Yemen’s Houthi Crisis: Escalating Terror and International Concern

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In January 2021, the US administration under Donald Trump’s presidency designated the Houthi militia as a terrorist organization. The conclusion was a painful disappointment to the Houthis and has damaged their capabilities and limited their terrorist activities. However, the action sparked a wave of criticism regarding possible repercussions for international de-escalation efforts, the future of the political procedure in Yemen, and the delivery of humanitarian aid and food supply chains to areas under Houthi control.

A month after President Joe Biden came to office in 2021, the designation was canceled due to those concerns. Nonetheless, these measures to advance the path of peace in Yemen did not pay off, and the political, economic, and humanitarian situation worsened in an unprecedented manner in the three years since that revocation.

Consequently, after recent attacks by the Houthis on international shipping and trade lines in the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden, the Biden administration reconsidered its decision and redesignated the Houthis on January 17. The voices against this benchmark disappeared after it became clear that the Houthis present a threat not just to Yemen and the region but also to the world. This danger exists on several levels.

First, the US found that revoking the designation sent the wrong signs to the Houthis and was considered a green light to resume their escalation. At the same time, Iran noticed it as permission to exercise more leverage and dominance over the region. Nearly a month after the United States withdrew the designation in 2021, the Houthis escalated by embarking on a series of attacks using ballistic missiles and drones manufactured in Iran against energy installations in several Saudi cities.

More significantly, the Houthis persisted in committing crimes and offenses against civilians in the areas under their control, and hostilities spread to areas under government control. The group blocked the extension of the United Nations (UN) truce in 2022, and, at the behest of Iran, it damaged de-escalation and peace efforts. The Houthis have also breached United Nations Security Council resolutions linked to the Yemeni crisis. Taking advantage of the international community’s eagerness to resolve the situation peacefully, the Houthis regrouped, mobilized their soldiers to the battle fronts, and stockpiled weapons and military technology smuggled from Iran.

In November 2023, the Houthis ousted the deputy representative of the High Commission for Human Rights, Safireddine Sayed. The removal is not unprecedented, coming three years after the Houthis refused entry to the commission’s representative in 2019.

They have also imprisoned several employees of the United Nations and international organizations—including Prodigy Systems and the OHCHR—and forcibly faded them to prevent them from performing their mandate. In one example, they even tortured to death an employee of Save the Children.

Houthis also continued to seize cash and food aid, divert funds and supplies to their members, sell relief materials, and use the money to attract and mobilize fighters and finance their wars. This prompted several organizations to suspend their operations and move headquarters to Aden’s interim capital. The United Nations World Food Programme also announced in December 2023 that it would stop programming in areas under Houthi control.

The Houthis also continue to obstruct all government endeavors and solutions, including the UN mechanism, to allocate revenues from the Hodeidah port to settle the salaries of public servants in areas under Houthi control. Houthis also continued the siege of Taiz.

The Houthis also inflicted an economic war on the government by blocking oil exports and the delivery of cooking gas shipments from the Marib governorate. Additionally, they charged levies on goods coming from the liberated zones to disrupt the port of Aden, which hurt the state’s budget, affected the government’s capability to fulfill its obligations in the unrestricted areas, and paralyzed its ability to pay the salaries of public servants.

Since the start of November 2023, the Houthi militia has projected a wave of maritime piracy and terrorist raids on commercial ships and oil tankers in international shipping lanes, pressuring Israel to lift its blockade on the Gaza Strip.

The Houthis have overlooked the disastrous repercussions of these attacks on the prices of shipping and insurance fees on ships penetrating Yemeni ports, as well as their effects on the costs of food and consumer goods. Their actions endanger to double the burden on Yemenis, who depend on imports to cover 90 percent of their needs.

The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw the Houthi terrorist designation contributed to the complexity of the Yemeni crisis, extending the war, exacerbating human suffering, and pushing peace beyond the reach of the Yemenis. This finding was also a gift to Iran and assisted strengthen its subversive policies and terrorist activities in both Yemen and the region.

To avoid repeating the same scenario, a new approach must be taken to oppose the Houthis.

Forming alliances to safeguard international trade and launching limited strikes against the Houthis will not solve the problem. The global community must comprehensively review how it deals with the Yemeni problem to avoid making the same mistakes. Treating the symptoms is not enough. It must discourse the root causes of the problem: the Houthis.

It is the obligation of the international community to coordinate a response to Houthi actions and to force them to dump their terrorist tactics. Beyond designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, governments must dry up the militia’s monetary, political, and media resources. This includes limiting trade, imposing sanctions on Houthi leaders, freezing their assets, and restricting travel. These measures will not threaten the channels of dialogue necessary for any future peaceful solution but will still pressure the Houthis.

International partners must also sustain the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, directed by President Rashad Muhammad al-Alimi. The Yemeni government demands political, humanitarian, and military support to fix the country. Failure to handle the root causes of the conflict will lead to replicating historical mistakes that have been repeatedly engaged. These recommended approaches can install security and stability in all Yemeni territories and stop Houthi terrorist activities that threaten regional and international peace.

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