Yemenis Pay The Price For Saudi Arabia-Iran Rivalry

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Saudi-led airstrikes continue in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. And as usual, there was no warning. Residents worry that soon the battle will move from the sky to Yemen's soil.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are trying to make sense of recent events in Yemen, a country that's a haven for terrorists and has been descending deeper into chaos. The country's two major cities have been under attack by opposing forces. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been bombing the capital, Sanaa, now controlled by a rebel group known as the Houthis, and the Houthis are attacking the port city of Aden which is controlled by the regime they drove from the capital. Here's NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Overnight, the Saudi-led airstrikes resumed in the capital, Sanaa, and as usual there was no warning. Residents worry that soon the battle will move from the sky to Yemen's soil.

HISHAM AL-OMEISY: It's going to be a bloodbath.

FADEL: Hisham Al-Omeisy is a Yemeni activist and analyst who lives in Sanaa. He describes himself as anti-Houthi and also anti-airstrikes.

AL-OMEISY: We've been through airstrikes before in Yemen, and we know the futility of the airstrikes. They cannot accomplish much. OK, you bombarded one camp or the other, so then what? What's the next step?

FADEL: There is no sign of surrender from the Houthis, a Shia group backed by Iran, and no sign that Yemen's Saudi-backed president is willing to blink either. And Omeisy says many of the military camps controlled by elements of the army allied with the Houthis are empty, already looted by the Houthi militias.

AL-OMEISY: When everybody's, like, entrenched in his position, it only means that the only way this war is going to end is by one side totally annihilating the other side, and there's a lot of people who are going to be caught in the crossfire.

FADEL: Already dozens of people are dead and no one seems ready to talk. Hussein Bukhaiti is a Houthi activist from a prominent family. He says the Houthis are part of Yemen and foreigners are attacking Yemen.

HUSSEIN BUKHAITI: Anybody who call for foreign intervention in this country - it doesn't matter what happens, he's a traitor. We have to take revenge.

FADEL: Yemen is a small and largely poor country that has a long border with Saudi Arabia. Analysts say Saudi Arabia's intervention is less about Yemen and more about regional and sectarian rivalries.

SAMA'A AL HAMDANI: So it seems like Yemen is the scapegoat here.

FADEL: That's Sama'a al Hamdani, an independent Yemeni analyst based in Washington, D.C. She describes the Saudi-led campaign like this.

AL HAMDANI: In their minds, they're weakening Iranian presence in their border, in their neighboring country.

FADEL: On the ground, this isn't a sectarian conflict, she says. It's an internal conflict prompted by bad leadership on all sides since the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen in 2011, but Yemenis are paying the price for the Saudi and Iranian rivalry. Nabeel Khoury, a longtime U.S. diplomat now at Northwestern University, says this is Saudi Arabia's message to Iran.

NABEEL KHOURY: What it represents is kind of the Saudis drawing a line in the sand in terms of their rivalry with Iran.

FADEL: And the Houthis taking over Yemen completely, he says, would have been considered a win for Iran, but an air campaign alone won't curb Houthi control.

KHOURY: They're saying they will continue until the Houthis surrender. Are they willing to destroy all of Yemen? I mean, they'll have to carpet bomb the whole country to destroy the Houthis.

FADEL: Many believe a ground invasion is the next step unless military action ceases and the Houthi leader is invited to talks. Meanwhile, Yemen as a state has failed, he says. And with no central authority, al-Qaida and the self-proclaimed Islamic State will thrive in the vacuum. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.