Deadly Saudi airstrike in Yemen alters conflict’s outlook

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Forensic experts invistigate the scene at the community hall where Saudi-led warplanes struck a funeral in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah  - RTSRFU6

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HARI SREENIVASAN: We turn now to the ongoing civil war in Yemen, where the civilian death toll grew over the weekend.

More than 140 people died after what witnesses say was an airstrike on a funeral on Saturday in the capital city of Sanaa. The Saudi air force has been bombing the country for months, with logistical assistance from the U.S. Reports from the scene said it was U.S.-made bombs that were dropped on the funeral.

The Saudi-backed government in Yemen is fighting Houthi rebels, as well as al-Qaida forces. At least 10,000 people have died over the last 18 months, and more than million have been displaced. And on Sunday, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer in the Red Sea was targeted by Houthi missiles fired from the Yemeni coast. The Navy says the missiles detonated short of the target, leaving the ship untouched.

We begin with this report from Neil Connery of Independent Television News.

NEIL CONNERY, ITN: They’re burying the dead in Sanaa, dozens of burials for those killed in this weekend’s funeral attack.

On the streets, thousands came to mourn the capital’s governor, his picture looking down on his own procession. The governor was one of hundreds of people packed into the funeral hall when it was hit by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike. But even as they pay their respects to the governor’s family, the jets are back again, their roar heard overhead.

As Sanaa buries its dead, there is rising anger at the weekend funeral attack, and, with it, calls for revenge. Hopes for peace here have never seemed so far away.

MAN: It means to us war. We need war. We will kill or be killed. That’s for us, blood for blood, and eye for eye.

NEIL CONNERY: Yemen’s tragedy has a new chapter, the single deadliest attack in its 19-month war. In the capital, as they cover the graves of its victims, how many more will follow?

HARI SREENIVASAN: And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry spoke with Saudi officials and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. And a National Security Council spokesman said that the U.S. would review its support of the Saudi-led coalition.

For more on the situation, I’m joined by Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Welcome to you.

There was already so much concern and anger over civilian casualties and deaths in this conflict. How important is this new incident?

MICHAEL HANNA, The Century Foundation: Well, it’s gotten a lot more attention than this war usually does.

And I think that’s partly because of the nature of this attack and the scope of the damage. This was a really horrific attack. It happened on a funeral hall with a huge number of senior Yemeni figures, tribal figures and political leaders. And it does seem like a difference in time, like a red line had been crossed in bombing this kind of funeral gathering.

And for that reason, it’s gotten a lot of attention and a lot of negative attention. And the reaction of the United States has been different. We have seen horrific bombings in the past, but this has elicited a different kind of response from the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before we get to that, just remind us briefly where things stand in this conflict in Yemen. And what’s behind the Saudi-led bombing?

MICHAEL HANNA: Well, the Saudi military campaign began in March of 2015, so it’s been going on about a year-and-a-half.

And, of course, Yemen and Saudi are border countries, so Saudi has looked at Yemen differently than it does at other conflicts, say, Syria, for example. That being said, it is quite different to see Saudi Arabia engaged in direct military conflict.

They began a military campaign about a year-and-a-half ago. They were joined by other Gulf states. And, of course, they are getting support from the United States and the United Kingdom. And so this is a difference in kind.

I think Saudi Arabia sees the region changing. It’s quite concerned about the influence of Iran. It sees in the Houthis, the rebel movement that essentially overthrew the government in Yemen, as a kind of extension of Iranian influence, as a proxy force.

And while the United States has a differing view of the conflict, doesn’t necessarily agree about the Saudi analysis of the conflict, it has clearly reached a point for Saudi Arabia in its own calculations that enough is enough. And some of this is about establishing deterrent capacity and trying to change the kind of regional balance of power at the moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, to the extent the U.S. has supported this Saudi effort, and yet there have been many strains, particularly over casualties among civilians. What now? When they talk about a review, what do you see happening?

MICHAEL HANNA: Well, I think it’s high time that there is a review. The statement by the NSC this weekend suggested that U.S. security operation is not a blank check.

And I think, for a long time now, the United States has hoped that the Saudis and others would essentially declare victory and focus on a political settlement. And I think that’s still the American position. And that has been voiced publicly and privately.

But I do think this seems different, that the United States, because of this latest incident, is going to be much more keen in bringing about a cessation of hostilities, and much more keen on focusing on the diplomatic track, which has sputtered on through various iterations, but has failed to have any kind of lasting impact.

But I think the United States has a very different view about the utility — the continuing utility of this military campaign and the prospects for it to be particularly successful in the coming months.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michael Hanna, thank you very much.

MICHAEL HANNA: Thank you.

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