The early 1970s. With the help of the British, the Sultan of Oman is in the final stages of winning a communist insurgency in the southern part of his country (Dhofar). British contribution was limited to a few Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons, seconded officers and enlisted men to lead the local troops, and — crucially — Special Air Service (SAS) troopers. Spearheading a hearts-and-minds strategy, the SAS managed to convince the local population to fight against the communist influence and side with the Sultan.
With the war almost won, SAS troopers were being redeployed elsewhere. But the communist threat from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), persisted. The Sultan and his British advisers pondered their strategy. The Sultan craved revenge. But the British excluded an all-out invasion of the PDRY, both because of geopolitical and military considerations.
Why not try proxy war?
Proxy war means paying and training someone else to harm your enemy.
Such a campaign, usually, aims to either coerce your opponent into submitting to your will, weaken and disrupt his forces, or bring about a favourable political change.
Check as many of these boxes as you can, and you’ve got yourself a successful proxy war. Or at least that’s the typical strategic thinking. And yet it doesn’t always work that way.
Operation Dhib, literally meaning wolf, wasn’t aimed at harming — at least seriously — the PDRY, Oman’s southern neighbor and the insurgency’s haven and chief supporter. It was aimed at quenching the Omani Sultan’s thirst for revenge, whilst not provoking an escalation in the region that would require further British involvement.
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Add to that the proxy force’s own agenda, and it’s a political nightmare. Running a proxy war not to hurt the enemy but to make your ally think you are, requires a little tact and a lot of brains, to say the least.
But how did it get so tangled up? And what was the role of the SAS?
It all began when the Dhofar Rebellion took an international twist in 1967. With the PDRY’s support, the adoo, meaning the enemy, were in control of most of Dhofar within three years. The situation was so serious that the British sanctioned a coup d’état and replaced the ageing Sultan with his forward-looking son, Qaboos bin Said.
With a heavy dose of British military assistance, the war steadily began to go the Sultan’s way. But the PDRY wouldn’t let things rest. It had big dreams for the region. Oman was to be a comrade state. Consequently, support for the adoo mushroomed.
Yemeni regular and irregular forces infiltrated Oman to bolster the struggling insurgency. Dhofari children were even kidnapped and sent to Lenin school in South Yemen for some intensive politicking. “I heard of people from Yemen going to Russia for training and of children being abducted and taken off to Russia for indoctrination,” said Ian Gardiner, who served on the Omani side of the fence. “There were even Russian and Chinese advisers in Yemen,” he added.
The Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) responded with airstrikes within South Yemen, and artillery exchanges and border skirmishes between the two undeclared adversaries became common.
But, according to the Sultan, more had to be done. By a not-so-random chance, some Yemenis happened to be available. And they were pissed.
Stay tuned for part II and the SAS role in the whole affair.