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Understanding The Forces At Play In Yemen's Civil War


Let's go overseas now and try to understand what is really happening in Yemen. What is certain is that the government collapsed. A rebel faction took over the capital. And last week, Saudi Arabia intervened, conducting airstrikes with support from allies, including the United States. Many people have seen Yemen's conflict as part of a regional war. It's seen as a grand struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but Adam Baron does not see it that way at all. He says we're viewing the struggle the wrong way. He's a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

ADAM BARON: This is treated as a sectarian battle between Iran-backed Shia and Saudi Arabia-backed Sunnis. But really, when you look at the essence of Yemen's problem, that's not really it. You have plenty of Yemeni Sunnis who are siding with the Houthis in this case. Particularly, you have branches of the Yemeni military that are largely Sunni that are fighting on the side of the Houthis. And when you look at why the Houthis have gained this support, it's largely due to non-religious issues. And I think it's also important to remember that Yemen is not a country with a huge history of sectarianism.

INSKEEP: Well, wait a minute here. So we have been thinking about this as a sectarian conflict which we have to worry about because there are multiple Sunni and Shia conflicts throughout the region. It's part of this grand civilizational battle within Islam, and Americans have to worry about it because Iran is on one side and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is on the other side. And you're saying actually this is a local dispute that doesn't have very much to do with this or didn't anyway.

BARON: It didn't. I mean, the question is whether that happens in the coming days. You know, there's always this tendency to simplify things, and I think you're also seeing people kind of - because there's such a minimal knowledge of Yemen, among even many policymakers in the States, you're seeing people kind of impose their stereotypes and their visions of the region onto Yemen without working to really understand what is effectively a very complicated and largely localized conflict. The problem now is this conflict is increasingly being regionalized.

INSKEEP: When you say the conflict is being regionalized - a local conflict is being regionalized - what was it about before, and what's it becoming about now that Saudi Arabia is involved?

BARON: So what you had before was a - very much a political conflict. It was about who is going to rule Yemen in which way. It was about who's getting what, about whether - the Houthis wanting their seat at the table, other people not wanting to give up some of their power. It was effectively different local groups fighting for control, fighting in combination with the tribal turf war in many parts of Yemen. But effectively, this is a very local conflict. Now what you have is Saudi Arabia and the rest of the coalition coming in and making what was a local turf war into a regional religious battle. And that's something that makes the conflict in Yemen, which was already something that was very combustible, into something that's even more dangerous.

INSKEEP: Well, let's be frank about this though - Iranian officials, some of them anyway, have proclaimed publicly Iran's interest in and involvement in the conflict. They were doing that even before the Saudis arrived.

BARON: Yeah. I mean, the Houthis have always had a certain degree of ties with Iran. That being said, there's been a great degree of exaggeration of these ties. The Houthis are glad to have Iran's political support. They're glad have some financial and military support. But when it comes down to it, it's not as if the Houthis were created by Iran, and further, it's not as if the Houthis are being controlled by Iran. This is a group that is rooted in local Yemeni issues, and its actions are fundamentally rooted in the decisions of its local Yemeni leaders.

INSKEEP: You wrote a number of days ago just before the Saudi intervention, this is a good conflict to stay out of - too late for that. What would you have U.S. and other policymakers do now?

BARON: I think the absolute necessity of U.S. policymakers and European policymakers at this point is to do everything in their power to stop this conflict from escalating and get all sides back to the negotiating table. The only way this will end in a way that is not absolutely disastrous for Yemen and potentially the region is if this conflict is ended quickly. Right now, you have a situation where Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, is effectively being blockaded, where a country that is heavily reliant on wheat and rice imports is being blockaded. You're looking at a situation where, in the coming days and weeks if this continues, you're going to have a humanitarian crisis that is even bigger than the humanitarian crisis Yemen is facing now, and that's something that is very disturbing.

INSKEEP: Adam Baron, thanks very much.

BARON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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