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North Yemen Civil War (1962-1970)

The Ottoman Empire withdrew from Yemen in 1918 and Imam Yahya took control over the country until his death in 1948. During his rule Yemen joined the Arab League (1945) and the United Nations (1947). Imam Yahya was assassinated during a 1948 palace coup attempt and was succeeded by his son, Ahmad, who ruled Yemen until his death in 1962. Ahmad's rule became known for its repression, tension with the British over their presence in south Yemen, and pressure to support the Arab nationalist regime of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. The United Arab Republic (Egypt) had had a special relationship with Yemen in the past. In March 1958, Yemen joined it to form the United Arab States, but this association was dissolved in December 1961, shortly after Syria seceded from the United Arab Republic.

Saudi Arabia shared an extended border with Yemen, much of it still undefined. A further factor in the situation was that Yemen had long claimed that the Aden Protectorate was legally part of its territory. The British-controlled Government of the South Arabian Federation, which included the Aden Protectorate, therefore also closely followed developments in Yemen.

On 19 September 1962, Imam Ahmed bin Yahya died and was succeeded by his son, Imam Mohammed Al-Badr. A week later, a rebellion of revolutionary forces led by the army overthrew the new Imam and proclaimed the Yemen Arab Republic. Following his overthrow, Imam Al-Badr managed to escape from San'a, the capital, and, with other members of the royal family, rallied the tribes in the northern part of the country. With financial and material support from external sources, the royalists fought a fierce guerrilla campaign against the republican forces. The revolutionary Government accused Saudi Arabia of harboring and encouraging Yemeni royalists, and threatened to carry the war into Saudi Arabian territory. The Imam, on the other hand, claimed that the army rebellion was fostered and aided by Egypt, which denied the charge. At the beginning of October, large numbers of United Arab Republic forces were dispatched to Yemen at the request of the revolutionary Government to assist the republican forces in their fight against the royalists.

The new Government was recognized by the United Arab Republic on 29 September and by the Soviet Union the next day, but other major Powers with interests in the area, including the United Kingdom and the United States, withheld action on the question of recognition. The revolution was supported by Egypt who supplied troops and supplies, while Badr was supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The newly emergent forces representing republicanism and social progress were concentrated in the major cities, while the monarchist, reactionary, and theocratic royalists launched a successful counterrevolution from the countryside with the support of the rural population.

The proximate cause of the conflict was the arrival of U.A.R. Egyptian troops in the Yemen to support a palace coup by republican revolutionists on the night of 26 September 1962. Saudi Arabia, fearing the revolutionary upsurge on its borders, reacted by sending supplies and money to the pro-royalist forces behind the deposed Imam Muhammad al-Badr, who led the royalist counter-revolutionists. From the republican standpoint, Saudi assistance (never in the form of troops) constituted interference in the affairs of the Yemen. From the Saudi standpoint, the U.A.R. military presence on the Arabian peninsula constituted a threat to its monarchy and its oil fields. The belief was that the U.A.R. sought to extend the Yemeni revolution to all of southern Arabia and bring about the collapse of the Federation of South Arabia, as it was then called.

In the early months of 1963, the conflict was intensified on all fronts. The total Egyptian forces rose from 12,000 to an estimated 28,000, with a sharp increase of Russian and Soviet bloc personnel. While the U.A.R. started to withdraw its forces in the early days of May 1963, the ships and planes that ferried troops to Egypt invariably returned with replacements in systematic rotation. Consequently, there was no net reduction of Egyptian forces in the Yemen, nor did Saudi Arabia fully terminate its aid to the royalists.

The British government endeavored, not wholly successfully, to discourage Aden-based operations in support of the Yemeni royalists. The British mercenaries fighting with the royalists were "a private enterprise." The presence of an Imam in Yemen was essential to both the Zaidis and Shafeis. In the absence of an Imam as temporal-spiritual head of Yemen, by early 1964 the people were staying away from Friday prayers. While the Imam didi not have to be drawn from the Hamid aL-Din family, no other family qualified for the position had sufficient stature or the appropriate personality. The British Government was "not necessarily anxious" to restore the Imamate, believing that the Yemeni consensus might favor such a development.

In an 01 April 1964 letter to the President of the UN Security Council Yemen charged that the United Kingdom had committed more than 40 acts of aggression against it since September 1962, culminating in the air attack against Harib on March 28. A British letter of March 28 stated that the attack had been launched to protect the South Arabian Federation after a series of Yemeni air and ground attacks during the month of March. The Security Council convened on April 2 to consider the charges and countercharges.

The United Nations Yemen Observation Mission UNYOM (July 1963-September 1964) was established in July 1963 to observe and certify the implementation of the disengagement agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic. The tasks of UNYOM were limited strictly to observing, certifying and reporting in connection with the intention of Saudi Arabia to end activities in support of the royalists in Yemen and the intention of Egypt to withdraw its troops from that country. In his report dated 3 May 1964, the Secretary-General stated that there was no progress in troop reduction towards the implementation of the disengagement agreement and that no actual end of the fighting appeared to be in sight. The mandate of UNYOM ended on 4 September 1964 and its personnel and equipment were withdrawn.

There had been a substantial reduction in the strength of the Egyptian forces in Yemen but it seemed that the withdrawal was a reflection of the improvement in the situation of the Yemeni republican forces rather than the beginning of a phased withdrawal in the sense of the agreement. There were also indications that the Yemeni royalists had continued to receive military supplies from external sources.

Egyptian efforts to defeat the royalist forces and destroy their civilian support bases proved particularly difficult in the mountainous terrain of northern Yemen. Frustrated by the successful royalist guerrilla tactics, Egypt employed chemical weapons they had developed in the 1950s and obtained from the Soviet Union; defensive equipment was also obtained from the Soviets. Egypt was the first Arab state to use chemical weapons. Despite having signed the 1925 Geneva Convention, which outlawed the use of chemical weapons, Egypt employed chloroacetophenone tear gas, mustard blistering gas, phosgene, and nerve agents repeatedly from 1963 to 1967.

Egypt denied ever using chemical warfare during its support of the new republican forces, but early accounts and evidence of chemical warfare came from journalists in the area. On June 8, 1963, Soviet-made Egyptian air force airplanes dropped chloroacetophenone tear gas bombs on numerous royalist villages south of Sadah, near Saudi Arabia. Egypt allegedly used the bombs to terrorize or kill not only the village inhabitants but also the royalists hiding in caves and tunnels.

A cease-fire took effect 16 September 1964. The Soviets impressed upon Nasser the need to come to terms with King Faisal, given the Soviet desire to avoid strengthening the U.S. position in Saudi Arabia. In the face of an increased danger of armed uprising in Egype, immediate relief from the Yemen problem appeared necessary. To the Russians, preservation of the existing U.A.R. regime was a pressing matter in light of their decline in Iraq and Syria. If for their own sake alone they had to save Nasser and the Yemen, peace was the first step.

Under the terms of the cease fire, withdrawal of U.A.R military forces were to begin as of 23 November 1965 and be completed by 23 September 1966. The result was a shattering military and diplomatic setback to the U.A.R. Throughout this continued military and political stalemate, the split between the pro-Egyptian and moderate republicans had widened and intensified. The revolutionary republican forces split into opposing factions over the issue of Egyptian support. This dispute led to the ouster of the ruling junta in 1966 and its replacement by a pro-Egypt regime. The change of government was followed by a sweeping and bloody purge of the Yemeni armed forces and the administration.

In January 1967 a poison gas attack occurred on the Yemeni village of Kitaf. This was the first use of nerve agents in combat. During this air raid, bombs were dropped upwind of the town and produced a graygreen cloud that drifted over the village. According to newspaper accounts, 95% of the population up to 2 km downwind of the impact site died within 10 to 50 minutes of the attack. All the animals in the area also died. The estimated total human casualties numbered more than 200. Another reported attack took place on the town of Gahar in May 1967, killing 75 inhabitants. Additional attacks occurred that same month on the villages of Gabas, Hofal, Gadr, and Gadafa, killing over 243 occupants. In addition, two villages in Saudi Arabia near the Yemen border were bombed with chemical weapons.

The Yemen conflict reached its decisive turning point with the outbreak of war between Israel and the U.A.R. on 5 June 1967. Egypt was reported to have withdrawn 15,000 men, 150 tanks, and all its heavy artillery from the Yemen during the week of 5-12 June. Estimates of the number of Egyptian troops in Yemen before this withdrawal varied between 40,000 and 70,000.

The conflict lasted until 1967 when Egyptian forces withdrew, Saudi aid to the royalists was halted, and the opposing leaders reached an agreement. The withdrawal was supervised by Morocco, Iraq, and the Sudan and was completed on 15 December 1967. The arrangement was vigorously denounced by President Salal, who shortly thereafter was ousted in a republican coup.

The new state was called the Yemen Arab Republic, and Saudi Arabia recognized the new republic. Subsequently the Soviet Union carried out a massive emergency military airlift to the Yemen, including for the first time the use of Soviet Air Force pilots for combat missions. The effect of this has been to deny a royalist victory and motivate Saudi Arabia's resumption of military aid to the royalist tribesmen. The Yemen appeared attractive to Soviet plans because of its location on the Red Sea opposite east Africa, about a thousand miles south of Cairo. The Soviet construction of a modern jet airport for the Yemen was viewed by the U.S. with natural concern, for the USSR could use it to develop access to east Africa, improve air connections with India, and open shorter routes across Africa to Latin America. The U.S. and Great Britain were in fundamental disagreement as to the scope and nature of the problem.

The Yemen civil war officially ended with the Compromise of 1970, a political agreement between the republican and royalist factions. A republican government was formed in Yemen, incorporating members from the royalist faction but not the royal family.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:30:28 ZULU