Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday March 29th, 2015


Civil war in Yemen? The shaky government of Yemen collapses. After an attack on his residence by Yemeni rebels known as the Houthi, President Abdu Mansour Hadi flees to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis respond by bombing the Houthis, a Shiite branch of Islam said to be backed by Iran. Meantime, Al-Qaida in Yemen and a new Islamic State presence are vying for power in Yemen – both claiming responsibility for recent bombings of Shiite mosques killing at least 135 people.

The US has pulled out its diplomats and its small counter terrorism force. As President Barack Obama once touted Yemen as a model of how to contain al Qaida, inevitably his critics, which are now legion, are blaming his policies for all the current chaos – in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia and Libya. It can hardly be argued that the region is not in turmoil.

Yet for now at least, I am not alarmed that instead of getting America to do it, the Saudis have finally decided to take direct action to protect their own substantial interests in Yemen. A mobilization of most of the Sunni Arab world will also be needed if the Islamic State is going to be defeated in places like Syria and Iraq. As for Yemen, Saudi and other Sunni Arab involvement could, in the short term, be stabilizing.

I admit my attitude toward a Yemen civil war, is colored by my experience. As it happens, the very first foreign conflict that I reported as a journalist almost fifty years ago, was an earlier Yemen civil war.

Between 1962 and 1967, Saudi Arabia and Egypt fought a proxy war in Yemen. Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser sent 50,000 troops into Yemen to support rebels who had ousted the Yemeni King Mohammed al Badr. Saudi King Faisal took this as a direct threat to his own country and put significant military support behind the royalists. After four years there was no clear winner in sight. But there was still a lot at stake as this proxy war was a struggle for the future leadership of the Arab World, between secular leftist revolutionaries and ultra-conservative, religious monarchies.

One evening in February of 1967, the talk of Beirut where I was working at the time, was that the Egyptian Air Force had bombed remote Yemeni villages on the royalist side, with poison gas. That seemed like an act of desperation on Nasser’s part, and was definitely worth looking into.

I advised my New York bosses of my plans in a telegram they wouldn’t receive in time to stop me. (Those were the good old days.) Then I, my ABC News crew and an Arabic speaking American magazine reporter, flew off to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 

It took a week to organize, but the Saudis finally put us on an old DC3 and dropped us off on a desert runway in the middle of nowhere supposedly near the Yemen border. After several hours we spotted a small dust cloud on the horizon. It was not Omar Sharif on a camel, as in the famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia. It was a new Pontiac, with huge tires, driven by a Saudi in flowing white robes who greeted us with a smile and said in a perfect American accent, “Hi. What the hell are you guys doing here.” This was the new governor of the province of Najran, a Saudi prince recently graduated from UCLA.

The following morning we were awakened by the sounds of explosions. We could see planes with Egyptian markings, dropping bombs which we watched skip across the sand dunes, some as close as a football field away. Fortunately they were not laden with poison gas and they exploded with little result. But I shall always remember how I began my 28th birthday. After breakfast, the four of us and a dozen Yemeni guides began the trek into Yemen, headed for the village that reportedly had been recently attacked with poison gas.

The only way to get there was to walk, with our guides, several donkeys and a camel. The first obstacle was a 6000 foot mountain range. Temperatures rose to above 100 in the day time and below freezing at night. Getting there took several days, during which the camel carrying the TV gear died.

I’ve written about this trip before and there isn’t the space to go into details here, except to say that it was like going back in time a thousand years. And, our pictures and interviews eventually helped lead to the conclusion of an independent international investigation, that poison gas had indeed been used against Yemenis by Egypt.

Summing up that Yemen civil war: The Saudis won and leftist revolutionaries did not take over the region. Given Nasser’s ties to the Soviets in those days of deep Cold War, that’s probably just as well. But sadly, Yemen has remained the poorest country of the region.

Today, the situation is much more complex. The chaos In Yemen and throughout the Middle East has many roots, which Islamic extremist groups are exploiting.  But above all, there is a power struggle/proxy war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis are Sunni Muslims, the Iranians are Shiites. But the differences are also ethic/cultural. The Saudis are Semites. The Iranians or Persians as the western world knew them for two millennia, are Indo-Aryan-European. The current struggle for regional dominance may be less religious than a reflection of the historic Arab and Persian antipathy.

Whatever the case, for tactical reasons the U.S. may support the Saudis in Yemen to keep the Islamic State and al Qaida in check there - while helping Iran, when it is involved in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, as in Tikrit. The Iran nuclear talks further complicate the matter.

But the ultimate goal of American policy must be to avoid taking sides in the Arab Persian power struggle. And what’s more, to keep it from developing into a disastrous Middle East war. Obviously, that’s a huge challenge.

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