severe malnutrition in 2021 alone without urgent intervention, even as humanitarian assistance to the country continues to fall short of the level of need.
Despite those warnings, the Trump administration designated the Houthis, also known as Ansarallah, a terrorist organization in January. Now, some former Trump officials are criticizing the State Department for following through on Blinken's announcement to repeal that label because of a renewed Houthis offensive in the country's north against the government forces' last stronghold in the oil-rich province Marib and its eponymous capital.
"The escalation of the conflict in Marib is extremely worrying, with at least 850,000 displaced people living in the city and surrounding areas in desperate conditions," said Oxfam's country director in Yemen, Muhsin Siddiquey, adding those folks are "especially vulnerable" because they've "already been forced to flee multiple times and may not have the resources to flee again."
In addition to that deadly offensive, which has killed at least 20 so far, according to AFP, Houthi forces used rockets and drones this week to continue hitting Saudi targets across Yemen's northern border, including on Abha International Airport on Wednesday, striking a civilian airliner.
On Sunday, two days after the State Department announced Blinken intended to lift the designation, its spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement condemning Houthi attacks on civilians and vowing to help defend the Saudis, a key U.S. partner in the region that's under renewed scrutiny in Washington.
"The reality is that revoking the terrorist designation of the Houthis is a gift to the Iranians & will allow the Houthis to continue to foment terror around the world," tweeted former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pushed the last-minute designation last month despite pleas from humanitarians like David Beasley, the World Food Program's executive director and former Republican governor of South Carolina.
In the face of that criticism, Price defended the decision to revoke the designation, saying it was made solely because of the designation's "profound, steep, and precarious humanitarian implications for the people of Yemen."
"If the Houthi leadership is under any illusion that the intent to revoke this designation suggests that we are going to let up the pressure on them, they are sorely mistaken," he told reporters Thursday, pointing to remaining sanctions on Houthi leaders.
Blinken went further Friday, saying U.S. officials will "closely monitor the activities of Ansarallah and its leaders and are actively identifying additional targets for designation," especially for attacking commercial shipping and Saudi targets.
"Ansarallah's actions and intransigence prolong this conflict and exact serious humanitarian costs. We remain committed to helping U.S. partners in the Gulf defend themselves, including against threats arising from Yemen, many of which are carried out with the support of Iran," Blinken added. "The United States will redouble its efforts, alongside the United Nations and others, to end the war itself."
To that end, Biden named a special envoy for Yemen last week, career diplomat Timothy Lenderking, who has already traveled to Saudi Arabia this week -- a sign of the "priority and the urgency we are attaching to the diplomacy to bring about peace and stability," Price said Wednesday.
In Riyadh, Lenderking met with U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, along with Saudi and Yemeni government officials. Blinken also called his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, on Wednesday to condemn the attack on Abha airport and promote "diplomatic outreach to find a negotiated political settlement to the war."
Despite their new wave of violence, the Houthis' foreign affairs minister mirrored that sentiment last Saturday, saying the group was "ready for peace" and welcomed the decision to lift the designation.
"The most important thing we want to see in the coming period is no interception to oil derivatives for the citizens, no interception for food for the citizens, to start arrangements for peace, a ceasefire, and to completely lift the blockade, and God willing, the Yemeni people will see achievements from the government in Sanaa," Houthi minister Hisham Sharaf told the Associated Press.
The matter couldn't be more urgent. The United Nations said Friday that 400,000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 are expected to suffer from "severe acute malnutrition" in 2021 and could die without urgent intervention -- with nearly 2.3 million children projected to face "acute malnutrition."
"We have one meal a day, sometimes two, but often my husband and I don't eat at all so that our children can eat," said Alia Mohammed Ahmed Hassan, a 20-year old mother of three in Al-Dhale city, according to the World Food Program, adding her 1 1/2-year-old daughter Rawan Mohsen has been suffering from malnutrition for six months.
Despite the enormous needs across the country, long the Arab world's poorest, the humanitarian response has been critically underfunded in recent years, as neighbors like the UAE pulled back funding. In 2020, the U.N.'s Humanitarian Response plan received just over half of its requested funding from donor countries.