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Opinion

Opinion: Extremists are capitalizing on chaos in Yemen

Yemen has been a country in crisis for years. The international community has shown little interest in the poor man of the Arabian Peninsula – and the effects of that are now becoming evident, says DW’s Anne Allmeling.

The Houthi rebels mean business. In September 2014, they seized Yemen's capital, Sanaa. And since then, they've gradually been bringing everything they can under their control to consolidate their power.

They dissolved parliament, forced interim President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile, and now they're encroaching on the city of Aden in the southern part of the country.

And it's all been relatively easy. Yemen has long had a weak central government, even before the start of the Arab Spring. The fact that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was able to hold onto power for more than three decades was partly due to his habit of paying off his many opponents.

But there were some regions that his government never fully had under control – for example, the Saada region, the base of the Houthi rebels. The Houthis are part of the Zaidi Shiite people that make up a third of Yemen's population; they're based in the North of the country. They've long been fighting for a share of power. Since the civil war in the 1960s, Shiites have felt marginalized by the Sunni majority.

Jemen Sanaa Huthi Rebellen

Houthi rebels in Yemen

Now, they see an opportunity. Nothing in the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula works the way it should in a proper state.

Failed State

Ironically, the Houthis are being supported by Saleh, whose troops they fought against for years. In 2011, they allied themselves with other rebel groups and forced his resignation. Now though, the Houthi and Saleh have a common goal: to topple the Hadi's interim government and take over power themselves, despite resistance from a large part of the population. The international community has not shown much interest in the power struggle up to now.

The problem: it's not just the Houthis who are trying to exploit the government's weakness. The Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia has set up a branch in Yemen and has claimed responsibility for last week's bombings in two Shiite mosques in Sanaa, killing more than 130 people.

It's not that surprising; IS is strong where its opponents are weak. The terrorist group was able to gain large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, because both the Syrian and Iraqi governments are vulnerable. Only since the United States and its allies began carrying out air strikes on IS targets has the group come up against its limits.

Jemen Tais Anti-Huthi Demonstration

Anti-Houthi demonstrators protested in Taiz

Yemen has been a Jihadist haven for years, with the central government either unwilling or incapable of fighting terrorists on its own soil. Attacks carried out by al Qaeda may have even worked in favor of Saleh's government – they secured it financial and military support from the US as part of its war on terror.

It's no longer clear who in Yemen controls the weapons and armored vehicles that came from the Americans. Yemen's ministry of defense told the Washington Post that it has lost track of military equipment worth $500 million – and that, in a country rumored to have more weapons than people.

It's very likely that the Jihadists have helped themselves to the weapons, just like in Libya, where terrorists raided Moammar Gadhafi's weapons store after he was toppled in 2011. In the months that followed, they contributed greatly to the destabilization of North Africa.

But even if the weapons are not in the hands of the Houthis rather than the Jihadists, it doesn't make the country any more secure. In recent months, the rebels have repeatedly demonstrated that they don't hold back in the face of their opponents.

Observers have long spoken of a type of proxy war between the Shiite Houthis, supported by the Shiite regime in Iran, and the Sunni dominated government of President Hadi, who has the backing of Saudi Arabia. It's a dangerous situation where only one thing appears to be clear: it's the extremists who are profiting. And that spells disaster for the population of this impoverished country.

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