A civil war that hardly makes the headlines. And yet, 23.8 million people out of a population of 27 million face starvation. Almost six years have passed since the Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels took the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. The Saudi-led coalition, backed by the West, has failed to end the war, only aggravating the situation for a population caught in between religious ideology and geopolitics. But this ain’t Yemen’s first rodeo. Far from it.
Britain still controls Aden — which includes the port of Aden in the south and the Aden Protectorate, about the size of Alabama, in the north and east. The port is the country’s power base. Initially, an important coaling station for the Royal Navy, the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal decreased its strategic value, but it’s still the world’s third-largest port.
But now imperialism is out of fashion. Decolonization is the buzzword. London seeks ways to cut the imperial umbilical cord. What started in India and spread to Africa has now come to the Arabian Peninsula.
But, as with almost every country that Europeans colonized, the native political and social situation in Yemen is far from homogenous: There are just too many factions in the region to allow for a smooth transition of power.
Like a buzzard rummaging the desert for its next meal, the communist Yemen Arab Republic in the north seeks to destabilize the country by financing Marxist terrorist groups.
So far, Britain has juggled an equilibrium by paying off the different groups. But what happens next?
The Aden Emergency (1963-1967) that adumbrated Britain’s withdrawal still brings a sour taste to many Britons. For an allegedly low-intensity conflict, the cost was too high, the body bags too many. It had the full package: A tribal rebellion in the mountains. Fratricide and riots in the towns. Urban terrorism in cramped alleys and bazaars.
Whatever this war was, it wasn’t a covert one. RAF Squadrons, Royal Marine Commandos, Airborne battalions, and armored, artillery, and infantry regiments were deployed in abundance to stabilize the country.
And yet it was covert for some.
Supporting the conventional command were the men of the Special Air Service (SAS). Only recently under peril of disbandment, they had proved their worth and were now considered a valued asset. As such, they conducted special reconnaissance patrols against the Radfan hill tribes, an operation which culminated with the beheading of two of their men. And, dressed as Arabs, they ran urban counter-terrorism operations in the dark alleys of Aden, the likes of which they wouldn’t repeat until Northern Ireland and Iraq.
It wasn’t an easy campaign.
Stick around to find why.