- Soviet Support for Egypt's Intervention in Yemen, 1962–1963
The Air Bridge to
In October 1962, as Soviet troops hurried to complete the secret deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba, a second drama was unfolding far away in the rugged boondocks of the Eastern Hemisphere. As if to underline that this bold move in the Caribbean was the rule rather than an exception, Nikita Khrushchev had authorized the dispatch of Soviet planes and pilots to the Middle East to help Egypt project force onto the distant battlefield of Yemen. Gamal Abdel Nasser, still smarting from Syria's secession from the United Arab Republic a year earlier, was determined to restore Egypt's prestige and recapture the initiative in the rancorous struggle for power and legitimacy that characterized inter-Arab politics from 1955 through 1967. His principal adversary in that struggle was King Saud of Saudi Arabia, who led the group of conservative Arab leaders opposed to Nasser's aggrandizement and was rumored to have bankrolled the secessionists in Damascus. When, on 26 September 1962, a group of self-styled "free officers" toppled the neighboring Imamate of Yemen and proclaimed the establishment of a republic, Nasser perceived a golden opportunity to strike back at his opponents and revive Egypt's ailing claim to leadership of the nationalist cause. As republican forces frantically tried to stave off collapse of their fledgling regime at the hands of royalist tribes backed by Saudi Arabia, Yemen's new president, Colonel 'Abdullah al-Salla l, turned to the Egyptians for help. Unable to transport the requisite forces with sufficient dispatch, the Egyptians in turn appealed to the Soviet Union for assistance.
As world attention remained riveted on Cuba, thousands of Egyptian soldiers poured into the Arabian Peninsula. Night after night the air bridge continued. Huge Antonov-12 transport planes, painted with the red, white, [End Page 5] and black of the Egyptian air force but piloted by Soviet aircrews, rolled off the tarmac at Cairo's airbase laden with everything from MiG fighters and men to mail and mousetraps. After a brief pitstop at Aswan, the planes continued on their nocturnal journey southward over the Red Sea in darkness and radio silence. Turning inland just before daybreak north of the port city of , the aircraft descended at the crack of dawn onto a rough airstrip perched precariously on the mountainous outskirts of , 7,200 feet above sea level. Within weeks the Antonovs would be joined by Tupolev-16 long-range bombers manned by mixed Soviet-Egyptian crews. Out of their base in CairoWest, they flew bombing missions over royalist targets in northern Yemen and, on occasion, across the border into Saudi territory.1 [End Page 6]
Thus began the little-known story of Egypt's five-year intervention in the Yemeni CivilWar, an adventure that proved more costly in lives, treasure, and squandered influence than any of Egypt's wars with Israel—with the possible exception of 1967. The campaign not only crippled the Egyptian economy and left a permanent scar on society; it also destroyed Nasser's neutralist foreign policy by pushing Egypt onto a path of confrontation with the United States and dependence on the Soviet Union. Although not the total catastrophe painted by some of the regime's more sensationalist critics—contemporaries often compared it to Vietnam—the protracted involvement in a fratricidal conflict on the Arabian Peninsula played a central role in Egypt's decline from preeminence in the Arab world and in the subsequent rise of Saudi power.
A set of challenges familiar to students of counterinsurgency combined to rob the Egyptians of the chance for an easy victory: the unforeseen need to adapt to the exigencies of guerrilla warfare presented grave tactical difficulties, and the impossibility of eliminating foreign sanctuaries across the border in U.S.-protected Saudi territory induced strategic paralysis. Above all, the fractiousness of tribal politics undermined the very idea of a centralized republic, which the Egyptians were committed to uphold. From a few hundred commandos at the beginning of October 1962, the Egyptian expeditionary force grew to roughly 70,000 men by the summer of 1965. Their presence in Yemen threatened both Saudi...