Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would designate Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization, a move aid groups have warned could hamper attempts to deal with it. that many consider to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The appointment will take effect Jan. 19, the day before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, Pompeo said in a statement Sunday evening. He said he also intends to designate three of the leaders of the group 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 deal with terrorist activities and Ansarallah terrorism,” he said, referring to the group also known as the Houthis.
The Trump administration had been locked into an internal debate over 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 the country. Yemen, four people familiar with the talks told NBC News last month.
After six years of bitter conflict between Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized Yemeni government, 80% of Yemen’s population of over 29 million is in need of humanitarian aid and experts have declared famine conditions for nearly 17,000 people , according to the International Rescue Committee.
Since 2015, it is estimated that more than 112,000 people have died as a direct result of the violence.
The Houthi group is the de facto authority in northern Yemen and aid agencies must work with it to provide assistance, according to Reuters.
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Pompeo said on Sunday that the United States planned to put in place measures to reduce the impact of designations on some humanitarian activities and imports into Yemen.
The measures will include the issuance of special licenses by the Treasury to allow US aid 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.
An Oxfam spokesperson disagreed, saying the consequences of the designations will be felt across the country as banks, businesses and humanitarian donors decide not to risk operating in Yemen.
Save The Children said these designations could put thousands of young people at additional risk of famine and disease as millions of people approach starvation.
And the Norwegian Refugee Council has warned that the designation would deal yet another “devastating blow” to a country already in the midst of a “full-fledged” humanitarian disaster.
The civil war in Yemen began in 2014 when Tehran-backed Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sana’a. A Saudi Arabian-led military coalition then intervened on behalf of the government in 2015, turning the conflict into a proxy war between regional enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as an internal conflict.
Tehran started providing money, weapons and training to the Houthis after the Arab Spring, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research institute.
The move came on Sunday as the Trump administration persists in its maximum pressure campaign against Iran in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Supporters of the designation see it as a coup de grace to Iranian influence in the Middle East and the expected efforts of the new Biden administration to re-engage Tehran on the 2015 nuclear deal.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.