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An Update On Yemen's Escalating Crisis


Airstrikes continued for the third day today in Yemen. A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia is bombing Houthi rebels who are said to be backed by Iran.

IONA CRAIG: It does appear now that this has already turned into a proxy battle. With the Saudi's launching these airstrikes, it's played into the regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

RATH: That's Iona Craig, an independent journalist who has spent the last four years reporting from Yemen. She spoke with me earlier from London. The U.S. had been working with the Yemeni government to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, but President Hadi has been driven about by Houthi rebels. I asked Craig how this is going to affect the overall U.S. strategy in the region.

CRAIG: Well, I think the U.S. strategy now is in pieces really. It very much relied upon, you know, cooperation with Yemen's intelligence agency, particularly the National Security Bureau or the NSB as it's known. That fell into the control of the Houthis once they had control - complete control of Sanaa.

So they had access then to all the intelligence information that had previously been under Hadi's - President Hadi's control, if you like. On top of that, then the other corporation was the counterterrorism troops who were being trained by U.S. Special Forces, and the last of those U.S. Special Forces left Yemen just over a week ago.

And now, all that's really left is the drone program. But without the human intelligence on the ground, obviously that's going to be difficult - and now there's airstrikes going on anyway. I think that's going to have to be on the back burner for the foreseeable future at least.

RATH: Now, the Yemeni government, which you mentioned the former president - this is not an old government. Have they ever had broad popular support among Yemenis?

CRAIG: There was a kind of moment after 2011 when President Hadi was voted in in a one-man election - so his was the only name on the ballot paper. And I think there was a lot of hope at that point for - there was a window of time when everybody felt very optimistic because Ali Abdullah Saleh was finally leaving. But you have to remember that President Hadi was his deputy for 17 years prior to that. So it's not as if really what - after 2011 there was real change. It was just a reshuffle of the old regime. And I think as time went on, people realized that this new government was certainly no better and possibly even worse.

RATH: And what about the Houthi rebels? Do they have popular support?

CRAIG: Well, the Houthis - they did garner some support. You know, they've existed since 2004, and they were very much marginalized and persecuted by Ali Abdullah Saleh previously. They were enemies, and he'd fought them in six wars. And after the Arab Spring, they did gain more support.

And then, as Hadi's government started to fail, they were sort of pushing for change, calling for an end to corruption, brought up the issues of fuel prices - that did broaden their support outside of their original sort of sheer bounds if you like. But I think that's changed a lot in the last sort of six to nine months as they've become an increasingly violent force within Yemen.

RATH: Finally, there was a report from the International Crisis Group which predicted prolonged violence unless a peace deal is negotiated in Yemen. Who would negotiate such a peace deal, and from your reporting, how likely do you think a cease-fire is?

CRAIG: The likelihood of a cease-fire is not looking good at the moment. Even today, President Hadi made a speech to the Arab League saying, you know, that he wanted airstrikes - these airstrikes to continue. And certainly, if they start using ground troops, then we're looking at a very prolonged conflict probably. But we seem to be a long way off the option of really going into so many serious talks at the moment.

RATH: Iona Craig is an independent journalist. She spoke with us from London. Iona, thanks very much.

CRAIG: Thanks very much - thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.