Washington may revoke Houthis terrorist designation

Ansar Allah Shia, Houthis, Iran-backed
Image credit: NPR

In an underreported new development, Washington said it could revoke its recent designation of the Iran-backed Ansar Allah Shia islamist political and military movement, commonly known as the Houthis, as a “terrorist” group in a kind of quid pro quo if the Houthi-based movement stops its ongoing campaign against shipping in the Red Sea. The US special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, stated, during a press briefing on April 3 that their hope is to “find diplomatic off-ramps” and to find “ways to deescalate”, which would allow Washington to “pull back, eventually, the designation and of course to end the military strikes on Houthis’ military capability.” Most analysts doubt this will work. Interestingly, Lenderking added the US favors “a diplomatic solution”, and admitted that “there is no military solution.”

The Houthi rebels, who control most of North Yemen, announced on Sunday they had launched drones and rockets at US military frigates, as well as British and Israeli ships plus two Israeli vessels in the Arabian  and Indian ocean, heading to Israeli ports – all of that in less than 72 years, which amounts to a quite impressive show of force. The organization’s spokesman, Yahya Saree, stressed the rebels will continue to launch attacks preventing both Israel-owned and Israel-headed ships from passing through the Arabian and Red seas as well as the Indian ocean until the Jewish state stops its ongoing siege of Palestinians in Gaza. On Saturday, American forces destroyed a Houthi-controlled mobile surface-to-air missile system in Yemen, and the US also claims to have shot down an “aerial vehicle over the Red Sea. About a month ago the rebels announced they also have the capability to employ unmanned submarine weapons.

Western ships have been avoiding the waterways which used to account for about 30% of the planet’s container traffic, and have been navigating around the southern tip of Africa instead, which is a much longer (and more expensive) route.

At the end of Trump’s presidency, the Yemeni group had been designated by Washington as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The incumbent Joe Biden’s administration rescinded such designation in 2021, as part of diplomatic endeavors to advance a peace process in Yemen. When the Yemeni movement launched its sea campaign, the US, on January 17, classified them this time as a Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDTG), a separate “lighter” label which, according to John Kirby (US National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator), would give the US “more flexibility”, while allowing aid organizations to operate without fearing sanctions. This, according to Lenderking, was supposed to “cut off financial networks, their ability to fundraise.” The decision has been much criticized by a bipartisan group of American legislators, who think Biden is not being “tough” enough on the Houthis and on Iran.

Thus, on February 27, the aforementioned Lenderking (US special envoy) had threatened to reimpose the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation (which means additional penalties) on the Houthis should their attacks on shipping continue. The attacks have continued. And now the US has backed off again, and talks about removing the SDTG designation altogether – which also shows just how much “terrorist” designations are basically sanction weapons and negotiable labels. All this flip-flopping certainly does not show much strength on the American part, in any case. One should keep in mind that, for months, American authorities repeatedly asked their Chinese rivals to pressure Iran into curbing the Houthi rebels – much to no avail. This in itself attested the failure of US foreign policy, the Red Sea crisis being, as I wrote, mostly an externality spillover of the Washington-backed catastrophic Israeli campaign in Palestine.

There are some reasons why, as the above-quoted Lenderking puts it, there is no American military solution against the Houthis. Costs are one of them. For one thing, to destroy the rather unsophisticated Houthi drones (each costs a few thousand dollars), Washington employs expensive naval missiles, thus spending up to $2.1 million for just one shot, according to anonymous US officials interviewed by Politico in December 2023. In addition, further direct military involvement, argues Kelley Beaucar Vlahos (a Senior Advisor at the Quincy Institute), can only bring Washington closer to a regional war which is not necessarily desirable, from an American perspective – or affordable, for that matter.

Thus far, Americans have been repeatedly defeated by a movement of tribal rebels. Add to this, Washington’s failures in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and the Middle East in general, plus Venezuela, to name just a few.  This highlights the overburdened condition of the declining Atlantic naval superpower (militarily and financially) and further undermines American credibility and prestige globally.


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