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Saudi Arabia Launches Airstrikes On Houthi Rebels In Yemen


There've been more dramatic developments in Yemen today as Saudi Arabia continues its air campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Yemen's ousted president has been whisked out of the country under Saudi protection. And there are signs that ground troops could be sent in. The Saudis say they're working with a large coalition of Arab countries to restore the president to power and prevent a Houthi takeover. The U.S. is supporting this action, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For now, the U.S. role is limited, as CENTCOM Commander General Lloyd Austin explained at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.


GENERAL LLOYD AUSTIN: We will help the Saudis with intelligence and logistics and planning support. They're great partners, and I think they're very much appreciative of the help that we'll provide them.

KELEMEN: He says he only learned about the Arab military campaign just before it started, though. And that stunned Arizona Republican John McCain.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I mean, that is really a fantastic indicator of the deterioration of the trust and confidence that these countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, have in us.

KELEMEN: California congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, tells NPR it's important for the U.S. to have Saudi Arabia's back in Yemen.

CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: The potential of it descending into chaos is of great concern not only in the Gulf countries but the United States. This gives al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as ISIS a great opportunity to grow, as we have seen in other places where the central government has fallen apart.

KELEMEN: And the recent pullout of U.S. special forces makes it tough for the U.S. to watch, he says.

SCHIFF: We're not blind as to what's going on. But we have less visibility than when we had a large military footprint there or even a moderate footprint there.

KELEMEN: Congressman Schiff says the only way out of this crisis is for a negotiated solution. Saudi ambassador Adel al-Jubeir says he hopes the Iranian-backed Houthis have the wisdom to return to negotiations.


ADEL AL-JUBEIR: We will do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling and from facing any dangers from an outside militia. We have a situation where you have a militia group that is now in control, or can be in control, of ballistic missiles, of heavy weapons and of an air force.

KELEMEN: One expert on Yemen at Georgetown University says he's sympathetic to the Saudi fears. but Christopher Swift says it's a mistake to handle this solely as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

CHRISTOPHER SWIFT: What's happening on the ground in Yemen is being driven by local dynamics. Some of them are political. Some of them are ideological. Some of them are tribal. It's a multi-sided war, not a two-sided war. And the more that we treat it like a proxy war and the more that our allies in Saudi Arabia treat it like a proxy war, the more likely it is to become one.

KELEMEN: Swift, who's also a national security lawyer at Foley and Lardner, says the latest conflict dates back to 2011 - the height of the Arab Spring, when Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners effectively forced out Yemen's longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and brought his vice president to power. The idea was to have a transition to a more stable Yemen. But as Swift points out, Saleh didn't retire to the French Riviera.

SWIFT: He stayed in country. He maintained his own militia. He maintained his own loyal members of the security services. And what we've seen over the space of the last six-to-nine months is him cut a deal with the same Houthi rebels that he fought three wars against in the last decade in order to bring himself and his entourage back to power.

KELEMEN: He says this shows that Yemeni politics remain fragmented and difficult to manage for the U.S. and for its Gulf Arab allies. The International Committee for the Red Cross is now calling on all sides to protect civilians. Amnesty International says at least six children were among the dead when Saudi airstrikes flattened some homes near an air base in the capital Sanaa. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.