CAIRO – Aid agencies were thrown into confusion Monday over the Trump administration's out-the-door decision to designate Yemen's Iranian-backed rebels as a terror organization, which they warned could wreck the tenuous relief system keeping millions alive in a country already near famine in the world's worst humanitarian disaster.
The designation is to take effect on President Donald Trump's last full day in office, a day before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration Jan. 20. Several aid groups pleaded Monday for Biden to immediately reverse the designation. The Biden transition team has not yet expressed his intentions.
“Acting on Day 1 cannot only be a figure of speech,” Oxfam America's Humanitarian Policy Lead Scott Paul said. “Lives hang in the balance.”
Six years of war between a U.S.-backed Arab coalition and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been catastrophic for Yemen. Most of its 30 million people rely on international aid to survive. The U.N. says 13.5 million Yemenis already face acute food insecurity, a figure that could rise to 16 million by June.
Aid agencies said Monday they were struggling to figure out the implications of the designation, which would bring sanctions against the Houthis. Some were considering pulling out foreign staff. They warned that even if the U.S. grants humanitarian exceptions as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised Sunday, the move could snarl aid delivery, drive away banks and further wreck an economy in which millions can't afford to feed themselves.
The Houthis rule the capital and Yemen's north where the majority of the population lives, forcing international aid groups to work with them. Agencies depend on the Houthis to deliver aid and pay salaries to Houthis to do so. Still, the rebels have been implicated in stealing aid and using aid access to extort concessions and money, as well as in a catalog of human rights abuses including rape and torture of dissidents.
Houthi officials Monday were defiant over the U.S. designation.
“We are not fearful,” tweeted the head of the group's Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. “America is the source of terrorism. It's directly involved in killing and starving the Yemeni people.”
The U.S. designation move is part of the Trump administration's broader effort to isolate and cripple Iran. It also shows support to its close ally, Saudi Arabia, which leads the anti-Houthi coalition in the war. Saudi Arabia has advocated the terror designation, hoping it would pressure the rebels to reach a peace deal. Past rounds of peace talks and cease-fire agreements have faltered.
The Houthis receive financial and military support from Iran, and they have pelted Saudi cities with missiles and drone strikes. Their opponents say they aim to impose an Iranian-style fundamentalist rule under the group's religious and military leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi.
Already, the U.S., which is one of the largest donors to Yemen, suspended millions of dollars in aid to Houthi-controlled areas after reports of theft and looting of relief supplies. U.N. agencies have long complained of rebels stealing and rerouting food aid.
Announcing the decision late Sunday, Pompeo promised measures to reduce the impact on humanitarian efforts. Those include special U.S. Treasury licenses to allow U.S. aid to continue flowing and aid agencies to continue working.