US President Joe Biden’s administration is moving to revoke the designation of Yemen’s Houthis as a terrorist group, citing the need to mitigate one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.
Former US President Donald Trump’s administration had branded the Iranian-backed Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization in January, a move that limited the provision of aid to the beleaguered Yemeni people, who have suffered under a yearslong civil war and famine.
A State Department official confirmed the move Friday after members of Congress were notified of the administration’s plans. The official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the removal changed nothing about the Biden administration’s views of the Houthis, who have targeted civilians and kidnapped Americans.
“Our action is due entirely to the humanitarian consequences of this last-minute designation from the prior administration, which the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have since made clear would accelerate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” the official said.
The move comes a day after Biden announced an end to offensive support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthis.
The Obama administration in 2015 gave its approval to Saudi Arabia leading a cross-border air campaign targeting Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who were seizing ever more territory, including Sanaa. The Houthis have launched multiple drone and missile strikes deep into Saudi Arabia. The US says the Saudi-led campaign has entrenched Iran’s role in the conflict, on the side of the Houthis.
US targeting assistance to Saudi Arabia’s command and control was supposed to minimize civilian casualties in the Saudi-led airstrikes. But bombing since then has killed numerous Yemeni civilians, including schoolboys on a bus and fishermen in their boats. Survivors have displayed fragments showing the bombs to be American-made.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut praised the Biden administration’s move, saying, “The designation did not impact the Houthis in any practical way, but it stopped food and other critical aid from being delivered inside Yemen and would have prevented effective political negotiation.”
Last month, the Israeli military deployed air defense batteries around the southern city of Eilat amid concerns of an attack from the Houthis.
Iran has indicated plans to exact revenge for the United States killing of Qassem Soleimani, the influential head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force, and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s military nuclear program, assassinated, allegedly by Israel.
The Israeli military assessed that such retaliation was likely to come from an Iranian proxy, potentially from the Houthis.
IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told a Saudi news outlet in December that Israel had information indicating Iran was developing unmanned aerial vehicles and “smart missiles” in Iraq and Yemen, and that the weapons could have the ability to strike Israel.
The Iron Dome is generally used against rockets and mortar shells, but can also intercept small drones and cruise missiles. The Patriot system is used primarily to defend against ballistic missiles and larger aircraft like fighter jets and unmanned aerial vehicles.