The Trump administration is considering appointing Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organization, regulars said in a campaign to end the country's civil war and put pressure on its ally , Iran.
The terrorist designation, which would introduce an unpredictable new element into fragile diplomatic efforts to open peace talks, has been discussed periodically since at least 2016, according to several individuals. But the issue has been the subject of further scrutiny in recent months as the White House sought to take a tough stand with respect to Iran-related groups across the Middle East, they said.
An official terrorist designation by the State Department could further isolate the rebels, members of a Shia Muslim minority sect who took control of the Yemeni capital late 2014, but critics warn that a such an approach could also aggravate already dire humanitarian conditions without reinforcing the conflict. to a conclusion.
The individuals, who requested anonymity to describe their internal deliberations, said that the administration had considered a range of potential actions against the rebels, including lesser measures to punish the group. but that no decision had been taken. It was not immediately clear to what extent the State Department's deliberations on the terrorist designation had progressed.
The rise of the Houthi movement, which has received Iran's military support, has triggered a protracted military operation by the Gulf countries that fear the extension of Tehran's reach into the Arabian Peninsula. Since 2015, planes from a Saudi-led coalition have been bombing Houthi-controlled areas, while Allied ground forces have attacked rebel positions.
The war also dragged the United States into a conflict of little clear US interests, prompting criticism from lawmakers who disapprove of US engagement in the war. The Pentagon provides refueling of Gulf planes during missions over Yemen and shares information with coalition members.
Opposition increased following repeated strikes by the coalition against Yemeni civilians and the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi monarchy, by a rushed Riyadh team.
The war also triggered a massive humanitarian crisis in what was already the poorest country in the Middle East. Last month, the United Nations intensified its warnings about the situation in Yemen, saying half of the population was facing pre-famine conditions.
Western diplomats are increasingly calling on the group to engage with the official Yemeni government, which enjoys international support but limited influence on the ground.
Last week, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a halt to fighting in Yemen, even as forces supported by the Gulf coalition are getting closer to a long-awaited onslaught on the strategic port city of Hodeida, controlled by the Houthis.
Some officials, particularly from the State Department, have resisted any attempt to designate the Houthis as a terrorist group, saying US negotiators may have more difficulty getting the peace talks going. A designation would be considered a major escalation of US pressure on the group.
US envoy Martin Griffiths hopes to bring the Yemeni parties together by the end of the year. His latest attempt failed earlier this fall, after the rebels refused to travel to Europe for a scheduled meeting unless certain conditions were met.
A designation would likely freeze the financial assets of the Houthi movement, which controls government institutions in areas under its control, as well as travel bans and sanctions for those who are supposed to provide "material support" to the group.
Jason Blazakis, who previously headed the state department's office for terrorism designations, said such an approach against the Houthis would be essentially symbolic. The rebels do not use the international financial system and few Houthist figures would be affected by a ban on traveling to the United States.
The designation would, however, allow the US government to sue people suspected of helping the group, said Blazakis, who is currently a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
As a general rule, organizations that receive a terrorist group from the State Department designation have a history of acts considered a threat to the national security of the United States. The designated groups include Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), also active in Yemen, and branches of the Islamic State.
In October 2016, the US military fired Tomahawk missiles at coastal radar sites in Yemen-controlled areas of the Houthis after a series of cruise missile attacks against Navy vessels in the region .
The Houthis are also accused of attacking vessels belonging to the Saudi-led coalition and merchant ships sailing in waters off Yemen.
The 2016 attack on US ships sparked a similar discussion within the Obama administration, but officials then decided not to seek designation.
In recent months, Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have introduced a tougher policy on Iran, designed to end his support for proxy proxy groups in the region. This month, the administration renewed its energy and other sanctions that had been lifted as part of Iran's 2015 nuclear deal, which President Trump had withdrawn earlier this year.
US officials said Iran had provided advanced military technology to the Houthis, but that it had closer ties with other organizations, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The designation of the Houthis would be welcomed by Saudi Arabia, which adopted a similar approach in 2014. The United States continued its involvement in the war in Yemen largely due to their willingness to support Riyadh, an ally close to the economy and counter-terrorism, hit repeatedly by Houthi missiles.
Humanitarian organizations are concerned that this designation may exacerbate the suffering of Yemeni civilians as it may require them to obtain a license from the US government before they can continue to operate in Houthi-controlled areas. Already, millions of Yemenis do not have access to food and medicine because conflict stops trade and creates a spike in preventable diseases.
Officials said the administration was also considering other measures, aside from a terrorist designation, it may be necessary to punish the Houthis. In 2015, the Obama administration imposed individual sanctions on the group leader.
This spring, the Trump government sanctioned five Iranians who allegedly helped the Houthis acquire or use ballistic missiles.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and John Hudson, Karen DeYoung and Julie Tate contributed to this report.