The Trump administration is considering the possibility of designating Yemen's Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, people familiar with the discussions, as part of a campaign to end the country's civil war and pressure on their ally Iran.
The terrorist designation, which would inject a new and unpredictable element into delicate diplomatic efforts to initiate peace talks, has been discussed periodically at least since 2016, according to several individuals. But the issue has received a new look in recent months, as the White House seeks to outline a tough stance on Iran-related groups throughout the Middle East, they said.
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 worsen already terrible humanitarian conditions without pushing the conflict closer to a conclusion.
Individuals, who spoke on 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 it was not no decision made. It was not immediately clear to what extent the deliberations on the designation of terrorism, which is made by the State Department, have progressed.
The rise of the Houthi movement, which has received military support from Iran, has unleashed a long military operation by 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 a conflict with few clear American interests, generating criticism from legislators who disapprove of US involvement in the war. The Pentagon provides for the refueling of the Gulf planes as they conduct missions to Yemen and shares intelligence with the coalition armed forces.
The opposition has grown in the wake of repeated coalition strikes against Yemeni civilians and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi monarchy, by 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.
The consideration of new measures to repress the Houthis takes place as Western diplomats intensify their demands for the group to hold talks with the official Yemeni government, which has international support but has limited influence on the ground.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo broke off fighting in Yemen last week, even though the forces supported by the Gulf coalition are approaching the long-awaited attack on the strategic port city of Hodeida, controlled from the Houthi.
Some officials, particularly the State Department, resisted the moves to designate Houthi as a terrorist group because they believe it could make it more difficult for US negotiators to get ground peace talks. A designation would be seen as a major escalation of US pressure against the group.
The Norwegian envoy Martin Griffiths hopes to bring the Yemeni sides together later this month. His last attempt ended in failure at the start of this fall after the rebels refused to go to Europe for a scheduled meeting unless certain conditions were met.
A designation would probably lead to the freezing of the Houthi movement's financial assets, which controls government institutions in areas under its control, travel prohibitions and punishments for those believed to provide "material support" to the group.
Jason Blazakis, who had previously oversaw the Department of State's office on terrorist designations, said that such a move against the Houthi would be mostly symbolic. The rebels do not use the international financial system and few Houthi figures would be affected by the ban on travel in the United States.
The designation, however, would allow the US government to prosecute individuals deemed to be group helpers, said Blazakis, who is now a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
Typically organizations that receive a terrorist group from the State Department the designation has a history of actions seen as threats to US national security. 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's Houthi-controlled areas after a series of missile attacks on Navy ships in the area.
The Houthi are also accused of attacks on ships belonging to the coalition led by the Saudis and merchant ships passing 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 aggressive policy on Iran, intended to halt its support for groups of delegates across the region. This month the administration renewed the energy and other sanctions that were revoked in 2015 with the nuclear agreement with Iran, which President Trump has withdrawn at the beginning of this quest. # 39; year.
US officials say Iran has provided advanced military technology to the Houthis but has closer ties to other organizations, such as Lebanese Hezbollah.
The designation of the Houthi would be welcomed by Saudi Arabia, which took a similar step in 2014. The United States has continued to participate in the war in Yemen largely because they wish to support Riyadh, a close economic and anti-terrorist ally who he was repeatedly hit by Houthi missiles.
The aid groups fear that a designation could worsen the suffering among Yemeni civilians because it could require them to obtain licenses from the US government before they can continue working in the areas controlled by Houthi. Already millions of Yemenis are unable to access food and medicine while the conflict hinders trade and peaks in preventable diseases.
The officials said the administration is also examining other steps, unless a terrorist designation, which it 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 allegedly helped the Houthi acquire or employ ballistic missiles.
Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and John Hudson, Karen DeYoung and Julie Tate contributed to this relationship.