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The War in Yemen

Did Nasser Lure the U.S. Out On a Limb?

This article was originally published on January 26th, 1963.

President Nasser's armed intervention in Yemen is the most ambitious and dangerous foreign adventure of his career. It has brought him to the brink of war with Saudi Arabia and Jordan and provides American diplomacy in the Middle East with possibly its greatest challenge since Suez. By recognizing, in December, the republican regime of Marshal Sallal--Nasser's protege in Yemen--the United States has clashed with her British ally and has taken sides in the inter-Arab struggle for power. Why did Washington do it, and what are the military facts?

For the last three months, an Egyptian expeditionary force--put at between 12,000 and 15,000--has been fighting a savage guerrilla war in north and east Yemen against tribes loyal to the Imamate who will not accept the republican couip d'etat by which Sallal overthrew the royalist government. These Egyptian forces--Nasser's crack combat units--were trained for desert not for mountain warfare. Their expensive equipment, their Soviet-built tanks, armored personnel carriers and Ilyushin jet bombers, are not ideally suited for operations in the crazy maze of narrow defiles and boulder-strewn mountains of northern Yemen.

A main road in these parts is a barely discernible single-file, pencil-line camel track linking two waterholes across a moon-landscape of black surging rock threaded by pale dry watercourses. Clumps of white thorn, dry as tinder, spring into flame at the touch of a match to warm the night marches. In this terrain, the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.

But quite apart from individual fighting qualities, it was evident (at least to this correspondent from conversations with Egyptian prisoners) that whereas the Egyptians seem uncertain why they are there, the Yemeni tribes are fighting a foreign invader in the name of Islam and of their traditional way of life and form of government--and are enjoying opportunities for loot on a scale probably unparalleled since the incense caravans of Sheba. I met a man who had acquired 80 Egyptian blankets; another had a couple of hundred cans of excellent Egyptian beans; children were dressed in rags of parachute silk and every royalist camp was littered with captured weapons, bazooka bombs, boxes of grenades and Egyptian cigarettes.

The main tracks toward Sana'a from the east and northeast were dotted with Soviet-built trucks and armored vehicles--I counted about 40--knocked out by royalist mines or by sharp-shooters in hit-and-run skirmishes which have forced the Egyptians to fall back toward the capital. By Christmas, the greater part of the north and east of the country up to within 30 miles of Sana'a was in royalist hands, although the Egyptians still held a number of fortified positions inside this area such as Sirwah in East Yemen and Sa'da in the north; but these were under siege and could be supplied only by helicopter.

Marshal Sallal's republican army, recruited principally from among the peaceable townsmen and peasantry of the south, appears to have withered away, leaving the Egyptians virtually alone to face the tough tribes of the north. Egyptian casualties since the start of operations in early October are soberly estimated at well over 1,000 dead--or around 10 percent of their total force. Losses in vehicles and equipment have also been considerable.

Egypt's undisputed air power has been a difficult factor to appraise. It has been used without scruple but without much skill: several times on each day of my three week visit to royalist areas in December, Egyptian aircraft came over to bomb, strafe and rocket anything that looked like a target: goats, wells, villages and even antiquities such as the ancient dam of Marib. The results have been some damage to royalist morale, considerable hardship to women and children, a restriction on royalist movements during the day, but surprisingly few casualties and little impairment of the tribesmen's ability and will to fight.

As General Kassem of Iraq no doubt discovered in his operations against the Kurds, high-speed aircraft may be a useful psychological weapon in the early stages of a war, but their actual military effectiveness is small against scattered tribesmen unsupported by motor transport or heavy equipment. I should add, however, that the Egyptians have been using single-engined Soviet Yaks—more deadly in the mountains because they are slow and low-flying--as well as the great silver Ilyushin Badgers that daily fly to the Yemen from Aswan in Upper Egypt with their cargo of bombs.

Southern Yemenis may think highly of their Egyptian Big Brothers, but the indiscriminate and persistent bombing of north and east Yemen has bred among the tribesmen a fierce hatred for Egypt which it will no doubt take a generation or two of peaceful coexistence to erase.

The real leader of the royalist resistance is not Imam al-Badr—in spite of his sensational reappearance in mid-October after being reported dead--but his uncle Prince Saif al-Islam Hasan (Hasan too was said by Yemen's official radio to have been killed in action, but he is very much alive). Pious, fair-minded and with an irreproachable private life. Prince Hasan is the man the tribes are fighting for, and as Prime Minister of the royalist government he provides the political leadership of the counter-revolution.

Prince Hasan has gathered around him a group of reform-minded young princes--his sons and nephews--who have become the principal field commanders in the war. His son. Prince Abdallah bin Hasan, commanding royalist forces on the eastern front, was by Christmas harrying the Egyptians little more than 25 miles from Sana'a. Traveling by camel in the wake of his advance, I saw many Egyptian corpses in desolate mountain foxholes amid a great litter of wrecked vehicles and spent ammunition.

One of the Prime Minister's nephews. Prince Abdallah bin Husein, commands a second tribal army in the northeast, while another nephew. Prince Muhammad bin Husein, has the key job of assembling and dispatching supplies to the various fronts from the Saudi frontier post of Najran. The Imam al-Badr commands operations in the northwest.

No Saudi or Jordanian troops are fighting in Yemen, but the royalists are receiving aid from both these countries. It is a mere trickle—mainly rifles and ammunition--in no way comparable to the massive Egyptian commitment on the republican side. But without this help they could not have taken to the field in such strength nor could they have inflicted such heavy losses on the Egyptians. It is probably also true to say that without still further support and without some heavy weapons, the royalists may find it difficult to exploit their present successes by mounting a decisive assault on a well-fortified position such as San'a, defended by Egyptian tanks, field guns and aircraft.

By the turn of the year, then, most neutral observers of the fighting were agreed (a) that Sallal's republic would not survive an Egyptian withdrawal; (b) that the Egyptians themselves were in embarrassing straits. committed to a grim expensive war with little prospect of victory; (c) that the royalists had scored considerable successes but did not seem to have the weapons or the organization for a really decisive push. This was the situation in which the United States recognized Marshal Sallal's regime.

Anglo-American Clash

America's recognition of the republic in Yemen and Britain's continued reluctance to do so points to a basic difference in Anglo-American policies in the Middle East which has been evident for more than a decade but which is rarely spelled out.

In brief, the divergence stems from the fact that Britain is a Middle East power and America is not. In spite of her withdrawal from Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq over the last 15 years, Britain is still today the dominant Power right around the southern and eastern shores of the Arabian Peninsula from the mouth of the Red Sea to the head of the Persian Gulf. She is hanging on to these remaining positions of strength because she believes that continued access to Persian Gulf oil is a vital interest, to be defended by force, if necessary (as in the summer of 1961 when Kuwait faced a take-over bid from Iraq).

Some people argue that economic interests are best defended these days by purely commercial agreements unencumbered by political and military controls. This is, no doubt, an admirable principle in times of peace and stability but it would be difficult and hazardous to apply in the present state of inter-Arab warfare. Any British withdrawal in favor of one Arab state would be hotly contested by the others. Rightly or wrongly, current British policy is to use her remaining strongpoints in the Middle East to defend her oil interests against any local threat that may occur.

President Nasser has at times been considered such a threat and so has General Kassem; now Marshal Sallal in Yemen, precariously established, leaning on Egyptian guns and threatening his neighbors with Egyptian rockets, breathes a fire over the neat little Crown colony of Aden and its military base--the lynch-pin of Britain's Middle East defenses. Hence British reluctance to recognize his regime.

America's viewpoint is understandably different. Her Middle East policy is not governed by a concern for specifically British interests. It is shaped, if any one principle can be cited, by a desire to restrict Communist influence in the area. In this design. President Nasser has been assigned a prominent role, partly because he has been tough with his local Communists and because he is thought to represent progressive, reformist trends which in the long run are the best defense against Communism, but more particularly because he is considered too important a figure in the Afro-Asian world to leave, alone and unsupported, to the tender attentions of the Soviet Union. The American argument, then, is that if America does not help him when he is in trouble he will become wholly dependent on the Russians with dangerous consequences for everyone. Hence, America's massive support for Egypt in wheat, cash, technical assistance and diplomatic backing, particularly in the last 15 difficult months, during which Nasser has been convalescing from Syria's breakaway.

The Yemen is the latest area in which Nasser has needed and has secured US help. What were the arguments behind the United States decision to recognize Marshal Sallal?

One view expressed by some American officials in the Middle East is that the initiative came from keen young New Frontiersmen in Washington, determined at all costs to dissociate America from the old, shaming, "feudal" regimes of Saudi Arabia and Jordan and throw their weight on the side of progress and the forces of history. Another view is that support for Sallal was, in a roundabout way, a pro-Saudi move, intended to "scare" the Saudi Princes into reforming themselves.

A third, more convincing explanation, derived from more authoritative sources, is that the initiative for the American recognition came from US Ambassador Badeau's embassy in Cairo and that it was intended as a rescue operation for President Nasser. The calculation was as follows: American recognition would be followed by Britain's; the Saudis and Jordanians would falter in their support of the Imam; Sallal would breathe freely for a while and, in the lull, Nasser could withdraw his troops with honor, claiming that even the "imperialists" had conceded that Sallal's Yemen republic was firmly established. The operation was presented to the world as an American-Egyptian agreement whereby Nasser undertook to withdraw his forces in return for American recognition. (Actually, Nasser's agreement to disengage was conditional on cessation of Saudi and Jordanian aid to the royalists.)

But something went wrong with the predictions: there has been no lull; Britain has not recognized Sallal; the Imam is determined to press home his advantage and Nasser is faced with the painful dilemma of withdrawing ignominiously or doubling hi? stakes by throwing in more troops. In the meantiine, American diplomacy is out on a limb having secured no quid pro cjuo for its overt support for Sallal's precarious regime.

President Nasser's involvement in Yemen springs directly from the savage feuds which he has been conducting this past year with the Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi regimes. According to the official Egyptian version, the breakup of the UAR in September, 1961, was due not to any shortcomings of Nasser's regime in Syria but to a treacherous, back-stabbing alliance of imperialism and reaction. After this setback Cairo propagandists evolved the doctrine that no further progress toward Arab unity could be achieved until "reaction" had been smashed in the Arab world. This meant in particular the overthrow not only of the "secessionist" regime in Syria but also of Kings Hussein and Saud, and their replacement by Arab socialist regimes on Egypt's model.

Patrick Seale writes regularly for The New Republic from the Middle East.