The killing Monday of Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh by Iran-backed rebel Houthis, his uneasy allies-turned-foes, has plunged the war-torn country into further uncertainty and violence, prompting some of the fiercest fighting since the start of a multiparty conflict three years ago.
Following Saleh's death at the hands of the Houthis, either in a gunbattle or execution, the rebels have set about consolidating their grip on Sanaa.
They have seized more than 40 media workers, including staff of Yemen Today, a television broadcaster affiliated with Saleh, who switched sides during the war to align with the Houthis.
Meanwhile, Saudi-led warplanes intensified airstrikes Wednesday on Yemen.
"The situation for the innocent people there, the humanitarian side, is most likely to [get] worse in the short term," U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday.
Most analysts agree there's little chance in the near future of some kind of negotiated settlement being worked out and the slaughter halted.
For some, there had been a glimmer of hope when, two days before his death, Saleh reached out to Saudi Arabia, which is leading a military coalition against the Houthis, to say he'd engage in peace talks if the Saudis lifted a blockade on Yemen's ports and airports and allowed more humanitarian aid to enter the country, which is suffering from mass starvation.
Saleh's public overture had been preceded by weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering as a rift developed between Saleh and the Houthis, whom the former president had helped in their rise to power, part of his effort to engineer a deal that would see him restored to the office he was ousted from in 2011.
His fighters started clashing with the Houthis in southern districts of the Yemeni capital, and the Saudis began to drop their designation of Saleh as a "deposed dictator" and began speaking of him as "the former president."
Analysts said this doomed his unlikely alliance with the Houthis, which was founded on mutual need.
The Houthis, strong militarily but weak in governance skills, needed the expertise of Saleh and his General People's Congress party to reach deals with tribal leaders and administer the territory they control in the north of the country, while Saleh and his followers couldn't match the Houthis' firepower.
Gerald Feierstein, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, said Saleh's absence from the scene "deprives the Houthis of an important symbolic presence that gave them some credibility as a broad-based movement" in their fight against the internationally recognized government of Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by the Saudis.
Support seen sliding
Without Saleh, "the Houthis will be perceived more nakedly as a pro-Iranian, sectarian Shiite movement with millenarian aspirations" and they are likely to suffer a further decline in their popular support, already waning as a result of the never-ending conflict and their violence against civilians, Feierstein said.
"The big question is whether this new reality will force them back to the negotiating table or lead to their further intransigence," he said.
There are no signs the Saudis and Hadi, who lives in self-exile in Riyadh, are in any mood for negotiations.
Following Saleh's death, Hadi delivered a belligerent speech broadcast by Saudi Arabia's Al Arabiya TV, urging Yemenis to rise up against the Houthis. "Let's put our hands together to end the control of these criminal gangs and build a new united Yemen," he said.
Saleh's son, Ahmed Abdullah, now in Riyadh, has vowed to avenge his father's killing.
"I will lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen," he said. "The blood of my father will be hell ringing in the ears of Iran."
Vengeance and airstrikes, though, are unlikely to prove effective in shifting the balance of power and ending the military stalemate, analysts said.
"You need an international intervention to stop this war," Mamoun Abu Nowar, a military analyst and retired Jordanian Air Force general, said.
"The former president was a divisive figure, but he was also the person most likely to be able to broker some kind of settlement," Peter Salisbury, an analyst with Britain's Chatham House, said. "Without his deal-making skills, the civil war he helped to spark and the devastating humanitarian crisis it caused are only likely to get worse."
Said Salisbury, "With Saleh dead and his allied forces apparently crumbling in the face of a Houthi onslaught, the future of Yemen's conflict looks grim."
Source: Voice of America