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How The Missile Strike On A Yemen Base Affects The Ongoing Peace Process

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last Saturday on a military base in Yemen, government soldiers had gathered in the base mosque for evening prayers. Then, a missile struck. At least a hundred people are dead, according to the Yemeni armed forces. It is one of the bloodiest attacks of the country's years-long civil war, where Yemeni government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies, are fighting against Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran and control the capital Sana'a. We're joined now by Peter Salisbury. He's a Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Welcome.

PETER SALISBURY: Thank you very much for having me.

CHANG: So what else can you tell us about the strike over this weekend?

SALISBURY: Well, this strike has been part of a series of escalations between the government of Yemen and the Houthis that we've seen, really, over the last two, three weeks that could threaten to disrupt a planned peace process this year. So they're really quite concerning.

CHANG: And besides affecting the peace process, how has it affected the situation on the ground in the days since the attack?

SALISBURY: So we'd already seen an increase in ground fighting along certain front lines to the east of Sana'a. And, really, that fighting has intensified. It's also led the Saudis, who are backing the internationally recognized government's forces, to launch air strikes against the Houthis. And if this is allowed to escalate, even if violence on the border is reducing, is falling, there is the risk that this could translate to an escalation across all the front lines in Yemen - there are many, many front lines; it's a very complex conflict - and really push us back into maybe the most intense fighting we've seen since the beginning of the war. It would cause a loss of faith among the Houthi political class who've been really pushing these talks with the Saudis and pushing the idea of a political settlement. And it would really mean that we'd be (unintelligible) sort of one, two more years of a war that has already precipitated what the U.N. says is the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

CHANG: Now, the U.N. and others have cited that strikes by the Saudi-backed side are happening on civilian targets. Do we know if those attacks are still happening?

SALISBURY: Certainly, we've seen a reduction in the number of Saudi strikes in northern Yemen, in areas that the Houthis control but not a complete halt. And it seems sort of inevitable consequence at this point that wherever there are sort of a large volume of Saudi strikes, they do seem to hit civilian targets, whether on purpose or not.

CHANG: And, of course, this missile attack came just after the U.S. killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. And I'm wondering, how might that be a factor here?

SALISBURY: That's certainly a question a lot of people are asking. I'm not sure if the killing of Soleimani and, in fact, a U.S. attack on an Iranian commander inside Yemen are necessarily what caused this air strike. It seems to be much more connected to the fighting on the ground in Yemen and the strategic calculus of the Houthis and others. But at the same time, of course, that's going to play into the narrative, the story that both sides tell about why things are happening right now.

CHANG: Even if the killing of General Soleimani did not directly lead to this attack on Saturday, the U.S. has long played a role in this war in Yemen by backing the Saudis. So what role should the U.S. be playing now to repair the peace process?

SALISBURY: Until even a few weeks ago, I would have said that the Americans are playing a pretty positive role in Yemen, really pushing the Saudis and others to enter into dialogue with the Houthis and move this conflict towards a resolution. The killing of Soleimani was counterproductive to that, but so was an attempted hit strike on a senior Iranian commander based in Yemen, which some people on the Houthi side have argued was really a U.S. entrance into the conflict directly, where it has argued, up till now, that it's not a party to the conflict. So that does complicate matters somewhat. And the question now is, will the regional American strategy of applying more and more pressure to the Iranians be sustained in Yemen? Or will they return to this path of promoting dialogue and a political solution to the conflict? And unfortunately, with this administration, it's been very hard to know which way they're going.

CHANG: Peter Salisbury is the senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group.

Thank you very much.

SALISBURY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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