ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The military offensive that aid groups and the United Nations had feared in Yemen's disastrous civil war, that offensive has begun. The coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced the start of its attack on the Yemeni city of Hodeida. It's a large port city, vital for aid shipments into the country. Hundreds of thousands of people live there. It's controlled by the Houthis, a group that took over a lot of the country in 2014. They are backed by Iran. Meanwhile, the Saudi coalition has had help from the U.S. NPR's Jane Arraf is covering this and joins us now from Amman, Jordan. Hi, Jane.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What's the latest we know about the fighting for this port city?
ARRAF: Well, these Yemeni troops that are backed by the United Arab Emirates, which is a key partner of this Saudi-led coalition, they've actually been making their way along the Red Sea coast since last year. And early this morning before dawn, they actually reached the outskirts of Hodeida. Now, on the Houthi side, they say that they've been launching missiles at some of those ships. It's expected to be a very long fight. But this does seem like the start of a new phase in this very long war.
SHAPIRO: Explain why Yemen, this poor country at the end of the Arabian Peninsula, has become this center of global conflict and this port city in particular.
ARRAF: Well, the Saudis in launching this advance with their Yemeni and coalition partners are saying that some of this is to protect trade routes, shipping routes. It's a very important shipping corridor in the Red Sea where Hodeida is based. There are a lot of oil tankers going from the Middle East to Europe. But you have to look at the bigger picture of this for the real reason behind this, and that's thought to be the Saudi-UAE-Gulf fear that Iran is expanding in the region. So they believe by fighting the Houthis they're actually fighting Iran. And one of the things that they seem to be trying to do is to fight the Houthis into submission to get them to the bargaining table. And that's part of the problem. But behind all of this, there's a bigger regional conflict going on here.
SHAPIRO: With this assault on the port, what are the stakes for civilians? What are the humanitarian implications?
ARRAF: Huge. Now, aid groups have pulled out their international staff because of the impending attack. Yemen was already one of the poorest countries in the entire world. The U.N. has said it's the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. There are parts of it on the verge of famine. There is cholera that's rampant. And if you shut off the port, if there's a prolonged crisis, a lot of these groups are saying tens of thousands, even maybe hundreds of thousands, of people could die.
SHAPIRO: What's the U.S. position on all of this? It's supported the Saudis throughout the war. What has the U.S. said about this latest assault?
ARRAF: The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has said that he discussed with Emirati leaders - because the Emiratis are backing these ground troops - that the U.S. respects their and is concerned about Emirati security concerns. But he warned them not to damage critical infrastructure and to keep the aid flowing. The problem is diplomats have called his message a yellow light in a sense to the Emiratis and the Saudis regarding the assault. And what aid groups are looking for certainly was a stop light from the U.S.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jane Arraf on the latest assault in the Yemeni civil war. Thank you, Jane.
ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.