Air War In Yemen May Come At The Expense of Coalition Against ISIS

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Most of the members of the coalition conducting air strikes in Yemen, are also members of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria that's been waging an air campaign against the self-styled Islamic State.

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Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We'll ask now what is really driving the war in Yemen and also how that work could affect the rest of the region.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Saudi Arabia and eight other Arab nations have carried out air attacks in Yemen. They're targeting the Houthi rebels who control the capital. It is widely believed the rebels are backed by Iran.

MONTAGNE: The Arab nations' intervention raises many questions. One is whether they might lose interest in a different war - the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: At a Capitol Hill hearing yesterday, Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said he was impressed with the kind of dispatch the nine Arab nations showed in bombing the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. And Kaine wondered why they have not shown the same kind of enthusiasm for fighting ISIL, as he referred to the Islamic State.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR TIM KAINE: Is a possible explanation for the force of the action against Yemen is that all of these nations believe that Iran is their more pressing challenge and they actually don't think of ISIL as the same kind of pressing challenge that they view when they look at Iran?

WELNA: The question was directed to Gen. Lloyd Austin. He heads the U.S. Central Command and directs U.S. military operations in the Middle East. Austin came to the defense of the Arab states in that coalition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GENERAL LLOYD AUSTIN: I can attest to the fact that they do see ISIL as a pressing challenge, sir. I do think that a big driver here is the geography associated with this.

WELNA: Namely that Yemen borders Saudi Arabia, but Gen. Austin also sounded a note of caution. The new multination offensive in Yemen, he said, could well have a downside in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

AUSTIN: As they begin to focus on the Yemen problem, naturally because of resources we'll probably see less of an effort in Syria.

WELNA: Earlier this week, Brookings Institution Middle East expert Kenneth Pollack warned Congress that Saudi Arabia may be making a bad move.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KENNETH POLLACK: One of the greatest dangers is a Saudi Arabia that is itself facing a number of internal challenges will overstretch its resources by getting deeply involved in a Yemeni quagmire.

WELNA: Saudi Arabia used a hundred of its warplanes to attack the Houthis. Its allies supplied another 85. Now that they're fighting on a new battlefield, it's not clear how much they'll be doing in Syria. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.