Video credit: Skye Fitzgerald, director, Spin Film
As one of its final foreign policy acts in office, the Trump administration could take a step that would push millions of people in Yemen into starvation and prolong that country’s civil war. And President-elect Joe Biden would find it extremely difficult to reverse.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is considering designating the Houthis, the Yemeni militia that rules over the vast majority of the country’s population, as a terrorist organization. The move would fit the Trump administration’s strategy to weaken Iran, which supports the Houthis, and would thrill Iranian adversaries like Saudi Arabia.
It would also be devastating for Yemenis. It would make it far more costly and difficult to get crucial supplies into Yemen, where more than 13 million people already lack reliable food supplies. That could include slowing the spread of a coronavirus vaccine in a country whose health care system is already devastated by the war and the pandemic.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, humanitarian groups and national security analysts wants Pompeo to refrain, saying his decision would be tremendously destabilizing.
“Creating new, additional obstacles to the delivery of food and medical aid — during a global pandemic — is not in the best interest of the United States, our regional allies and partners or the people of Yemen,” Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) argued in a joint press release on Nov. 20. Murphy and Young are key congressional voices on Middle East matters and Coons is a close Biden ally.
Even before the designation, nearly 3 million more Yemenis are already expected to fall into deeper food insecurity by next year, and most areas already at “emergency” levels of need are Houthi-controlled regions, a collaborative project between nonprofits and governments to track humanitarian crises reported on Thursday.
“While the Biden administration can reverse this, the damage done in the interim will be deadly and will add a massive burden to the already overstretched response,” Scott Paul, humanitarian policy lead at the aid organization Oxfam America, told HuffPost via email after that report.
President Donald Trump and Pompeo have until Jan. 20 to make a decision, though they are expected to do so in the coming days. A State Department spokesperson said the agency would not publicly discuss its deliberations over designations.
Above is a portrait of Omeima, one child facing hunger in Yemen, from footage shot for “Hunger Ward,” a new documentary on the war and famine in Yemen, directed by Oscar and Emmy nominee Skye Fitzgerald.
Creating A Famine Step By Step
Millions of Yemenis are on the brink of famine not because their country lacks food, but because food ― which is mostly imported at ports along the coast and spread throughout the country through complicated logistical processes ― has become significantly more expensive since the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led forces and the Houthis began fighting five years ago.
If Pompeo moves ahead with his designation, such costs will quickly climb even more, humanitarian experts say.
With the Houthis on the State Department’s foreign terror organization list, anyone who interacts with them risks being investigated by the U.S. government on suspicion of providing some form of support to the militia. That would be a major concern for aid groups, but many would try to find a work-around. For other crucial institutions that are less altruistic ― banks, shipping lines, insurers ― the new situation would probably deter any kind of work in Yemen.
Those that continue to funnel supplies into the country will likely demand a premium, particularly for shipments to the areas controlled by the Houthis ― where upward of 70% of Yemenis live.
A designation “will cause increases in commodity prices, the most important measure of how bad the economy and living conditions are for Yemenis,” Paul said, adding that such a listing has no wiggle room for humanitarian exemptions.
“I haven’t been able to sleep since I read this [might happen] because I’m just terrified,” said Aisha Jumaan, who runs the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation and has family in the country. “You’re talking about a population where 80% need aid, they’re surviving on whatever little there is, and we’re going to say we’re going to cut your last lifeline.”
Dave Harden, a former top official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, believes Pompeo could cause “a full collapse of the economy and complete devaluation of the currency,” he tweeted, while effectively ending imports of food and vital sanitation products by United Nations agencies like the World Food Programme and World Health Organization.
Aid groups still operating in Yemen would be handling a far more vulnerable population with far fewer resources, as donors would likely become more nervous about potentially breaching U.S. law, Paul said.
“Almost no organization in the world is willing to go up against the U.S. government in order to do business ... and aid organizations know if they try to disregard the designation, they could be putting themselves in a position of the U.S. government coming down legally against them and saying you’ll need to suffer the consequences,” said Annelle Sheline, a researcher at the Quincy Institute think tank.
“The terrorist list is supposed to be about a threat posed to the United States ... at which point does it become a farce and a legalistic, bureaucratic, Kafka-esque designation that people die as a result of?” she continued.
Setting A Trap For Biden
The ostensible goal for Trump and Pompeo is to pressure the Houthis and their chief backer, Iran, to surrender some of their influence in Yemen and eventually cut a deal with the U.S.-friendly forces in the country. But the designation wouldn’t have that effect, experts believe ― and it could play into the Iranians’ hands.
“Given their military and economic power, the rebels themselves would probably be last and least to suffer the consequences of a designation; ordinary Yemeni civilians would probably suffer first and most,” Rob Malley and Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group wrote late last month. Malley was a senior White House Middle East official under President Barack Obama.
They warned that the Houthis would see the designation as a provocation, becoming more wary of the U.S. and growing closer to Iran.
Many observers believe the Trump administration is actually focused on different aims. One could be to lock in an advantage for Saudi Arabia, which the president has cheered despite bipartisan condemnation of its human rights abuses in Yemen and elsewhere.
The Saudi foreign minister and a Saudi-backed Yemeni official have explicitly endorsed a designation, Malley and Salisbury noted. Riyadh has been seeking to reduce its presence in its neighboring Arab country but wants to maintain its sway there; the Saudis may believe the new U.S. policy gives them leverage for a favorable agreement with the Houthis, Jumaan said.
The deaths and misery the designation would cause are a high price to pay for an outcome that’s far from certain.
Critics also fear Pompeo wants to use the designation to tout himself as a tough global leader.
“This just seems to be Pompeo setting himself up for a [presidential] run in 2024 and bending over backwards to pander to the pet agendas of these various autocrats as well as to the interests of American evangelicals,” Sheline said. Saudi Arabia has been courting conservative U.S. Christians, touting its growing closeness to Israel, their prime concern in the region.
For Trump’s successor, the step would cause an immediate dilemma. Biden would either have to watch Yemen deteriorate, drawing international alarm and criticism, or quickly withdraw the designation ― and face Republican accusations that he is soft on Iran and its friends. That would be especially toxic as Biden tries to resurrect the Obama-era accord to limit Iran’s nuclear program, one of his most pressing priorities.
Mary McCord, a Georgetown Law professor and former national security official at the Justice Department, told HuffPost there are three ways the designation could be removed: by the Houthis successfully challenging it in court, Congress revoking it or the future Secretary of State killing it.
The former two are extremely unlikely, particularly if, as expected, the GOP holds the Senate under a Biden presidency. So instead, Biden’s top diplomat ― likely to be Tony Blinken ― would have to assess a reversal and all the political and humanitarian concerns it involves.
“The sad thing about all of this is that [the Trump] administration is doing it because it wants to please the Saudis and stick it to Iran and the Yemeni people don’t come into any of the decision-making processes,” Jumaan said. “Thirty million people are going to be affected. It’s criminal.”