Lessons from the Omani Conflict – Winning Hearts and Minds

Modern theorists and practitioners of counterinsurgency theory have developed a list of characteristics of insurgencies which will impact on either the success or failure of an insurgency movement. While all of these drivers and attributes of an insurgency will be present in almost all cases in varying degrees, this essay seeks to analyse the Omani Insurgency in the 1970s by the characteristics of popular support, sanctuary and external support, and weapons.

The conflict in Oman existed from the 1950s until the 1970s, even as the contestants and insurgents changed and reformed their form and goals constantly. Even though early insurgencies ended in failure, the oppressive and corrupt rule of Sultan Sa’id Bin Taymur resulted in discontent across the country, especially in the region of Dhofar in South Oman

Dhofar had long been considered the personal property of the Sultan, and was his place of residence year round, even though the government capital was in Muscat, 500 miles to the northeast

The Sultan sought to keep Oman closed off from the rest of the world, banning all forms of modern or Western technology or thought. Any who left the country for education were forbidden to return. The Sultan refused to invest in Oman’s infrastructure, creating a nation without functioning hospitals, schools, communications, or civic services

In this environment, an underground resistance movement began in Dhofar in the early 1960s. Influenced by Arab Nationalism, and seeking reforms in government, they began a small scale resistance campaign based in Salalah, the provincial capital. In 1965, Iranian forces intercepted and arrested armed Dhofari rebels in a ship attempting to enter the country. The intelligence gained from this group aided the Sultan’s forces in cracking down on the resistance in Salalah, forcing remaining resistance fighters to flee into the mountainous Jebel of Dhofar. From their new sanctuary, they formed the Dhofar Liberation Front (DLF) with the express purpose of establishing a separate Dhofari state.

Popular Support:

Originally, popular support in Dhofar was on the side of the insurgency. Initially, the DLF were committed to establishing an independent state which would end the hated rule of the Sultan, and thus achieved fairly wide popular support. The Suntan’s counterinsurgency also alienated the general population with crude tactics such as cordon and search programs, indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, and collective punishments for communities expected as being rebel supporters. In a Government report in 1970, the military described the counterinsurgency campaign as being a purely military campaign, with no attempts to win hearts and minds, no amnesty agreements, no civil projects, and no police or intelligence support to the military.

After the DLF merged into the left wing PFLOAG, the insurgents received external funding and weapons provided from a number of Communist countries, and sanctuary across the border in Yemen. Due to this, the insurgents were on the verge of possibly overthrowing Salalah, the last remaining bastion of the Sultan’s support in Dhofar.

In 1970, Sultan Saíd Bin Taymur was overthrown in a bloodless coup by his son, Sayyid Qabus bin Said. Qabus, Sandhurst educated, had been placed under arrest by his father upon his return to Oman, but with British support and backing easily wrested control of the country from his increasingly besieged father.

Once in control, Qabus embarked on a rapid policy of openness and modernization in a five pronged strategy which illustrated his understanding of the whole of government approach to the counterinsurgency campaign. His plan included a rapid development of the country through the increase of civic services, especially in the Dhofari regions. Also, he offered a general amnesty to all insurgents who surrendered and embarked on a diplomatic campaign to isolate the rebels and their supporters in Yemen from other Arab nations.

These popular reforms went far in gaining support from the local population for the government position. Civic development teams would enter communities and provide medical and schooling care, as well as veterinary attention for the farm animals owned by the primarily farming based population

The British especially embarked on a propaganda campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim based population. By playing upon religious sentiment, the general population was led to reject the Communist insurgents as atheists and infidels.

In return, the rebels responded against the population supporting the government with harsh attacks, further losing public support.

Translation: “The Hand of God Smashes Communism”

At the end of the campaign, both internal and external support for the insurgency had dried up. This is primarily due to the success of the new Omani government in winning the hearts and minds of the disaffected population.

Some authors, such as Thompson, believe that the attempt by the Rebels to force the general population to renounce Allah was the greatest alienation between them and the population. Once the Communists resorted to torture in order to attack the Muslim faith held by most of the population, their attempts at gaining popular support would always meet a measure of resistance.

External Support:

Externally, the DLF received little support initially. Egypt and Saudi Arabia provided advice, however the real external support started in 1968 from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Using the PDRY as a base, other communist countries, or leftist leaning regimes, such as China, Libya, Iraq, Cuba, and the USSR funnelled through weapons and equipment over the Yemeni border. In addition, a small contingent of Yemeni troops supported the rebels in their operation.

This influx of equipment and weaponry evened the odds initially, and put the PFLOAG on the offensive against the Sultan’s forces. Before the arrival of support and equipment, the DLF’s tactics consisted primarily of ambushes and small raids. The better armed PFLOAG was able to level the playing field, and given similar numbers would often defeat the Sultan’s forces in engagements.

From the Government’s side however, Sultan Qabus relied heavily on British forces, particularly the SAS counter insurgency forces who were able to organize an effective counter insurgency campaign against the rebels. By building on the failure of the PFLOAG to gain popular support, they formed effective tribal units to hunt down the insurgents holed up in the Jebel. The British also provided heavy weapons and equipment such as helicopters and armoured personal carriers to the Sultan.

Sultan Qabus also worked strongly to bring Oman into the Arab league and isolate the PFLOAG and the PDFY from Arab support. On a military front, the British forces cut off the outside support to the rebels through use of the Hornbeam Line, which intercepted shipments of arms from Yemen, thus denying outside support to the rebels.

Weapons:

As discussed previously, the PFLOAG became a decisive force through external support by leftist movements who provided the rebels with modern Soviet arms. These included AK-47 Kalashnikovs, 60mm and 81mm mortars, Rocket Propelled Grenades, 122mm Katyusha rockets, and SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles. The primarily smuggling route for these weapons was over the Yemeni border by camel trains into the Jebel.

Armed to this extent, the insurgents became more than a match both in firepower and numbers against the government troops. In contrast, the government soldiers were armed with inadequate uniforms and gear, no heavy weapons, and with WWI and WWII rifles and Bren guns.

After the change of government to Sultan Qabus, the tide of the insurgency turned in favour of the government forces. Rebel supply lines were targeted, cutting them off from outside support. Additionally, the amnesty program put in place by Said was remarkably effective in encouraging the surrender of insurgents. As public support turned more and more against the insurgency, the last remaining members fled across the border into Yemen in 1976, effectively ending the insurgency.

In conclusion, the deciding factor in the Omani Insurgency was the hearts and minds of the Dhofari people. Initially, the public support for the insurgency guaranteed them early victories. However, as the insurgents failed to follow up on their opportunity, and indeed drove the general public away from them through acts of terror, support was gained by the government forces, ultimately resulting in a failed insurgency.


[1] Peterson JE, “The Experience of British Counter-Insurgency Campaigns and Implications for Iraq”, Arabian Peninsula Background Note No APBN-009

[2] McKeown J, 1981, “Britain and Oman: The Dhofar War and It’s Significance”, University of Cambridge

Ladwig W, 2008, “Supporting Allies in Insurgency: Britain and the Dhofar Rebellion”, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol 19, No 1, March 2008

White Jim, 2008, “Oman 1965 – 1976”, Small Wars Journal Online Publication, 2008

Fine W, 2010, “Winning the Hearts and Minds in Counterinsurgency: The British Approach in Malaya and Oman and the US in Iraq and Afghanistan”, University of Kansas 2010

Thompson, L, 1996, “Ragged War: The Story of Unconventional and Counter-Revolutionary Warfare”, Arms and Armour Press, London, UK

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A Nuclear House of Saud?

The power structure in the Middle East has changed radically during the last two years. During this time, political leaders in numerous countries; Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen fell from power or fled to avoid the fate of their comrades in Egypt or Libya. President Assad in Syria, rather than face trial by his people for human rights abuses has determined to fight for his position, leading to what can be only described as a de facto state of civil war in the country. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, even Israel have seen their own protests and uprisings, however leaders in all countries have managed to hold onto power.

While Neo Conservatives in America may have first painted a rosy picture of democracy springing into the Middle East, the actual fact is that the current political systems, and even the future ones, will be very unlike the commonly accepted Western view of democracy. Only a small percentage of Libyan opposition groups have openly accepted democracy as a future political view, with the majority of Libyans rejecting democracy as a political system.

In Egypt, the most popular political party is the Muslim Brotherhood, who is steadfastly anti democratic. Indeed, the Brotherhood has come a long way from its past, when it was the umbrella group for the majority of extremist and terrorist groups, including many of the earlier members of Al Qaeda. While the Brotherhood may have technically forsaken violent action for political process, it does not mean for a moment that the group has become pro American and pro Democratic.

 

The Arab Spring

While the Middle East was once composed of many pro American governments, including those of Mubarak, it now has taken a strongly anti American turn. Even anti American governments such as Libya were a known entity. America knew how to handle Kaddafi. But the old known systems have now been replaced with an uncertain system which has not yet shown its true colours. The lines between friend and enemy are now broken, and American interests in the Middle East are now threatened.

With the American withdrawal from Iraq, American attention is now focused further upon Asia and Iran, while the Middle East (with the exclusion of the straits of Hormuz) have become less crucial to American interests.

American allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, have expressed concern regarding this recent shift of focus of American might. With the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, another American ally, the Saudi royals have expressed concern about the future security of their country. The belief is that American forces will not prevent a similar takeover in Saudi Arabia as what occurred in Egypt.

Saudi Arabia at the moment is extremely concerned regarding possible Iranian involvement in creating disturbance in the country through the minority Shiite population. There have already been several attacks against Saudi interests by Shiite terrorists. As the most significant source of oil in the region, and the most reliable as Iranian supply is becoming increasingly unstable, Saudi Arabia  is the major supplier of global oil at the moment. Surrounded by a hostile and an increasingly ambitious Turkey to the north, an uncertain Egypt to the West, a chaotic Yemen to the South, and an openly hostile Iran to the East, Saudi Arabia has found itself in an increasingly bad neighbourhood.

To add to the problems that Saudi Arabia faces, it is widely seen in the Arab world as an American puppet and as a corrupt and secular government, who is more interested in oil profits from the Americans than in assisting Muslims in the region. The Muslim world sees Saudi Arabia as a traitor who has taken American money in exchange for allowing American troops to desecrate the Holy Land by building military bases in the country. In addition, Saudi Arabia is seen as doing nothing to prevent the regional power of Israel from growing. Thus, the Saudi royal family is a top target for groups such as Al Qaeda.

 

With the withdrawal of American troops from the region, and the increasing belief that American protection will not cover the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia has begun to seek defensive capacities from other sources.

While traditionally the House of Saud sought weapons and defensive capacities from the United States, it is recently begun to approach other countries such as China for defensive and offensive weapons.

The deal which alarmed Washington the most was that of the Saudi purchase of Chinese CSS-5 missiles to replace the CSS-2 missiles purchased from China in the 1980s. While these reports are not officially confirmed, they do align with the Saudi intent to develop nuclear capacity in response to Iranian developments. The deal maker for this, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, has been the Saudi go to man for any business of this nature for the last 20 years.

The CSS-5 missile is a 2 stage solid propellant type, launcher based rocket, with a range of over 2,000 km. The missile can carry a HE warhead, or a more lethal chemical payload or a 250 – 500 kT nuclear tipped payload.

With the map below, you can see the radius of the new missiles sought by Saudi Arabia. Once launched, the missile can hit any target with a great degree of accuracy in almost the entire Middle East. Iran is almost totally covered by this radius, as is Israel, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and a good part of Turkey.

 

Range of the CSS V

 

The damage potentially caused by a 250 kT nuclear warhead on either Tehran or Tel Aviv is shown below.

Tehran

Tel Aviv

 

As seen, a large portion of the city would be destroyed, leading to potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties. By contrast, the atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima was only 16 kT.

Saudi Arabia knows that the deciding factor in the Iran Iraq War was a massive Scud strike upon Tehran by Iraq, which effectively stopped the Iranians from progressing into Iraq. Such a similar strategy of missile war would therefore be attractive in the event that Iran threatened Saudi Arabia with a missile attack.

Iran does have the capacity to strike at Saudi Arabia with it’s Shahab 3 missile with a range of up to 1,800 km. While the Shahab 3 does not have the accuracy or range of the CSS-5, it can hold a nuclear payload of up to 800 kT, far greater than the CSS-5. There are rumours of either a Satellite Launch Weapon or the disputed Shahab 4, with a purported range of up to 3000 km being developed by Iran.

The status of Iran’s nuclear enrichment process is unknown, but wildly speculated. Even if Iran did develop the “bomb”, Saudi Arabia would feel the necessity to develop a nuclear deterrent of its own. To the House of Saud, having both its rivals in the region, Israel and Iran, with nuclear weapons, it would be unacceptable to not have the same capacity.

The most likely source of weapons grade fissionable material by the Saudis would be either a locally produced version or through direct purchase. Saudi Arabia has committed to building over 10 new nuclear reactors in the country in the coming years, which may be for civilian power, but which may easily be turned into military use.

A cheaper and easier alternative may be direct purchase of either nuclear materials or nuclear know how. The Pakistani government and Saudi Arabia have held long ties together, and with the nuclear network of former scientist Dr Khan from Pakistan, it is possible that Saudi Arabia has either already acquired nuclear material from Pakistan or is in the process of doing so. Khan is known to have had dealings with the Kingdom before his arrest. Even if the Saudi’s have not already purchased material, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Islamabad would provide such materials to their ally in the region.

The development of a nuclear armed Saudi Arabia is not a prospect which will generate further peace in the Middle East. The impact of such an action, along with a possible scenario if this occurred will be discussed in a further post.

 

World Missile Fleet