US Sanctions Miss the Mark in Yemen

Unilateral actions by the US only weaken the international sanctions regimes and embolden Houthis on the ground, at great risk to aid workers.
Fernando Carvajal, Yemen news, war in Yemen, Houthis Yemen, Houthi human rights violations, UN sanctions on Yemen, UN sanctions Houthis, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi Yemen, Yemen international sanctions, Yemen US sanctions

Taiz, Yemen, 2/9/2017 © akramalrasny / Shutterstock

In mid-November, Washington threatened to list the Iran-linked Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization. The announcement stirred instant condemnation from international aid agencies but was praised by officials of the legitimate government of Yemen and other Houthi opponents. Falling short of the broad threat, the Trump administration recently listed five security officials as specially designated nationals for alleged human rights abuses. This move will have a minimal effect on the conduct of the war, but will significantly impact the work of aid agencies and the Biden administration’s potential approach to Yemen.   


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The five individuals were listed under the rules of the Yemen Sanctions Regulations, amended on October 29, which implements Executive Order 13611 of May 16, 2012. The process implemented by the Trump administration provides a hint at how the US could further target the Sanaa-based rebels prior to Joe Biden taking office in January. The move was largely symbolic, a gesture toward Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and falls short, so far, from the threat to sanction the Houthis as a terrorist organization.

There was also no mention of the links between the sanctioned rebels and Iran or its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The US did sanction Hasan Irlu, Tehran’s new envoy to Sanaa, linked to Hezbollah and the IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, assassinated by the US in January. Iran responded immediately by blacklisting the US Ambassador to Yemen, Christopher Henzel, for his “pivotal role in the occurrence of the humanitarian crisis.”   

Path to Sanctions

The October amendments to the Yemen Sanctions Regulations allowed the US to respond to pressure from regional allies and circumvent the stalemate within the UN Security Council (UNSC). The nature of the war — where Houthi rebels claim to be fighting on two fronts, one against the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the other against the “Yemeni mercenaries,” as they refer to the forces of the legitimate government — has allowed Saudi Arabia to take the lead in diplomatic and military affairs.

In 2014, the UNSC sanctioned Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and two rebel leaders, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya “Abu Ali” al-Hakem. This was followed by the sanctioning of Abd al-Malik Badr al-Din al-Houthi and Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh in April 2015 under Chapter VII. Both sets of mesures came as result of diplomatic efforts by Saudi Arabia, President Hadi and their Arab allies.

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The US Office of Foreign Assets Control followed each round of UN sanctions by listing individuals under Executive Order 13611 for “engaging in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security, or stability of Yemen.” These were significant diplomatic victories for Saudi Arabia and Yemen at a time when the Obama administration was negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.

On the military front, Saudi Arabia published a bounty list in November 2017, offering millions for 40 individuals from the Houthi-Saleh alliance. So far, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has only claimed the strike that killed Saleh al-Samad, the first head of the Supreme Political Council, in April 2018. While some accused the coalition of assassinating the Houthi minister for youth and sport, Hassan Zaid, this October, sources familiar with the incident claim it was as a result of infighting among Sanaa actors.

The current US administration has moved the bar to accommodate diplomatic pressure, risking creating both an obstruction to the delivery of aid across north Yemen and potential sabotage of the Biden administration’s future efforts. While it is imperative to continue to put pressure on Houthi officials over human rights abuses, the latest move by the Trump administration has only weakened the US role in the conflict rather than strengthening the opposition to the Houthis. The rebels will again claim that the US is not an honest actor in peace negotiations, especially following the release of US nationals by Houthi authorities in October under a UN-negotiated prisoner exchange

Bowing to Pressure

While Houthi opponents celebrated the news from Washington, many noted the bowing to pressure and the US failure to work through the United Nations. The listed officials — Abdul Hakim “Abu Karar” al-Khaiwani, Abd al-Qader al-Shami, Abdul Rahab “Abu Taha” Jarfan, Motlaq Amer “Abu Emad” al-Marrani and Sultan “Abu Sagar” Zabin — have been mentioned by the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen at one point or another since January 2017. At least two of the five have been at the center of discussions on a new round of UN sanctions.

Jarfan, the former director of the National Security Bureau (NSB), was first mentioned by the UN panel in January 2017 as part of the Houthi apparatus co-opting intelligence services in Sanaa. Although he was the face of the NSB until late 2019, Jarfan was most active in leading the extortion of local businesses to generate revenue for the Houthi leadership. Utilizing the full strength of the NSB, Jarfan was able to take over major corporations, like Universal Group and Yemen Armor, to increase revenue. These two companies in particular — a major property owner in Sanaa and the principal provider of armor vehicles — secured large streams of revenue extending from contracts with international aid organizations and UN agencies headquartered in Sanaa.

Al-Marrani, Jarfan’s former deputy and of Hashimi origin, served as the NSB supervisor and oversaw the detention and torture of political prisoners. As a Hashimi, al-Marrani was a highly trusted official closer to the top Houthi leadership.

Major General al-Khaiwani, also of Hashimi origin, was deputy minister of interior and is now the head of the Security and Intelligence Service established in October 2019. This agency merged the NSB and the Political Security Office (PSO), removing Jarfan and al-Marrani as result of a major conflict within Houthi ranks. Khaiwani’s new deputy, Major General al-Shami, another Hashimi, served as director of the PSO. Both were mentioned in the UN panel report in January this year, and we can only assume the US listing extends from their role over an agency holding hundreds of political prisoners among whom were the two US nationals released two months ago.

Lastly, Brigadier General Zabin, head of the Criminal Investigation Department, received significant attention from the UN panel as a result of his links to indiscriminate arrests of women in Sanaa. Zabin was reportedly recommended to the UN Security Council committee on Yemen for sanctions this year, but the stalemate extending from rivalries among the P5 members has delayed that vote. The US listing of Zabin may champion the human rights cause to protect women, but it directly disrupts operations by international organizations working through Houthi-held territory in northern Yemen.   

Push for a Solution

While the international community continues to condemn human rights abuses by Houthi authorities, all organizations working in Yemen would rather see a push toward a comprehensive solution to the armed conflict. Since the first two rounds of sanctions by the Security Council, seen largely as ineffective over the years, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen have sought further action by the international body, particularly with regards to the relationship between Houthis and Iran.

Pressure on the international community peaked in late 2017, when the UN panel confirmed the Houthi use of Iranian missiles and technology across battlefronts in Yemen and for strikes against Saudi territory. The calls to list Houthis as a terrorist organization have grown since 2019 as an alternative to bypass the stalemate at the UNSC.

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The five individuals sanctioned by the US for human rights abuses control the apparatus that maintains a strong grip on the population, deterring dissent. None are known to have assets outside Yemen. In fact, of the 10 Yemenis sanctioned so far, only the former president (who died in 2017) and his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, have known assets outside Yemen. China and Russia will continue to oppose new sanctions at the Security Council.

Retaliation by the Houthis is expected to further affect the general population as obstacles arise for aid agencies due to escalating military operations, which include targeting Saudi territory with increasing capabilities via sea mines, long-range ballistic missiles as well as air or water-borne drones. Further unilateral actions by Washington will only weaken the international sanctions regimes and embolden Houthis on the ground at great risk to foreign and Yemeni aid workers.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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