An air strike that killed at least 140 people at a funeral in Yemen has further hardened rebel opposition and lessened chances of a peaceful end to the country's war, according to analysts.
The strike was one of the deadliest in the 18-month-old Saudi-led air campaign against the Shiite Huthi rebels, which has cost Riyadh billions of dollars and seen it criticised over civilian casualties.
Saturday’s strike on the rebel-held capital Sanaa, which the UN said also wounded more than 525 people, prompted an unusual phone call from US Secretary of State John Kerry to Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The top US diplomat expressed “deep concern” and reiterated the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities, his office said in a statement.
But Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser to the Gulf Research Centre, said the attitude of the rebels is “getting harder every day. They think they can get more and more and more,” Alani said.
In the aftermath of the strike, ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh — who has allied his security forces with the Huthis — called for a mobilisation along the Saudi border “to take revenge”.
Making matters worse, among those killed at the funeral were a number of Yemeni politicians and military officers “who were working towards a peace settlement,” said April Longley Alley, a Yemen specialist at the International Crisis Group.
Hopes of an immediate ceasefire “almost certainly” died along with them “and it will have longer term consequences for the potential to develop any sustainable peace plan,” she said.
Fighting has intensified in Yemen since the collapse in August of United Nations-brokered peace talks in Kuwait.
Experts say the talks failed in large part because of the Huthis’ confidence that they could continue to withstand the Saudi-led assault.
– Saudis unlikely to budge –
The coalition intervened last year to support President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi out of concern the Huthis would take over all of Yemen and move it into the orbit of Iran, Riyadh’s regional rival.
Despite intensive air strikes and the reported deployment of several thousand coalition troops, Hadi’s forces have been unable to dislodge the rebels from Sanaa and other areas, though they were forced from the southern city of Aden.
Alani said the Saudis understand there is no military solution but that a political deal is impossible while the rebels “feel they have the upper hand”.
That is why bombing has continued, as a military necessity, he said.
“Without degrading the military capability they will not come to the table with a reasonable attitude,” he said.
The coalition has said it will investigate, in conjunction with US experts, Saturday’s “regrettable and painful” incident.
But the United States, which sells precision-guided bombs for use on Saudi warplanes and provides intelligence and advice to the coalition, is reviewing its assistance in the wake of the strike.
A withdrawal of US support would make it very difficult, though not impossible, for the coalition to continue, Alani said.
He warned such a move would leave Iran with “a strong influence in Yemen.”
Other analysts question the extent of Tehran’s influence over the Huthis, a minority group which fought six wars against Yemen’s government from 2004 to 2010.
Riyadh and Washington have accused Iran of arming the Huthis, a charge denied by Tehran.
Adam Baron, a visiting fellow and Yemen specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Saudis are unlikely to budge from their goal of ending the war on their own terms.
“I’m doubtful… We’ve seen the Saudis continue striking targets in Sanaa and elsewhere in the country unabated,” while the rebels have given the Saudis enough of a justification by escalating strikes across the border, he said.