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Saudis Face Possible Negative Consequences With Yemen Airstrikes


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Scott Simon is away. The crisis in the country of Yemen intensified this week. The government has collapsed. Houthi rebels hold the presidential palace. Clashes between regional militias have left many people dead while Saudi-led airstrikes have added to the chaos. For more on the Saudi stake in all this, we're joined by Thomas Lippman. He's an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Middle East Institute and he joins us from here in Washington.


THOMAS LIPPMAN: Thank you, pleasure to talk to you.

WERTHEIMER: This campaign has been portrayed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Is that accurate, do you think?

LIPPMAN: Well, I think it's accurate, but it's also important to note that the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, gave a quite significant speech to the representative assembly the other day in which he went out of his way to say that this war is about restoring the legitimate government of Yemen. And he studiously avoided any references to Iran or to the Shiite branch of Islam. And I think it's politically better for the Saudis to portray this as a campaign to restore the legitimate government of Yemen which they helped to engineer the creation of in the first place.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the Saudi campaign, the Saudi decision to send airstrikes into Yemen comes two months after King Salman took over the throne. It seems kind of an extraordinary thing to do so early in his tenure.

LIPPMAN: Yes, but keep in mind that outsiders - and that includes me - really know very little about the decision-making process inside the royal tent, so to speak. In any case, it's certainly the first big test, and in my opinion, a big gamble for King Salman.

WERTHEIMER: A big gamble - why?

LIPPMAN: Well, because there could be very negative consequences. I mean, first of all, they could lose. The Houthi rebels in Yemen could defy the bombing and succeed in taking over the country, which would be a mighty embarrassment, especially because Iran would then step in to fill the aid and friendship vacuum in Yemen. You could get civilian collateral damage in which the Saudis would be seen to be bombing Sunni Muslims in a neighboring country. Yemen is already the poorest country in the region and its prospects are getting worse, not better. If you get a complete state failure or breakdown of services in Yemen, which is also running out of water, you could have an uncontrollable flow of refugees or other trouble for Saudi Arabia.

WERTHEIMER: You haven't mentioned the possibility that this whole thing might open the door for al-Qaida, the al-Qaida in Yemen, to take advantage of the chaos.

LIPPMAN: Well, that's also correct. I mean, it's sort of the mirror image of the situation in Iraq. There, the fight against ISIS has sort of obscured the fight for control of the country. And in Yemen, the Saudis are taking on the Houthis, which could in fact relieve Houthi pressure on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a group which is the Saudis' dedicated mortal enemy.

WERTHEIMER: So, do you think this was a miscalculation?

LIPPMAN: I don't know yet. Once President Hadi of Yemen fled the country a week ago and showed up in Riyadh, I mean, the Saudi's hand - they pretty much felt their hand was forced. How long they had been preparing for it, what kind of resources they had really prepared to put in, what happens if the air campaign isn't enough, I don't know. But I do think that if they took a gamble, it's a big gamble.

WERTHEIMER: That was Thomas Lippman, author of the book "Saudi Arabia On The Edge." He is an analyst at the Middle East Institute here in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.