How Yemen’s Houthis’ well-deserved terrorist label gives Biden important leverage

Newly recruited Houthi fighters chant slogans during a gathering in the capital Sanaa to mobilize more fighters to battlefronts to fight pro-government forces in several Yemeni cities. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 22 January 2021

How Yemen’s Houthis’ well-deserved terrorist label gives Biden important leverage

  • Foreign Terrorist Organization is a fitting designation for a militia long known for targeting civilians and civilian facilities
  • Biden administration would be well advised to make the most of the Trump administration’s last-minute decision

LONDON: Joe Biden, the newly inaugurated US president, is using his first days in office to review many of his predecessor’s policies and executive orders. How his administration handles its strategic inheritance, particularly with regard to Iran and its proxies, notably the Yemeni Houthi militia, could well shape the Arab region’s opinion of his nascent presidency.

On Jan. 10, Mike Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of state, announced the State Department would designate the Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah) as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.” Three Houthi leaders — Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, Abdul Khaliq Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya Al-Hakim — were declared Specially Designated Global Terrorists with effect from Jan. 19.

“The designations are intended to hold Ansar Allah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping,” Pompeo said.

“The designations are also intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors.”

A picture taken on June 19, 2018 shows debris of Iranian-made Ababil drones displayed Abu Dhabi, which the Emirati armed forces say were used by Houthi rebels in Yemen in battles against the coalition forces led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. (AFP/File Photo)

One reason why the Trump administration was able to achieve a lot in the Middle East was probably its readiness to call a spade a spade. The war in Yemen escalated in 2015 when the Iran-backed Houthis overthrew the UN-recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A coalition of Arab states, backed by the US, Britain and France, launched a military campaign to restore the legitimate government to power.


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Since then, repeated attempts to reach a peace settlement have foundered, with the militia’s representatives failing to attend UN-brokered talks in Geneva in Sept. 2018 and its combatants willfully ignoring the terms of the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements.

An April 2020 ceasefire announced by the coalition at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly fell apart when the Houthis resumed cross-border drone and missile strikes targeting Saudi Arabia.

For the Yemeni government, any peace agreement with the Houthis would be contingent on the militia breaking its ties with Tehran — a development that is highly unlikely at present.

Iran’s support for the Houthis has been an open secret since long before the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2015. It has caused the brutal war to rage on unabated and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises to fester.

The conflict, now in its sixth year, has left 112,000 dead and 24 million in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

The Houthis have repeatedly targeted civilian population centers in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Most recently, 27 people were killed when a Houthi missile targeting ministers of the newly established Yemeni government struck Aden’s international airport on Dec. 30.

A picture taken March 26, 2018 in Um Al-Hammam district in Riyadh shows the pierced ceiling of a home hit by falling shrapnel from Houthi missiles that were intercepted over the Saudi capital. (AFP/File Photo)

In April last year, five women were killed in a suspected Houthi strike on a prison in the city of Taiz — an act forcefully condemned by aid groups. Houthi missiles have even hit civilian facilities in Riyadh, including its international airport in Nov. 2017.

The group has also routinely targeted Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. A July 2018 attack hit two Saudi crude carriers on the Red Sea while a May 2019 strike on two oil-pumping stations near Riyadh damaged a key pipeline.

The most damaging of all Houthi-claimed attacks was a Sept. 2019 drone and missile strike on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities, which sent shockwaves through the global crude market.

Although the Houthis claimed responsibility, investigators suggested the strike involving Iranian-supplied hardware may have originated from the north.

Biden’s foreign-policy team may also recall three attacks on the US navy in 2016 when he was Barack Obama’s vice president — by a militia whose actions matched the notorious words of its slogan “Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse on the Jews.”

The USS Mason was targeted on Oct. 9, 2016, by two missiles fired from Houthi-controlled territory while deployed near the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait off the coast of Yemen. The projectiles failed to cause any damage.

Three days later, the Mason was targeted again, with one missile falling short while the other was intercepted. USS Nitze, which was also deployed to the region, retaliated the following day, destroying three radar sites in Houthi-held territory.

On Oct. 15, the Mason was targeted a third time, this time in the Red Sea. All five anti-ship cruise missiles were neutralized or intercepted.

Houthi leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi delivers a speech in he Yemeni capital Sanaa on November 9, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

Given this behavior, it is surprising that the Houthis did not land the terrorist designation then, although historians would probably chalk it up to the Obama administration’s wish to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear accord at any cost.

Foreign military vessels have not been the only targets. The Houthis have launched repeated attacks on ports and ships in recent years, routinely planting marine mines in the southern Red Sea and in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait in the path of commercial shipping.

The militia has also repeatedly rebuffed UN pleas to allow an inspection team to enter the FSO Safer, a 45-year-old oil tanker abandoned off the port of Hodeidah with 1.1 million barrels of crude on board, to conduct urgent repairs. In an extraordinary session, the UN expressed fears on July 15, 2020, of “catastrophe” if the vessel ruptured into the Red Sea.

Pompeo’s boss, Donald Trump, had pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, withdrawing the US from the Obama-era nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Iran.

Members of displaced Yemeni families who fled battles between government forces and Houthi fighters near the Hodeidah airport share a meal on the balcony of of a school used as temporary housing inside the city. (AFP/File Photo)

The strategy was matched by a zero-tolerance approach to Iranian influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, as well as to its role in harboring leaders and operatives of Al-Qaeda.

Almost all the findings of an Arab News-YouGov pan-Arab survey conducted in late 2020 suggest that Biden would be wise to shed the Obama administration baggage. The most popular response (53 percent) was that Obama left the region worse off, with another 58 percent saying Biden should distance himself from Obama-era policies.

With Houthi attacks on civilian targets triggering condemnations from inside and outside Yemen and prompting calls for more pressure on the leadership, the State Department’s “terrorist” designation gives Biden valuage leverage for future negotiations both with the Houthis and their patrons in Tehran.


Twitter: @RobertPEdwards

Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine

Updated 27 February 2021

Yemen’s children starve as UN seeks billions to avoid vast ‘man-made’ famine

  • Some 80 percent of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished
SANAA/NEW YORK: Ahmadiya Juaidi’s eyes are wide as she drinks a nutrition shake from a large orange mug, her thin fingers grasping the handle. Her hair is pulled back and around her neck hangs a silver necklace with a heart and the letter A.
Three weeks ago the 13-year-old weighed just nine kilograms (20 pounds) when she was admitted to Al-Sabeen hospital in Yemen’s capital Sanaa with malnutrition that sickened her for at least the past four years. Now she weighs 15 kilograms.
“I am afraid when we go back to the countryside her condition will deteriorate again due to lack of nutritional food. We have no income,” her older brother, Muhammad Abdo Taher Shami, told Reuters.
They are among some 16 million Yemenis — more than half the population of the Arabian Peninsula country — that the United Nations says are going hungry. Of those, five million are on the brink of famine, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warns.
On Monday the United Nations hopes to raise some $3.85 billion at a virtual pledging event to avert what Lowcock says would be a large-scale “man-made” famine, the worst the world will have seen for decades.
Some 80 percent of Yemenis need help, with 400,000 children under the age of five severely malnourished, according to UN data. For much of its food, the country relies on imports that have been badly disrupted over the years by all warring parties.
“Before the war Yemen was a poor country with a malnutrition problem, but it was one which had a functioning economy, a government that provided services to quite a lot of its people, a national infrastructure and an export base,” Lowcock told reporters. “The war has largely destroyed all of that.”
“In the modern world famines are basically about people having no income and then other people blocking efforts to help them. That’s basically what we’ve got in Yemen,” he added.

Pro-government rallies cause outrage in Turkey

Updated 27 February 2021

Pro-government rallies cause outrage in Turkey

  • Ruling party accused of double standard amid ban on student protests

ANKARA: Large rallies for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and other “superspreader” events have sparked public outcry, with the government accused of double standards in the country’s fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In recent weeks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attended these crowded events — some resembling pop concerts — along with other provincial congress meetings across the country.

The indoor events, with thousands in attendance, have been criticized over a lack of social distancing. Meanwhile, peaceful protests of university students and ordinary meetings of some dissident NGOs are still forbidden because they do not respect pandemic measures.

Restaurants, coffee houses and art excursions remain shut under pandemic restrictions, which has left thousands of laid-off workers on the verge of chronic poverty and merchants grappling with bankruptcy.

“Shopkeepers have closed shutters and they are utterly devastated. The AKP’s rallies are wide open and everybody is smiling,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, said during his parliamentary speech on Tuesday.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party was fined for violating social distancing rules after one of its events, but no punishments have been imposed for the pro-government rallies.

Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, who advises against large rallies, publicly apologized after Erdogan and a group of AKP officials gathered at a mosque in Istanbul on Feb. 21 for the funeral of a clergyman.

“I should have foreseen such a situation,” Koca said Wednesday. “It is my mistake. As 83 million people, we should equally self-sacrifice ourselves by staying away from closed spaces and crowded areas during the pandemic.”

Thousands of people forbidden from attending funerals, along with millions of children still unable to attend school, have taken to social media to express their anger and criticize the fairness of pandemic restrictions.

A video featuring AKP youth members from the southern Hatay branch dancing, singing and carrying each other on their shoulders all without masks has gone viral and was dubbed the “political corona party.”

A recent survey by the government revealed that only 40 percent of the Turkish people trust the administration's management of the COVID-19. Turkey is ranked 74th out of 98 countries in the Lowy Institute's COVID Performance Index, which assesses each nation’s performance in managing the virus.

“I have not seen or heard anything like this,” Ozlem Kayim Yildiz, a neurologist from Sivas University, tweeted. “In the midst of the pandemic, while restrictions continue, ‘some’ are exempt from these restrictions. Has the caste system arrived? They do not even bother to obey their own rules. They don't even care about looking consistent or thoughtful.”

So far, the coronavirus has killed 370 health professionals in Turkey.

Urartu Seker, a medical specialist from Bilkent University, echoed the widespread criticisms from those in the scientific community: “I'm very sorry, for those who follow the rules, those who lost their jobs, and for children who are out of school,” he said.

Turkey’s population continues to struggle financially as it deals with pandemic restrictions. About 100,000 shopkeepers closed their businesses last year, while about 40,735 companies ceased operations.

Millions are expected to lose their jobs after the Turkish government lifts the ban on layoffs in May, which will be a huge blow for a country that is already dealing with more than 11 million people unemployed.

Five protesters die, dozens injured in clashes in Iraqi city

Updated 26 February 2021

Five protesters die, dozens injured in clashes in Iraqi city

  • The clashes continued on Friday evening after a week of violence that erupted on Sunday
  • Protesters are demanding the removal of the governor and justice for protesters who killed since 2019

NASSIRIYA: At least five protesters were killed and more than 175 people injured on Friday in clashes between demonstrators and security forces in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya, a Reuters witness and other sources said.
Among the fatalities, most of the protesters died from bullet wounds, a hospital source said, adding that about 120 protesters were wounded. At least 57 members of the security forces were injured, according to a another hospital source and a security source.
The clashes continued on Friday evening after a week of violence that erupted on Sunday when security forces fired to disperse protesters, who were trying to storm the provincial government building using rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Protesters are demanding the removal of the governor and justice for protesters who killed since 2019.
Iraq’s biggest anti-government protests in decades broke out in October 2019 and continued for several months, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demanding jobs, services and the removal of the ruling elite, whom they accused of corruption.
Nearly 500 people were killed, and the protests caused the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who took office in May 2020, has pledged justice for activists killed or abused by armed groups. But no prosecutions have occurred so far.
The clashes come just a week before Pope Francis visits Iraq from March 5 to 8. He is due to tour the ancient Mesopotamian site of Ur, only a few kilometers (mile) away from the clashes.

UN Security Council sanctions top Houthi security official for rape and torture

Updated 26 February 2021

UN Security Council sanctions top Houthi security official for rape and torture

  • Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin's acts “threaten peace of Yemen”
  • “Zabin himself directly inflicted torture in some cases,” the council said

NEW YORK: The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on a top Houthi security official in the Yemeni city of Sanaa, citing his prominent role in intimidations, systematic arrests, detentions, torture, sexual violence “and rape against politically active women.”
A resolution adopted by a vote of 14-0, with Russia abstaining, said Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin, director of the Criminal Investigation Department in Sanaa, was directly or by virtue of his authority responsible for using multiple places of detention including police stations, prisons and detention centers for human rights abuses.
“In these sites, women, including at least one minor, were forcibly disappeared, repeatedly interrogated, raped, tortured, denied timely medical treatment and subjected to forced labor,” the council said in imposing a travel ban and arms embargo. “Zabin himself directly inflicted torture in some cases.”
It added that Zabin “engaged in acts that threaten the peace, security and stability of Yemen, including violations of applicable international humanitarian law and human rights abuses in Yemen.”
Resolution 2564 strongly condemned “violations of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law, as well as human rights abuses, including those involving conflict-related sexual violence in Houthi-controlled areas and recruitment and use of children in armed conflict across Yemen, as recorded in the Panel of Experts’ final report.”
The council welcomed the formation of the new cabinet of Yemen’s government under the provisions of the Riyadh Agreement, calling “for the full implementation of the Riyadh Agreement (and) calling for the swift resumption of talks between the parties, in full engagement with UN mediation efforts.”
Council members also condemned “in the strongest terms” last year’s attack on Aden that killed 27 civilians, including a Yemeni deputy minister and three humanitarian and health personnel.
The council strongly condemned the ongoing escalation of violence in Yemen’s oil-rich central province of Marib between the Houthis and government forces, and the continuation of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The resolution stressed the need “for de-escalation across Yemen and a nationwide cease-fire.”
Regarding the imminent disaster posed by the Houthis’ refusal to allow a UN inspection of the Safer oil tanker, which has been moored off the war-torn country’s coast and is loaded with more than a million barrels of crude oil at risk of leaking, council members emphasized the environmental and humanitarian risk and “the need, without delay, for access of UN officials to inspect and maintain (the) tanker, which is located in the Houthi-controlled north of Yemen.”
They stressed the militia’s responsibility for the situation and for not responding to this “major environmental and humanitarian risk,” underscoring the need for the Houthis “to urgently facilitate unconditional and safe access for UN experts to conduct an assessment and repair mission without further delay.”
Meanwhile US President Joe Biden, during a phone call with King Salman, commended Saudi Arabia’s support for UN efforts to reach a truce and cease-fire in Yemen.
King Salman said Saudi Arabia was keen to reach a comprehensive political solution in Yemen and to achieve security and development for its people.
The two sides discussed Iran’s behavior in the region, its destabilizing activities and its support for terrorist groups.
The Arab coalition thwarted a second Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia just hours after it had destroyed a drone launched by the militia toward Khamis Mushait.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the militia’s attempt to target civilians in Saudi Arabia.
Heavy fighting between rebels and government forces in Marib has killed at least 27 people, tribal leaders and security officials said on Friday.
(With AP)


US airstrike in Syria sent ‘unambiguous message’: White House

Updated 26 February 2021

US airstrike in Syria sent ‘unambiguous message’: White House

  • The Pentagon said Thursday's strike was in response for a series of rocket attacks targeting US soldiers in Iraq
  • Psaki said Biden's aim was for "deescalating activity in both Syria and Iraq"

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE: The United States sent an "unambiguous message" with an airstrike against an Iranian-backed militia in eastern Syria, the White House said Friday.
President Joe Biden is "sending an unambiguous message that he's going to act to protect Americans and when threats are posed he has the right to take an action at the time and the manner of his choosing," Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
The Pentagon said Thursday's strike, which according to a Syrian war monitoring group killed 22 militia members, was in response for a series of rocket attacks targeting US soldiers in Iraq.
One of those strikes, on a military complex in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil on February 15, killed a civilian and a foreign contractor working with coalition forces, and wounded several US contractors and a soldier.
Psaki said the decision behind the strike was "deliberative" and that Biden's aim was for "deescalating activity in both Syria and Iraq."
Addressing criticism from some in Congress that Biden should have sought legislators' authority before ordering the strike, Psaki said "there was a thorough legal process and review in advance."