Displaced Yemenis at a makeshift camp for people who fled fighting between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government forces in Yemen's third city of Taez on January 18, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ahmad al-Basha

President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will quickly revisit the designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as terrorists and end support to the devastating Saudi offensive on the country, his pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said Tuesday.

At his confirmation hearing, Blinken said he would “immediately” review the outgoing Trump administration’s labeling of the Iranian-linked insurgents, fearing the move was worsening a humanitarian crisis.

“At least on its surface,,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the designation “seems to achieve nothing particularly practical in advancing the efforts against the Houthis and to bring them back to the negotiating table while making it even more difficult than it already is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who desperately need it.”

Donald Trump’s administration announced the move on January 11, nine days before Biden takes over on Wednesday.

Trump has been a staunch ally of Saudi Arabia, offering US logistical help and military sales for its more than six-year campaign to dislodge the rebels who have taken over much of the country.

Blinken said that the Saudis have “contributed to what is by most accounts the worst humanitarian situation anywhere in the world.”

“The Houthis bear significant responsibility for what’s happened in Yemen, but the way the campaign has been conducted has also contributed significantly to that situation,” he said. “And so our support should end.”

Warnings from Houthis

The United Nations and aid groups have warned the terrorist designation risks worsening the plight of a country where millions depend on aid to survive.

The designation took effect Tuesday, with the Huthis warning they would respond to any action against them.

“We are ready to take all necessary measures against any hostile act,” they said in a statement.

The designation is expected to halt many transactions with Huthi authorities, including bank transfers and payments to medical personnel and for food and fuel, due to fears of US prosecution.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, called on the United States to reverse the move.

“Our position on this has not changed,” Dujarric said. “We call on the government to reverse that decision.”

“Our concern from the beginning, that we expressed very clearly, is the impact on the commercial sector,” he said.

“The vast majority of food and other basic supplies that comes into Yemen comes in through the commercial sector.”

Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in announcing the designation, pointed to an attack on the airport on Yemen’s second city Aden in late December that apparently targeted Yemen’s new government.

Blinken said the United States remained “clear-eyed about the Houthis.”

“They overthrew a government in Yemen, they engaged in a path of aggression through the country, they directed aggression toward Saudi Arabia and committed atrocities and human rights abuses,” he said. “And that is a fact.”

But he said that efforts by Pompeo to exempt aid groups were insufficient as they concerned US rather than international groups.

Aid groups fear that they will face legal problems in the United States by interacting with the Huthis, which they say is unavoidable as they are the de facto government in much of Yemen.

Review Taliban deal

Blinken earlier said he would undertake a review of a deal with Afghanistan’s Taliban and believed the United States needed means to prevent any resurgence of terrorism.

The Trump administration signed a deal on February 29 last year with the Taliban to end America’s longest war but controversially kept some annexes classified.

“We want to end this so-called forever war. We want to bring our forces home. We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place,” Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, told his Senate confirmation hearing.

“We have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated. I haven’t been privy to it yet.”

In the accord signed in Doha, the United States said it would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 and the Taliban pledged not to allow extremists to operate from Afghanistan, although the group continued attacks on government forces.

The removal of Al-Qaeda was the original reason for the US invasion following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

But the fact the agreement came with annexes that remain classified has led to criticism in the United States that there were secret understandings with the Taliban.

On its way out, the Trump administration said Friday it had reduced troop levels to just 2,500, the lowest in decades.

Biden was an early advocate of ending the war in Afghanistan but his aides have more recently spoken of the need for a small force to counter outbreaks of violence – a stance unlikely to be stomached by the Taliban.

Under questioning from Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a fellow Democrat, Blinken promised to consider the rights of women and girls whose freedoms were severely curtailed during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime.

“I don’t believe that any outcome that they might achieve,” Blinken said of nascent talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, “is sustainable without protecting the gains that have been made by women and girls in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.”

“I would acknowledge to you that I don’t think that’s going to be easy, but we will work on it.”