Article published by the Gatestone Institute, 26 January 2022. © Richard Kemp
This week, Ansar Allah (‘Supporters of God’), also known as the Houthis, an Iranian-backed armed militia in Yemen, launched ballistic missiles against civilian targets in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. This followed a missile and drone strike last week that killed three in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE.
These are only the latest aerial attacks by Ansar Allah against the two countries, on top of the large-scale violence, deprivation and suffering it has inflicted on the civilian population of Yemen. Despite Ansar Allah’s depredations, almost immediately after he took office US President Joe Biden removed the group’s Foreign Terrorist designation that had been imposed by President Donald Trump.
Following last week’s Abu Dhabi attack, Biden said he will consider reversing the decision. That would be the right move and he should do it immediately.
Before he de-listed Ansar Allah, Biden also ended Obama’s and Trump’s policies of support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive military operations against the group, including arms supplies. Together these steps emboldened Ansar Allah and their Iranian sponsors and reduced Saudi Arabia’s capacity to fight against them.
A US State Department spokesman claimed at the time that the de-listing of Ansar Allah had ‘nothing to do with’ their ‘reprehensible conduct’. So what was it about? Biden claimed the de-listing and cessation of military support to the Saudis would somehow contribute towards ending the conflict. He also suggested it would enable more effective delivery of humanitarian aid to the destitute people of Yemen whom the Ansar Allah have been holding as hostages, and which Ansar Allah had apparently been blocking.
Two other factors undoubtedly influenced Biden’s decision, perhaps even more than what he must have known was a vain hope of conflict resolution.
First, he was already on a spree of reversing any policy with Trump’s fingerprints on it.
Perhaps even more importantly however, was that Biden, desperate to restore Obama’s deeply-flawed nuclear agreement with Iran, may have hoped these concessions would play well in Tehran, given the reality of the ayatollahs’ use of Yemen as a proxy war against Saudi Arabia.
Biden’s moves were a classic example of the failure of appeasement. Inevitably, the Iranian ayatollahs were not won over by these and other US placations. Instead they have become increasingly hard-nosed, demanding more US compromises in exchange for fewer restrictions on their nuclear weapons project – a typical Iranian regime response to perceived weakness.
Meanwhile, according to the UN, since being de-listed Ansar Allah has stepped up its aggression, including increased Iranian-supported drone strikes against US allies in the region as we have seen continuing in recent days.
The Ansar Allah insurgency, now in its seventh year, has led to a humanitarian crisis branded by the UN as the worst in the world, with large-scale human rights abuse and more than 230,000 estimated dead. Vast numbers have been displaced, deprived of food, medicines and basic services and the country has seen the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded, with 2.5 million suspected cases. An estimated 400,000 children are suffering from malnutrition. Twenty million people, two thirds of the population, are assessed by the UN to be in need of humanitarian aid.
Ansar Allah now controls Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and 60% of the country, with around 50% of the population under its tyranny, which is reminiscent of the Islamic State. Ansar Allah carries out mass public executions, torture, assassinations and bomb attacks on government officials; murders civilians with snipers, missiles, drones, mines and car bombs; uses child soldiers and sexual violence and destroys civilian infrastructure and aid warehouses. It has been confirmed seizing vessels and accused of attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. It has sought to blackmail the UN by imposing ever more conditions on plans to make safe a deteriorating oil storage tanker, the Safer, moored off the city of Al Hudaydah. The vessel contains an estimated 1.1 million barrels of crude oil, and threatens an environmental crisis that will devastate much of the region, destroy local fish stocks and deprive eight million Yemenis of access to running water.
Ansar Allah’s bloodthirsty motto is: ‘Allah is greater, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.’ Previous US military defensive action may have deterred it, but Ansar Allah still represents a direct terrorist threat to the US. In the past it has taken American citizens hostage and in 2016 fired anti-ship missiles at US vessels off the coast of Yemen. The first damaged a US transport ship leased to the UAE and subsequent strikes against two US warships were deflected by naval countermeasures.
Ansar Allah also jeopardises wider American interests in the region, as well as its allies. As mentioned, we have seen strikes on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both members of the Arab coalition fighting against them. Its ambitions may be broader. Ansar Allah has frequently threatened Israel, and last May one of its leaders proclaimed the movement was ‘shoulder to shoulder’ in the fight against the Jewish state. It has the Iranian-supplied drones and missiles to turn such rhetoric into reality, perhaps as part of a Tehran-coordinated attack.
So far the West has proved impotent in helping to end this devastating war, with all efforts at agreeing a negotiated settlement frustrated largely due to Ansar Allah’s intransigence. Its violent offensive against Yemen’s Marib Governorate that began last February is further evidence that — with Iranian backing — it continues to seek only the path of war. As events since Biden became president have shown, appeasement is the opposite of the answer. Appeasement not only emboldened the group; it granted a major concession without any reciprocation, making its cooperation in any negotiations less likely and further undermining the already virtually non-existent leverage of the international community.
Like America, Britain has significant national interests to defend in the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are key allies and trading partners. Despite strong pressure, the UK did not follow the US lead in ceasing arms supplies and other military support to Saudi. It continued to recognise the value of providing precision weapons, intelligence and targeting support both in the interests of reducing collateral damage and increasing the effectiveness of operations against Ansar Allah.
Lord Sharpe, a British government front bench spokesman, commented last week that the UK was keeping under review the designation of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps acknowledging that its role includes supporting Ansar Allah. The government should certainly do this, and also designate Ansar Allah as a Proscribed Terrorist Group, irrespective of any US decision.
Re-designating Ansar Allah, a move that is supported by the internationally-recognised government of Yemen, will not end the conflict. But it will damage the terrorist group, enabling asset-freezing and further US sanctions and pressurising other nations to follow suit. However, as Ansar Allah depends mainly on clandestine support from Iran, illegal taxation, theft of resources including international aid and profiteering, rather than the international financial system, the economic effects will be limited.
Re-designation will enable prosecution of Ansar Allah members and those supporting them as well as potentially providing a useful tool in any future peace talks.
Re-designation would not prevent Iran from continuing to fuel the Yemen insurgency but it would send a message of US strength to Tehran, one sorely needed in the months following the Afghanistan debacle and the administration’s open desperation to renew the nuclear deal at almost any price.
Yemen is only one front in Iran’s widespread regional aggression that embraces Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. It is essential that the US renew its strong opposition to Iran’s expansionist actions, countering them at every opportunity. That would include supporting regional allies and fully restoring arms sales to Saudi Arabia for its fight against Iranian proxies in Yemen. An implacably hard-line stance towards these terrorists is essential to reassure US allies that there are consequences for violence against them.
Such policies, of course, are in direct opposition to Biden’s over-arching determination to return to the nuclear deal, which should in any case be abandoned in the interests of regional and global security.
Other than the nuclear deal miscalculations, the only argument against re-designation of Ansar Allah is the effect it might have on commercial imports and international aid which are vital to the people of Yemen. Suppliers and shipping companies would be concerned about the consequences of breaching US sanctions and humanitarian agencies would be worried that their work could lead to legal action for cooperating with a designated terrorist group.
The US administration could overcome this by granting broad licenses and waivers to organizations and companies operating in and around Yemen, enabling essential supplies including food, fuel and medicines to be delivered. This would also need to take account of Ansar Allah’s demands for bribes from aid agencies, and their propensity to steal aid for their own profit. This is a challenge the US administration has so far side-stepped but must now clarify.
No doubt such a licensing regime would introduce further complications to the already desperate and fraught humanitarian programmes — on top of the theft of aid by Ansar Allah. But such additional bureaucratic effort is a price that needs to be paid for the wider political and strategic benefits in countering Iranian and Ansar Allah violence.