Within the first few weeks of the Biden administration, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the U.S. government was revoking the terrorist designations of Ansarallah, also known as the Houthis, in Yemen. 

The administration had stated that the terrible humanitarian situation in Yemen was a factor in revoking the designation since “the designations [sic] could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel.” 

However, the move was more of a reversal of the Trump administration’s Iran policy. Tehran has heavily supported the Houthi rebels in Yemen as they try to take control of the country while launching drone and rocket attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities and international airports. 

But while the Houthis are no longer on the list of terrorist organizations, Washington continues to sanction their leaders “especially those responsible for explosive boat attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and UAV and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia” because of their ties to the ayatollahs in Tehran.

Houthi rebels in Yemen have been battling the Saudi-led coalition for the past six years to gain control of the country. (File photo)

So, Washington is now sanctioning Houthi leaders for worsening the same crisis it said it was easing by revoking the terrorist designation. If it sounds confusing, it should.

The latest designations were issued on May 20, when Secretary Blinken announced that “two senior leaders of Houthi forces in Yemen” Muhammad Abd Al-Karim al-Ghamari and Yusuf al-Madani had been designated as terrorists due to their involvement “in military offensives that exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, pose a dire threat to civilians, and destabilize Yemen.”

“The Marib offensive is exacerbating Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, as it puts approximately one million vulnerable internally displaced people at risk of being displaced yet again, threatens to overwhelm an already stretched humanitarian response, and is triggering broader escalation,” Secretary Blinken announced on Thursday. 

The U.S. also sent conflicting signals when U.S. Special Envoy on Yemen Tim Lenderking said on May 20 that the Houthis should de-escalate and engage seriously with U.S. and UN ceasefire efforts, while also urging the Saudi-led coalition to remove restrictions on all Yemeni ports and airports to ease what the UN says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Removing port and airport restrictions would also allow Iran easy access to funnel weapons and ammunition to the Houthis who are engaging in the offensive to take the Marib oil fields.

Without first reaching a ceasefire, ports and airports shouldn’t be opened as it will allow the Houthis to negotiate from a position of strength. 

The Houthis and Tehran insist that restrictions be lifted on Hodeidah port, the main entry of Yemen’s commercial and aid imports, and Sanaa airport before any ceasefire talks begin.

The Saudis correctly had tried to arrange a ceasefire in March followed by the easing of restrictions to air and sea areas of access to Houthi-held areas to help end the conflict.

Houthi leaders dismissed the announcement of the sanctions, as well as the designation by the U.S. State Department, of al-Madani as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). They threatened further attacks on “aggressor countries.”

Mohamad Ali al-Houthi one of the leaders of the Houthi rebels.
Mohamad Ali al-Houthi one of the leaders of the Houthi rebels scoffed at the U.S. sanctions against Houthi leaders. (Reuters)

“Sanctions do not scare the mujahideen” holy fighters, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the group’s supreme revolutionary committee, said on Twitter. “If they continue the blockade and aggression, then perhaps there will be strikes on unexpected sites in some aggressor countries.”

The Houthis continue to wage large-scale attacks on civilian population centers and commercial shipping with Iranian assistance and culpability.

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Secretary Blinken’s comments turned to Tehran and its role in worsening the conflict. “Iran’s involvement in Yemen fans the flames of the conflict, threatening greater escalation, miscalculation, and regional instability. Ansarallah (Houthi rebels) uses Iranian weapons, intelligence, training, and support to conduct attacks threatening civilian targets and infrastructure in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.”

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said to the UN Security Council that due to the Houthi offensive in Marib, over 25,000 people have already been displaced and that at least 385,000 more are in danger of also becoming displaced if the fighting continues. 

He added that “famine is still stalking the country, with five million people just a step away from starving.” Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are still surging, “pushing the health care system to collapse.” Famine, disease, and other miseries are the result of the war and that is why “it is so important to stop the fighting,” Lowcock said.

Thus far, the Biden administration’s attempts at stopping the violence by cutting off all offensive U.S. aid to the Saudi-led coalition and revoking the terrorist designation of the Houthis have not only failed but have worsened the violence. 

File this under, the more things change…