The Trump administration is considering to designate the Houthi rebels of Yemen a & # 39; Terrorist organization, people familiar with the discussions said, as part of a campaign to end the country's civil war and put pressure on the allied Houthi ally.
The terrorist designation, which would inject a new and unpredictable element into delicate diplomatic efforts to initiate peace talks, has been discussed periodically since at least 2016, according to many of the individuals. But the issue has received a new examination in recent months, as the White House seeks to outline a tough stance towards Iranian groups throughout the Middle East.
A formal terrorist designation by the State Department could further isolate the rebels, members of a minority Shiite Muslim sect that took control of Yemen's capital at the end of 2014, but critics warn that such a move could even worsening the already terrible humanitarian conditions without pushing the conflict towards a conclusion.
Individuals, who spoke the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said the administration considered a series of potential actions against the rebels, including minor measures to sanction the group, but said that no decision has been taken. It was not immediately clear to what extent the deliberations on the designation of terrorism, which would have been done by the State Department, have progressed.
The rise of the Houthi movement, which has received military support from Iran, has triggered a long-running military Persian Gulf Nations that fear the expansion of Tehran's reach on the Arabian peninsula. Since 2015, the jets of a Saudi-led coalition have bombed the areas controlled by Houthi while the allied ground forces attacked the rebel positions.
The war also dragged the United States into conflict with few clear American interests, generating criticism from US lawmakers who disapprove of American involvement in the war. The Pentagon provides air refueling to shoot down planes as they conduct missions to Yemen and share intelligence with coalition armies.
Opposition to US assistance to the Saudi-led Gulf coalition fighting in Yemen has grown due to repeated coalition attacks on Yemeni civilians and, separately, killing in Istanbul the Washington Post with the editorialist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national and critic of the Saudi monarchy, from a team sent by Riyadh.
The war has also triggered a massive humanitarian crisis in what was already the poorest country in the Middle East. Last month, the UN intensified their warnings on the situation in Yemen, stating that half of the population was facing pre-famine conditions.
Consideration of new steps to suppress the Houthi while Western diplomats call on the group to hold talks with the official Yemeni government, which has international support but limited influence on the ground.
Last week, United States Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have called for halting the fighting in Yemen, even though the forces supported by the Gulf coalition are approaching a long-awaited assault on the strategic port city of Hodeida, which the Houthis control.
Some US officials, in particular the State Department, resisted the moves to designate the Houthi a terrorist group, believing that this designation could complicate the efforts of UN negotiators to take off peace talks. A terrorist designation would be seen as a major escalation of US pressure against the group.
The special envoy U.N. for Yemen, Martin Griffiths of Great Britain, hopes to reunite Yemeni holidays by the end of the year. His last attempt, this fall, failed when the rebels refused to go to Europe for a scheduled meeting unless certain conditions were met
A designation would probably have caused the freezing of the financial activities of the Houthi movement, which controls the government institutions in the areas it occupies. Travel bans and other sanctions against those who thought to provide "material support" to the group would be prohibited.
Jason Blazakis, who previously oversaw the Department of State's office on terrorist designations, said that a move against the Houthi would be primarily symbolic. The rebels do not use the international financial system, and few Houthi figures would be affected by the travel ban in the United States.
The designation, however, would allow the US government to prosecute individuals believed to be the group's aides, Blazakis, who is now a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
In general, organizations that receive a designation of the State Department's terrorist group have a history of actions considered threatening to the national security of the United States. Designated groups include al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is active in Yemen, and branches of the Islamic State.
In October 2016, US military fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at coastal radar sites in Hemen-controlled areas after Yemen after missile attacks on US Navy ships in the area
Houthi are also accused of attacks on ships belonging to the Saudi-led coalition and merchant ships transiting through the waters of Yemen.
The 2016 attack on US ships resulted in a similar discussion within the Obama administration, but officials decided at that time not to pursue the designation.
In recent months, Pompey and national security adviser John Bolton have outlined a more muscular Iranian policy designed to halt his support for groups of delegates across the region. This month, the administration renewed the energy and other sanctions that were lifted in the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, from which President Trump withdrew the United States this year
US officials say Iran provided advanced military technology to the Houthi, but has closer ties to other organizations, such as Lebanese Hezbollah.
The designation of the Houthi as a terrorist group would be welcomed by Saudi Arabia, which took a similar step in 2014. The United States continued to participate in the war in Yemen largely due to its desire to support Riyadh, a close economic ally and counter-terrorist who has been repeatedly targeted by Houthi missiles.
The aid groups fear that a designation could worsen the suffering among Yemeni civilians because they could require groups to obtain licenses from the US government before they can continue their work in the areas controlled by Houthi. Already millions of Yemenis are unable to get food and medicine while the conflict hinders trade and creates a wave of preventable diseases.
Officials said the Trump administration is also examining other steps, less than a terrorist designation, according to which the United States could take to sanction the Houthi. In 2015, the Obama administration imposed individual sanctions on the group leader.
This spring, the Trump administration sanctioned five Iranians who presumed to have helped the Houthi acquire or use ballistic missiles.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and John Hudson, Karen DeYoung and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this relationship.