Saudi Airstrikes Could Be Precursor To Ground Invasion In Yemen

Saudi Airstrikes Could Be Precursor To Ground Invasion In Yemen

5:43pm Mar 29, 2015

Saudi Arabia shares an 1,100-mile border with Yemen, a country quickly falling into anarchy. The Saudis have led airstrikes against rebel Houthi forces, but analysts say ground forces might not be far behind.

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Earlier today, Arab leaders agreed to form a multinational Arab military force to fight the rebel Houthi movement gaining strength in Yemen - this as Saudi Arabia led a fourth day of airstrikes against the Houthi. Analysts say the airstrikes, aimed at degrading Shia Houthi forces, may be a precursor to a ground invasion and could spark a wider regional conflict. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now from Cairo. First, Leila, tell us what is the latest inside Yemen.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: I spoke to residents in Sana'a, which is the capital of Yemen. And airstrikes have just resumed, and they're intense. This is a city under Houthi control, which is a Yemeni Shia group, and it's a city without bomb shelters or safe havens for residents to run to. During the respite today, people got out, got food and got back home, and the streets are empty now.

There's also bloody fighting in the port city of Aden, which was home to the Saudi-backed president, who's now out of the country. The U.N. has evacuated about 200 people. Diplomats are leaving in droves, and Houthis are continuing to fight for the city with its military allies. There's no signs that this is going to end.

RATH: Are there any signs of a ground invasion?

FADEL: Now, that's really the big question. The Saudi ambassador told NBC that right now, that the decision hasn't been made. But airstrikes alone won't really change dynamics on the ground, and negotiations are really a distant possibility at this point. Yemen's president has called on the Houthis to surrender in order to end the airstrike campaign, but that doesn't seem to be happening. Houthis are advancing.

I spoke to a young Houthi activist from a very prominent family who said at this point, he doesn't think even negotiations are possible. What he - what he was talking about was revenge. He says that the Houthis have to respond. And so for right now, what we're seeing is continued violence, and this isn't a country that's stable. It has a prominent presence of al-Qaida, and it's where the self-declared Islamic State just carried out a deadly bombing that killed over a hundred people. So more instability in Yemen could mean more instability in the region.

RATH: And in terms of the broader regional picture, why is Saudi Arabia leading this campaign?

FADEL: Well, analysts say this isn't just about Yemen. Saudi Arabia says it's reacting to protect the Yemeni president against Houthi advances, and they have a strong coalition of Sunni leaders backing them in this campaign. But Yemen's a tiny and really poor country, and it's had internal conflict for decades. Analysts say this is more about power in the region between two regional heavyweights - Saudi Arabia, which has a Sunni Arab monarchy, and Shia Iran. Saudi Arabia backs the Yemeni government, and Iran backs the Houthis.

Analysts say this is Saudi's message to Iran, which so far has the upper hand in places like Iraq and Syria. What's unclear is how much control Iran has over the Houthis in Yemen. We've also haven't seen this type of cooperation between Sunni Arab leaders in decades in the region. So what everyone seems to agree on right now is this is a really dangerous moment. Lines are being drawn between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran, so far, hasn't reacted other than to condemn and to call for an end to the airstrikes. So this may be the start of a proxy war inside Yemen.

RATH: NPR's Leila Fadel. Very, very complicated situation - thank you for clarifying this for us.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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