Saleh's death kills hopes for a silver bullet in Yemen

Dubai (AFP) - The killing of ex-leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, days after his overtures to the Saudi-led coalition, has buried hopes for a breakthrough in Yemen's war, analysts say, and risks fuelling a standoff between Riyadh and Tehran.

"The future of Yemeni politics has changed completely -- Saleh was the foundation and now he's gone," Maged Almadhaji, Cairo-based director of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, told AFP.

On Saturday, the strongman ruptured three years of uneasy alliance with Iran-backed Huthi rebels, offering to "turn the page" with foe Saudi Arabia in return for the lifting of a crippling blockade and a ceasefire.

With Yemen's conflict locked in stalemate, the move was welcomed by Riyadh and its allies and sparked expectations of a major shift in a war that has claimed over 8,750 lives since 2015.

Battles broke out between the Huthis and pro-Saleh forces on the streets of the capital Sanaa that they have controlled since 2014, while Yemen's exiled president -- long sidelined from events -- looked to activate his Saudi-backed troops east of the city.

"Saleh brought a big hope for an end to Huthi rule," said Almadhaji. "It's not that people loved him. It was a chance to break a frightening militia rule."

But that came to an abrupt end on Monday when Saleh was gunned down by the Huthis and a gruesome video emerged of his bloodied corpse.

"People are upset because this was an important opportunity and it's been lost," said Almadhaji.

- No substitute for Saleh -

Before his slaying Saleh was seen as Yemen's great survivor.

As president he dominated for over three decades and, even after mass protests forced his resignation in 2012, he remained a key player in the chaos that followed by allying with Huthi forces he had once fought.

The attempt to seduce the Saudis, whose military coalition has been facing off against him since 2015, was another stunning turnaround -- and Riyadh will be hard-pressed to find another such dealmaker.

"There are no Yemeni political figures comparable to Saleh in terms of influence," the US-based Soufan Center said in a briefing.

"The near-term result of Saleh's death may be an increase in fighting by local forces, which in turn could intensify foreign interventions on both sides, as the Saudi coalition and Iran continue to protect and prop up their proxies."

In its first statement after Saleh's death, Riyadh called for a Yemen free of "militias supported by Iran", while regional rival Tehran defiantly insisted the strongman was killed for attempting a coup.

Inside the coalition, allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to differ on who to work with now, with commentators saying Riyadh favours the Islamist Al-Islah party while the Emiratis are plumping for Saleh's son.

Analyst Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute in Washington predicted Saleh's death would diminish any chances for a push to end a war that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

"Everyone, local and regional, will want this military cycle to play itself out for some time before they will be ready to sit at the negotiation table," Slim told AFP.

Yemeni tribes who were "sitting on the fence" waiting to see if Saleh's gambit succeeded may now pledge allegiance to the Huthis, she said.

"One thing for sure is that Yemen is headed toward more conflict."

- 'End their suffering' -

The latest surge of violence in Sanaa came on the back of an already dire humanitarian situation in Yemen, where a Saudi-led blockade had fuelled fears of a devastating famine.

In a sign of growing concern over a fresh deterioration, the UN Security Council called on all sides to "de-escalate" and return to talks after a closed door meeting in the wake of Saleh's killing.

The world body on Tuesday demanded a pause in fighting to allow it to deliver aid to civilians trapped in the capital after five days of bloodshed that killed over 230 people.

"You’ve got children terrified and pregnant women stuck," Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick told AFP by phone from Sanaa.

"In the coming days there will be more air strikes and more ground fighting," he warned.

Analyst Almadhaji said the death of Saleh has left the warring parties reeling -- and peace an even more distant prospect.

For Saudi Arabia, negotiating with the Iran-backed rebels is a non-starter, he said, while the Huthis are weakened by the loss of their key governing partner, who helped deflect accusations of loyalty to Tehran.

At a Tuesday rally in Sanaa, the rebels sought to project an image of unity and said they would ensure the safety of members of Saleh's party.

But Almadhaji said frustrations of local residents -- and the readiness of some to put their hopes in Saleh -- go well beyond the Saudi-led blockade and are increasingly focused on the faults of Huthi rule.

"Trade has been decimated, the black market is thriving. The security situation is terrible. Streets are closed and there is a massive campaign of detentions," he said, predicting that roundups of Saleh loyalists would continue.

"People want a country. They want laws. They would welcome back anyone who could end their suffering."