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How escalating fighting in the Red Sea could impact the conflict in Yemen

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Houthis appear to be retaliating after American and British forces struck Yemen. The Pentagon says the Yemeni armed group fired an anti-ship cruise missile toward an American destroyer in the Red Sea yesterday that a U.S. fighter jet shot down. Today, the British military says another ship was hit by a missile in the Gulf of Aden, just off the coast of Yemen.

For weeks, the Houthis, a Yemeni armed group that controls swaths of the country, have been attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea. The Houthi says the attacks are a response to Israel's bombardment of Gaza. The U.S. and the U.K. say their attacks on the Houthis are aimed at protecting safe passage for ships in the Red Sea. All of this is raising concern that the Israel-Hamas war is spilling over. Meanwhile, Yemen is in the midst of its own civil war, with the Houthis on one side of that conflict.

To discuss what this all means for Yemen and the region, we're joined by Ahmed Nagi from Aden in Yemen. He's the senior Yemen analyst for the International Crisis Group, which works to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. Thanks for joining us.

AHMED NAGI: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: I want to start with how Yemenis are reacting to these strikes by the U.S. and the U.K. in reaction to what the Houthis have been doing.

NAGI: Yeah. First of all, we have this type of massive solidarity, of course, with what's going on in Gaza. People feel that - yeah. I mean, what's going on is, like, something concerning because of the, you know, continuation of the military operations coming from the Israeli side. So we have this type of resentment among local communities.

But on the other side, the Houthis are using this type of resentment to send different messages, showing that they are capable to do something for the Palestinians, not just to use words, as many other countries are doing - or many other armed groups. And from some perspectives, the Houthis are also benefiting a lot on the local levels because supporting Gaza or supporting Palestinian cause give them lots of positive impact on the local and regional level. Yeah.

FADEL: So how much of what the Houthis are doing in the Red Sea is really about the Palestinians? And how much is it about its own interests and trying to get support?

NAGI: Yeah. Well, from the Houthi perspective, they - I mean, the main motive is linking everything happening in the Red Sea with what's happening in Gaza. And they always say that if there's deescalation in Gaza, we're going to deescalate in the Red Sea.

But we know from, you know, the local - on the local level that the Houthis are putting themselves in the position that they are the representative of Yemen. And, of course, they are trying to, you know, on the long term, use this matter to help them to expand to different areas, including the areas that - controlled by the internationally recognized government.

NAGI: So here's the point. I mean, they are overlapping. I mean, the two things are connected to each other.

FADEL: Now, the U.S. and the U.K. said these strikes are aimed at degrading the military capability of the Houthis to get them to stop what they're doing in the Red Sea. In your view, will that work?

NAGI: Look. I mean, the airstrikes are symbolic. I'm not sure if they are impactful in terms of the - you know, destroying the Houthi military capabilities because we have seen the Saudi-led coalition military operations targeting the Houthis for around seven, eight years. And what we saw on the ground - the Houthis are getting stronger and stronger, and this is because of the - many, many things, but part of it is that the Houthis have this type of tactics to develop or to use any sort of grievances, victimization to recruit more people, which eventually turned them to be the most powerful group in the country.

So in my perspective, what's going on will not, you know, put the Houthis in a position where they decide to step back on the country. Maybe we can see more escalations from the Houthi side. And this is what happened last night.

FADEL: Now, you're - meanwhile, Yemen is trying to end a civil war that's ravaged the country for years. It's currently a fragile...

NAGI: That's true.

FADEL: ...Truce. But with the Houthis attacking ships in the Red Sea, being attacked by strikes, does all this change anything with this attempts - with these attempts to stop the civil war?

NAGI: Of course it will. It will - I mean, what's happening in the Red Sea will have a huge impact on the current political process between the Saudis and Houthis. Similarly, the U.N. is trying to expand this type of process to be more inclusive with the Yemeni local parties. I think with what's going on now, we can see frozen political negotiation, meaning that many international actors will see that what's happening in the Red Sea should be included in any sort of political arrangements. So I don't think there will be any sort of success when it comes to political process in the future, at least, you know, in the coming days.

FADEL: Ahmed Nagi is senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group, and he joined us from Aden in Yemen. Thank you for your time.

NAGI: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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