Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the United States will designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization, a move aid groups have warned could hamstring attempts to deal with what many consider to be the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The designation will take effect on Jan. 19, the day before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, Pompeo said in a statement late Sunday. He said he also intends to designate three of the group’s leaders Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim as specially designated global terrorists.
“These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah,” he said, referring to the group also known as the Houthis.
The Trump administration had been locked in an internal debate about whether to formally designate the Houthi rebels as a terrorist group, as aid groups and United Nations officials warned the move could worsen what is already a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, four people familiar with the discussions told NBC News last month.
After six-years of grinding conflict pitting the Houthi rebels against the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, 80 percent of Yemen’s population of more than 29 million people is in need of humanitarian assistance and experts have declared famine-like conditions for almost 17,000 people, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Since 2015, more than 112,000 people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the violence.
The Houthi group is the de facto authority in northern Yemen and aid agencies have to work with it to deliver assistance, according to Reuters.
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Pompeo said Sunday that the U.S. planned to put in place measures to reduce the designations' impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.
The measures will include the issuance of special licenses by the Treasury to allow U.S. assistance to continue in Yemen, as well as the activities of certain international and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations, Pompeo said. Critical imports such as food and medicine will also be covered by the licenses, he added.
A spokesperson for Oxfam disagreed, saying the consequences of the designations will be felt across the country as banks, businesses and humanitarian donors decide cannot risk operating in Yemen.
Save The Children said the designations could place thousands of youngsters at further risk of starvation and disease at a time when millions of people are edging closer to famine.
And the Norwegian Refugee Council warned that the designation would deal a further “devastating blow” to a country already in the middle of a “full-blown” humanitarian catastrophe.
The civil war in Yemen started in 2014 when the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sanaa. A Saudi-led military coalition then intervened on behalf of the government in 2015, turning the conflict into a proxy-war between regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as domestic conflict.
Tehran began providing money, weapons and training to the Houthis following the Arab Spring, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research institute.
The move Sunday came as the Trump administration persists with its maximum pressure campaign against Iran in the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Supporters of the designation view it as a parting blow to Iranian influence in the Middle East and expected efforts by the incoming Biden administration to re-engage Tehran on the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.