The victims “complained of a choking feeling, burning in the stomach, spitting up black blood, partial blindness, black burns on the body, and skin that fell off leaving scars.”
The description is sickeningly reminiscent of the sarin gas attacks in Syria last month, yet this eyewitness testimony was recorded by British politician Neil McLean in the Yemeni village of Jebal Bini Awar in July 1963 after an incident in a four-year campaign of chemical warfare that killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians. The conflict is largely forgotten, but the world’s failed response to repeated chemical assaults 50 years ago haunts the contemporary debate on Syria.
In 1962, a group of military officers overthrew Yemen’s autocratic monarch, Imam Muhammad al-Badr. The imam’s supporters among the northern tribes fought back, prompting Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had helped overthrow his own country’s king a decade earlier, to order a military intervention. Eager to support the spread of Arab nationalist regimes, Nasser dispatched 70,000 soldiers to bolster the fledgling Yemeni republic’s struggle against the imam’s counterrevolution.
The Egyptian-led intervention in this protracted civil war would later be dubbed “Nasser’s Vietnam,” and as the conflict worsened, the Egyptian response to the insurgency’s guerrilla tactics grew desperate. The local population opposed the Egyptian presence, and tribes began shifting their support to the opposition. Eager for a decisive breakthrough, Nasser hoped a massive bombing campaign using poison gas would terrorize the local population into submission.
While the deployment of chemical weapons was no secret, President John F. Kennedy’s administration responded with restrained diplomacy. The U.S. ambassador to Egypt sat Nasser down for a private talk on the folly of using chemical weapons. Nasser’s initial denials were followed by excuses that his military commanders in the field were free to make their own strategic decisions, for which he wasn’t responsible. Under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, economic aid to Egypt was rescinded in part because of the occupation of Yemen and the use of chemical weapons.
The U.S. government pushed international committees to investigate the attacks. The International Red Cross released a full report, as did a team of British mercenaries working with the opposition. These investigations showed that the Egyptians began experimenting with poison and chemical bombs in 1963.
These initial amateurish munitions were augmented by a Soviet shipment of new gas bombs in January 1964.
Victims died 10-50 minutes after an attack, blood emerging from their noses and mouths without any marks on their skin. Autopsies confirmed death by pulmonary edema caused by breathing a poisonous gas. Final studies concluded that mustard gas was the likely culprit, as it was relatively simple to manufacture and matched the symptoms of the victims.
Leaders then faced the dilemma of what to do with this intelligence. The answer was essentially nothing. Although a few American alarmists worried the Soviets were using Yemen as a chemical-warfare testing ground, a seemingly remote conflict between two Arab states was of little interest. On the other side of the Red Sea, Israeli officials were panicked by the Egyptian chemical attacks and began mass distribution of gas masks, though they showed no concern about Yemen itself.
The imam and his opposition forces published gruesome pictures of the victims in an attempt to garner public support. The United Nations Security Council remained inactive, however, as the Soviets blocked condemnation of their Egyptian ally. As the frequency of Egypt’s attacks accelerated in early 1967, the International Red Cross brought its campaign to the floor of the U.N. to garner a response to the gassings in Yemen. It received only a shipment of gas masks. Over the course of the five-year civil war, bombing continued unaffected by international criticism, and Nasser’s military was essentially given free reign.
Respite finally arrived for Yemeni civilians in June 1967, when the Egyptian forces were defeated by Israel in the Six-Day War. Nasser had no choice but to pull his soldiers from Yemen to help secure the home front. Yet even as they withdrew, the Egyptians couldn’t resist inflicting several additional rounds of gas bombings.
The chemical-warfare campaign in Yemen isn’t part of the discussion about what to do in Syria today. The hundreds killed and thousands injured received little international recognition, public memorials or collective condemnation of the perpetrators. Nor did it provoke any soul-searching over the world’s inability to stop chemical attacks on Middle Eastern civilians.
Fifty years later, Western powers struggle for a way to show Syria that the use of poison gas is intolerable. Yet the failure to act in Yemen is a sobering reminder that complex chemical-warfare problems are rarely quickly solved, nor is justice delivered for the victims.
Asher Orkaby is a Ph.D. candidate in modern Middle East history at Harvard University.