Don't sugarcoat it — Yemen is a mess
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Let's be perfectly honest: Yemen, for all intents and purposes, is a failed state.

A densely populated Arab country on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and has terrible U.N. development indicators. Nearly half of the population subsists below the international poverty line; the country has an incredibly alarming extremism problem, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula using Yemen as a relatively secure base to plan attacks both inside and outside Yemeni borders; and Yemenis have been robbed for decades by the greed and ineptitude of their national leaders.

This was all supposed to end when Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's strongman president for over 30 years, was forced from power in a political transition brokered by Yemen's neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). And, for a while, it looked as if Yemen was making enormous progress: In February 2012, millions of Yemenis trekked to the polls to formally elect Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi as the country's transitional president (never mind that he was the only candidate on the ballot), and throughout 2013, hundreds upon hundreds of Yemeni business leaders, politicians and tribal leaders came together to negotiate the future structure of Yemen's next government. In an overly premature demonstration of optimism, The New York Times published a story in May 2013 with the headline "Yemen Making Strides in Transition to Democracy after Arab Spring."


Fast-forward another two years to March 2015, and Yemen's political transition has essentially disintegrated into an internal conflict fueled by sectarianism and the narrow self-interests of specific factions — all of which is spurned by the outside influence of regional governments. The Houthi movement's sweep from its northern, mountainous stronghold in Saada province to the outskirts of the southern port city of Aden, when combined with Saudi Arabia's surprising military intervention, has reaffirmed what we all should have known for a while now: The transition to a new, inclusive and representative democracy in Yemen is dead and buried.

The question now is both simple and complex: What happens next?

The answer, of course, depends upon whom you ask. If you ask Saudi Arabia and its allies in the GCC and the Arab League, a political process cannot succeed unless the capabilities of the Houthi rebels are diminished to such an extent that President Hadi has the upper hand in any negotiations. If you ask Hadi himself, he would likely tell you that nothing but a complete and verified withdrawal of the Houthis and absolute surrender would suffice. The United States would no doubt want a return to an inclusive political transition process, including finishing the process of drafting a constitution and putting the document to a vote. Last but not least is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "[N]egotiations remain the only option for ultimately resolving the Yemeni crisis," he said in a March 26 press release.

Saying diplomacy is the only answer to Yemen's predicament, however, is like saying that the only solution to sickness is going to the doctor's office. It's also about as obvious as the Obama administration's "there is no military solution to this conflict" line, which is a good way for the White House to avoid getting into specifics about what their policy is. The issue here is not how Yemen's descent into civil war will be solved, but how long it will take to resolve it and how many people will lose their lives before the country's major parties, factions, personalities and allies (including Yemen's ex-president Saleh, the Houthis, the Hadi government, the Islah Party, youth movements, secularists, Saudi Arabia, the GCC, the United States and the United Nations) will embrace common sense rather than exclusionary, violent politics.

At this point in time, with Arab jets patrolling Yemen's skies and Yemen's legitimate government in tatters, outside observers have no idea how long this latest internal conflict will last.

DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat, Inc., a geopolitical consulting firm, and a contributor to the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. All opinions expressed are the author's alone.