Activists lobby in DC on behalf of Yemen as Biden heads to Saudi Arabia

The Yemeni Coalition of Independent Women want the Biden Administration to redesignate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization.

 Military policemen ride on the back of a patrol truck at the site of a funeral of Houthi fighters killed during recent fighting against government forces, in Sanaa, Yemen December 6, 2021 (photo credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS)
Military policemen ride on the back of a patrol truck at the site of a funeral of Houthi fighters killed during recent fighting against government forces, in Sanaa, Yemen December 6, 2021
(photo credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS)

As US President Joe Biden jets off to Jeddah this weekend, a group of Yemen activists is in Washington, pushing for a change in America’s direction.

A delegation of the Yemeni Coalition of Independent Women spent the early part of the week meeting with State Department officials, members of Congress, and think tanks in an effort to get the Biden Administration to redesignate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and bring the Yemeni Civil War back into the consciousness of a Congress focused on Ukraine.

“We had very positive meetings regarding our vision of how to distribute and deliver humanitarian aid without the help of the Houthis. We came away with the impression that many people, especially in Congress, think that it’s a war between the Saudi-led Arab coalition against the Houthis, which is not true,” Manel Msalmi, a delegation member and Brussels-based diplomatic adviser, told The Media Line.

She said the finger needs to be pointed at Iran, which finances and trains the Houthis. In its final days, the Trump administration designated the Houthis as an FTO, but the Biden White House moved quickly to strip that title, ostensibly to open the door for negotiations for a cease-fire. Some critics allege it was more an opening gesture to Tehran, which Washington was seeking to begin reengaging with under President Joe Biden.

“We got the sentiment that the agenda we are pushing is not likely to happen in near future, as the Biden Administration holds out hope on the prospect of extending the [UN-brokered] truce in early August, and [because of] the State Department’s concerns on the humanitarian impact of placing the FTO tag back on the Houthis,” Irina Tsukerman, a human rights and national security attorney and delegation member, told The Media Line.The truce is due to expire on August 2.

 Workers walk on stairs of a building hit by Saudi-led air strike at a telecommunication station in Sanaa, Yemen, February 14 , 2022. (credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS) Workers walk on stairs of a building hit by Saudi-led air strike at a telecommunication station in Sanaa, Yemen, February 14 , 2022. (credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS)

“We got the sentiment that the agenda we are pushing is not likely to happen in near future, as the Biden Administration holds out hope on the prospect of extending the [UN-brokered] truce in early August."

Human rights and national security

Tsukerman said the delegation held meetings with staff from the office of US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, along with one-on-ones on Capitol Hill with Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D- Michigan), a House Armed Services Committee member; Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R- Washington), Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana), the House Minority Whip; and Rep. Young Kim (R-California), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

A pair of think tanks, including the conservative Heritage Foundation, also played host to the delegation.

Msalmi said the delegation got a friendlier listen in the halls of Congress.

“Congressional offices were very clear there is some level of openness to seeing the Houthis as a serious threat, a group that coordinates with a number of terror organizations, and that the truce is unlikely to stick for very long. At the end of the day, the Houthis are an Iran proxy, and the humanitarian aid that was supposed to flow freely as a result of the delisting has not helped the Yemeni population. Instead, it’s been stolen and appropriated. Under the FTO, humanitarian aid was easier to monitor,” said Msalmi.

The Yemeni Coalition of Independent Women 

The Yemeni Coalition of Independent Women bills itself as an organization representing civil society and nonpartisan political movements. It lists its key objectives as promoting women’s rights, increasing participation in the political process, and integrating women into all state institutions at all levels, including peacebuilding and national reconciliation in Yemen. The group is led by Dr. Wesam Ba Sondowah, a Cairo-based political science professor, whose father, Mohammed Basindawa, served as Yemen’s prime minister from 2011 to 2014.

The Yemen Civil War has dragged on for nearly eight years, inflicting catastrophic damage on the population. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominating foreign policy headlines for several months, Msalmi said that the American president’s trip to Jeddah provided an ideal opportunity to put Yemen back on the map of congressional and administrative priorities. “In parallel with President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, we wanted this issue to be on the top of the agenda, one of the main topics that will be addressed during the visit of President Biden. But we really wanted the US administration and US officials to be considering the issue of Yemen, and to have the whole picture regarding the humanitarian and the political crisis, which has been forgotten and which has resulted in the persecution of children, women and minorities,” said Msalmi.

While President Biden heads to Jeddah, in part to coordinate a regional strategy to contain Iran, parallel, on-and-off indirect discussions continue between Washington and Tehran on a mutual return to the Iran nuclear accord. But, with those negotiations seemingly going nowhere − and perhaps regressing − Msalmi said there is little reason to avoid confrontation with Iran over the White House’s dealings with the Houthis.

“I think that they delisted the Houthis just to show that they are at least giving Iran something in these negotiations. The thing is that the human rights situation was much better when there were sanctions on the Houthis, and when the Iran deal was stopped by the Trump administration. Getting back to the Iran deal would not really help the Yemeni population. And keeping the Houthis delisted would give them the opportunity to continue human rightsviolations and give the impression that they cannot be punished by international courts or by any economic sanctions,” said Msalmi.

Other options

Still, with the FTO relisting unlikely, the Yemen delegation did come with other options, presenting a letter to President Biden requesting support for female leaders in Yemen and for increased humanitarian and economic cooperation with the Presidential Leadership Council, the executive body of Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

Tsukerman said the group is also calling for more defense cooperation between the US and the Arab coalition, which she said would improve prospects for US regional cooperation, minimize civilian casualties and promote more productive intelligence gathering.