Twelve senators weighed in on an intense Biden administration debate on Middle East policy on Tuesday, urging the president not to restore a Trump-era terror designation that could devastate Yemen, already the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the group sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken a letter arguing that slapping the U.S. government’s “foreign terror organization” label on the Houthis, a militia that controls Yemen’s most populous areas, “would precipitate an economic collapse… and could undermine the prospects for peace” in Yemen’s civil war. HuffPost exclusively obtained the letter before its public release.
Murphy — a key voice on Yemen who recently met with United Nations aid officials — as well as the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (R.I.) are now publicly pushing back against a coalition of hawkish advisers to President Joe Biden, Republican lawmakers, foreign governments and lobbyists who support the terror designation.
“We recognize the destabilizing role of the Houthis … including the obstruction of humanitarian assistance, the use of child soldiers, and cross-border attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” the letter reads. “However, designating the Houthis … would not force the Houthis to stop these behaviors, but instead risk adverse effects that would only increase the suffering of the millions of Yemenis who live in territory under Houthi control.”
The senators also echoed warnings from aid groups and regional experts that the terror label would make it much harder and more expensive for Yemenis to obtain food, medicine and other vital imports and could make it impossible for Yemenis abroad to send money to relatives still in the war-torn country.
With support from Iran, which opposes the U.S. and its Middle Eastern partners like the Saudis and the UAE, the Houthis have recently launched a brutal new offensive and attacked facilities hosting U.S. troops and key infrastructure in countries bordering Yemen.
The Emiratis, Saudis, and fellow Iran rival Israel say that means Washington must pressure the Yemeni rebels. Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and a small group of House Democrats, notably Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.), have amplified that call.
But many national security experts say the U.S. terror designation would not significantly reduce the Houthis’ ability to wage war since they are not integrated into the U.S.-dominated global economy. Instead, Yemeni civilians and businesses would struggle.
In 2020 and early 2021, as then-President Donald Trump considered and ultimately implemented the terror designation, exporters and huge firms like pharmaceutical companies became wary of shipping goods to Yemen, while banks began winding down operations, observers of the war say.
Biden suspended the policy just weeks into his tenure and said his priority was to jump-start talks to end the fighting between the Houthis and Yemeni forces supported by the U.S. and its partners.
That negotiation could be one casualty of the terror designation, the senators warned.
The label “could put those working to negotiate an end to the war at the risk of legal consequences for interactions with Houthi leaders,” they wrote. “The United States must preserve, not close off, diplomatic channels that could bring this dreadful war to an end.”