The Secret War in South Yemen, 1972-75


My last post on Defence-in-Depth described a battlefield tour of Oman, studying the Dhofar conflict waged between insurgents and the Sultanate from the mid-1960s to late 1975. Thanks to the declassification of British government archives under the 30 Year Rule we now have greater knowledge of the covert operations conducted during this conflict, in the form of cross-border raids conducted into the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), otherwise known as South Yemen. This has been the subject of an article recently published in the Middle East Journal.

The Dhofar war was a civil war with an international dimension. As noted in my previous post, Oman was reliant on military aid from the UK, most notably in the form of the loan service personnel detached from the British armed forces to command and train the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF), and also (from the summer of 1970) special forces personnel from 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (22SAS). Iranian and Jordanian troops also saw combat in Dhofar, mainly because Shah Reza Pahlavi and King Hussein had a vested interest in preserving the Sultanate from a leftist insurgency. In turn, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) received arms and training from the Soviet bloc, Iraq (until early 1975), China and Egypt (both sponsors until 1972), whilst from August 1968 South Yemen provided the PFLO with a safe haven to train, equip, and launch military operations into Oman.

Throughout the Cold War Britain had used covert action as a means of bolstering its influence in the Middle East. In 1953 the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) had worked alongside the CIA to destabilise the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, and to orchestrate his overthrow by the Shah. Three years later, SIS was involved in abortive efforts to assassinate the Egyptian dictator, Jamal Abdel Nasser, prior to the Suez crisis, and the following year it again teamed up with its American counterparts in a failed effort to promote regime change in Syria. Between 1962 and 1967 a small group of ex-British special forces soldiers was attached to the Royalist rebels in the Yemen Arab Republic, fighting both the pro-Nasser regime and Egyptian occupying forces. The overthrow of Sultan Said bin Taimur of Oman in July 1970 in a palace coup happened with the foreknowledge of British officials in the Sultanate, and was possibly instigated by them. The conduct of covert action against the PDRY during the Dhofar war therefore had several precedents.

From November 1972 to at least January 1975, the UK and Omani governments trained and directed tribesmen from the Mahra clan in exile in Dhofar to launch paramilitary raids into South Yemen, which was dubbed Operation Dhib in British official papers. Sultan Qaboos bin Said was the apparent instigator for Dhib, being riled by the PDRY’s support for his internal enemies. The then-British Prime Minister Edward Heath gave authorisation for soldiers from 22SAS to train the Mahra for guerrilla operations, although both 10 Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) stipulated that no British personnel were to accompany the Mahra guerrillas across the border. Operation Dhib was subjected to ministerial review on a six-monthly basis, and continued even after the Labour government took office in March 1974. In all respects it was an adjunct to the training and direction of the Dhofari firqat forces (pro-government tribal militias) by 22SAS during this very same period.

One key finding from my research was that the actual scope of Operation Dhib was strictly restricted by the then-Chief of the Sultan’s Armed Forces (CSAF), Major-General Timothy Creasey. The British officers nominated to command the SAF were in a complicated position, because whilst they were servants of the Sultan they were also obliged to consider (and if necessary reject) any orders they received that might harm UK national interests. Creasey was conscious that his superiors in the MoD and the Chiefs of Staff Committee back in Whitehall were prepared to offer all necessary support to Oman, but were worried about the threat of escalation between their ally and South Yemen, particularly if it led to full-scale war. With the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland at their height – and the need to maintain Britain’s contribution to NATO’s collective defence against the Warsaw Pact – senior British civil and military officials were in no mood to risk a clash with a Soviet client in Southern Arabia.

As a result, CSAF imposed controls over Operation Dhib. Cross-border raids were limited in number, and were postponed if attacks on South Yemeni military convoys led to reprisals against civilians. Creasey also disbanded one Mahra firqa it was training because of its lack of discipline. In essence, CSAF (with the approval of his superiors in Whitehall) conducted enough covert activity to satisfy Sultan Qaboos’ demands for revenge against the PDRY, but were at a sufficiently low level not to provoke the Marxist-Leninist regime in Aden into retaliating.

In this respect, Operation Dhib challenges my theories on proxy warfare, and the reasons why states sponsor non-state actors to attack rivals as an alternative to direct military action on their part. I argued that the strategic reasons for instigating proxy war involved coercion (arming and directing proxy forces to attack an adversary in order to compel it to submit to your national interests), disruption (to weaken an enemy with whom you are either in a state of war or heightened confrontation) or transformation (to effect a fundamental political change in an adversarial state in the form of regime overthrow, annexation, separatism or state failure).

For the UK, covert action against South Yemen in the early 1970s did not neatly fit any of these categories, except to a limited extent the disruptive one. The Mahra raiders did conduct some attacks on PDRY military and PFLO targets, but from the documentary evidence available British officials in Oman or London did not expect that the cross-border attacks would have any strategic effect against the insurgency in Dhofar itself. Operation Dhib was ultimately conducted as a limited action to satisfy Sultan Qaboos’ wish to punish South Yemen for backing the PFLO, and in this respect it was a covert operation intended to influence an ally, rather than an enemy.

Image: Sultan’s Armed Forces soldiers on patrol, Dhofar, Oman. Courtesy of Lt Col Ian Buttenshaw, WKhM, Royal Army of Oman.

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