The United States is mulling the re-designation of the Houthi rebel group in Yemen as an international terrorist organization, in the wake of a rocket attack on the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Three people were killed when a Houthi missile struck a fuel depot on Jan. 17 in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.

A second missile attack targeted a base hosting US forces in Abu Dhabi one week later, but the missile was intercepted by US-built Patriot interceptors.

US President Joe Biden said Jan. 20 the re-designation of the Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization “was under consideration”. The move came shortly after the UAE Ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, urged the US administration to re-blacklist Houthi group following the Abu Dhabi attack.

Last year, Biden removed the Iran-aligned rebel group from the US terrorism list in a policy reverse from his predecessor Donald Trump.

Biden’s administration “could argue that although Trump’s designation of the Houthis was not justified, now the Houthis have threatened US military personnel,” Annelle Sheline, Middle East Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute, told Anadolu Agency.

Sheline, however, said “technically it is not an act of terrorism” to attack military facilities, especially given the US role in arming the UAE and Saudi Arabia, making the US a valid military target.

“Although Biden will likely see the re-designation as a punishment, it is unlikely to undermine the Houthis’ military capacity,” she opined.

Failed diplomacy

Ahmed Nagi, an expert on Yemen and a non-resident fellow with Carnegie Endowment, said the removal of Houthis from the US terrorist list was part of Biden’s efforts to activate Yemen’s peace process.

“The US envoy to Yemen would not be able to do anything, if the Houthi group remained designated. But nothing positive happened on the ground as Houthis preferred to attack government areas, including Marib and Shabwa,” he said.

Nagi believes that the re-designation of the Houthis is related to the US strategy in dealing with the Yemeni rebels in the first place.

“If the US wants to give diplomacy more time, then the re-designation will not be the right path, as it will impact diplomatic efforts and make it hard to build confidence with the Houthis,” he said.

The expert, however, believes that the move could put more pressure on the Houthis to bring them back to the negotiating table.

“But it will make finding solutions for the Yemen conflict even more elusive,” he added.

Although Biden initially stated his intention to end US support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, he has continued to sell the Saudis weapons and to provide maintenance and intelligence support.

“Biden has largely continued the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen,” Sheline said.

Heavy price

Last week, US Congresswoman Claudia Tenney, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led a group of her colleagues in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to reconsider the decision to remove the Houthis from the US terror list.

“De-listing the Houthis has not made the region safer, nor has it advanced the stalled peace process. Progress in addressing the instability in Yemen can only be made when those responsible for obstructing peace are held accountable for their actions,” Tenney said.

Sheline believes that re-listing the Houthis would do “far greater harm to the civilians” under Houthi control than it would do to the group itself.

She argued that the re-designation would prevent aid organizations from being able to interact with Houthi officials without facing legal jeopardy.

Furthermore, it would allow the Houthis to shift the blame of themselves onto the US for the starvation of Yemenis, Sheline added.

Nagi agrees that civilians in Houthi-held areas will “pay a heavy price” as the implications of the re-designation “will affect everyone and put a new layer of suffering to the already devastating situation”.

Yemen has been engulfed by violence and instability since 2014, when Houthi rebels captured much of the country, including the capital, Sanaa.

A Saudi-led coalition aimed at reinstating the Yemeni government has worsened the situation, causing one of the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crises, with nearly 80%, or about 30 million people, needing humanitarian assistance and protection and more than 13 million in danger of starvation, according to UN estimates.

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