Yemen’s Houthis designated terrorists: Pompeo’s parting gift

Jerusalem Post, 15/1

US designation of Houthis in Yemen forms part of efforts to cement hardline strategy toward Iran

In a statement issued  Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that his office was set to inform Congress of its intention to designate the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen (better known as the Houthis) as a foreign terrorist organization and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity.  The Houthis have been engaged in an intermittent insurgency against the government of Yemen since 1994.  The insurgency escalated sharply in 2014, when the movement seized the capital, Sanaa, and the surrounding areas.  It has since held Sana’a, and today remains in control of a large swathe of the territory of Yemen.  The Houthis’ capture of Sana’a triggered a Saudi-led intervention in 2015. 

This intervention is usually depicted in western media as a resounding failure, and proof of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman’s impulsiveness and inexperience.  But while the war in Yemen has without doubt produced great suffering for the civilian population, the Saudi and Emirati-led intervention did succeed in forestalling the potential strategic disaster which would have accompanied a Houthi conquest of the entirety of Yemen. 

The Yemeni interior consists largely of sand and rock.  But the country abuts a strategic choke point of global importance. This is the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea.  Bab el-Mandeb is a vital route for oil and natural gas shipments passing from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea and on to the Suez Canal.  Around 9% of total global petroleum products pass through the strait.  Had the Houthis captured the area in 2015, it would have given their patrons – Iran – the ability to choke off the Strait at will, and thus hold the world economy to ransom.  The Saudis and their allies failed to reconquer the entirety of Yemen from the pro-Iranian forces.  But they did protect Bab el-Mandeb.  Similarly, the intervention prevented the main port of Yemen, al-Hudayda, from falling under the complete control of the Houthis. 

The result is that Yemen, like a number of other Arab countries, is now subject to de facto division and ongoing conflict.  The Houthis control the capital and a large part of the populated center of the country. The government of Prime Minister Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi controls much of the sparsely populated east, and the strategically important south and western coastal areas.  The pro-government side has itself fractured.  The separatist, UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council controls the port of Aden and a section of the southern coast. 

To make matters yet more complicated, two rival Salafi jihadi networks – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State group are active on the ground. 

So divided Yemen represents one of the friction points for the regional clash between rival alliances.  On the one hand, an uneasy coalition of pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati elements (tacitly backed by Egypt and Israel).  On the other, a pro-Iran Shia militia. 

The Houthis differ from other pro-Iran forces in the region in a number of ways.  Unlike Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Badr Organization and other such militia groups, the Ansar Allah is not the direct creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It is built, rather, around north Yemeni tribal structures. The Houthis themselves are a north Yemeni branch of the Banu Hamdan tribe.  They follow the Zaidiya branch of Shia Islam, whereas the Iranians and their clients in Iraq and Lebanon are Twelver Shia. 

These differences have been used by some observers to suggest that the Houthis belong to a different category when compared to other Iran-supported militias, and that it is therefore simplistic to define events in Yemen along the lines of a proxy conflict. 

But while local conditions should not be ignored, the weight of evidence for extensive Iranian support to the Houthis is overwhelming.  This week, an article in Arab News offered new and intriguing detail regarding the process whereby Teheran ensures the flow of weaponry to their Yemeni allies. 

Arab News interviewed four Yemeni fishermen who revealed that they had been brought to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, via a humanitarian flight to Oman. They had then been trained by Iranian personnel in the use of GPS, camouflage and in control and maintenance of vessels. The men had been deployed in the Somali coastal city of Berbera, from where they would engage in the transport of Iranian consignments of Iran across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to the Houthis in Yemen.  They revealed an ongoing, complex and extensive arms supply operation. 

Iran uses the territory in Yemen controlled by the Houthis for the launching of missiles on Saudi Arabia.  The Houthis also provide a convenient, ostensibly independent address, at which Teheran can ‘park’ acts for which it prefers not to claim responsibility.  For example, the Houthis claimed responsibility for the very significant,  extensive and sophisticated attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in September, 2019.  The attack involved the use of drones and cruise missiles, and was far beyond capabilities that the Houthis could have mustered independently. 

The 11th hour designation by the US is clearly intended to help formalize and cement the current Administration’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran, to the greatest extent possible.  Pompeo and his team at the State Department have been the driving force behind the maximum pressure which has largely succeeded in holding Iran in place over the last two years.  The designation to designate the Houthis appears to be part of a series of moves intended to make it difficult for the incoming Administration to move back to a path of appeasement of Iran. 

It is questionable if these moves will succeed.  Iranian support for the Houthis will not be seriously impacted by the move.  Teheran is obviously indifferent to such designations.  A number of aid agencies expressed concern that the designation may make it harder for the transfer of food and humanitarian aid into Houthi controlled areas.  But what the move perhaps reveals most clearly is concern on the part of Pompeo and his team that much of the momentum built up of pressure on Iran and its proxies is now set to go to waste.  This concern is shared in a number of regional capitals, including Jerusalem.  It remains to be seen whether these concerns will be realized in the period ahead.  But either way, the designations of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, while clearly representing an accurate description of reality, is unlikely to impact on the developing situation in a very significant way.  

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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