The Yemens Go at It

May 10, 1994

Northern Yemen is the country many Americans remember as Yemen. It won independence from Turkey in 1918 and has a village-based economy, many people living as their ancestors did. Southern Yemen is what Americans used to call Aden. It was a British colony and port on the sea route to India, long in rebellion. The British left in 1967, replaced by an indigenous Marxist regime.

Northern Yemen, on the Red Sea, is mostly west of Southern Yemen, on the Gulf of Aden, which extends north and south of it. Southern Yemen is twice as big. Northern Yemen has five times as many people. Southern Yemen, a former Soviet client, has a better trained military and equipped force than Northern Yemen, a Saudi client.

After much strife, the two merged in 1990, which their peoples long wanted. The Arab world approved. It looked like the end of the Marxist regime, as its Communist patrons were crumbling in Eastern Europe. The deal was for a joint government with the strong man of the North, Col. Ali Abdullah Saleh, as president. The party boss of the South, Ali Salem al-Baidh, would be vice president. The armies were supposed to integrate, with units moved to each other's turf.

This never really took. The North ran itself as though it was all Yemen, and has encouraged Muslim political fundamentalism. The South went on as an anachronistic Marxist dictatorship. Finally, charging that the North was trying to gobble the South, which it probably was, Mr. al-Baidh last August stormed out of San'a, the capital, back to Aden. War -- simmering since then -- burst forth last week.

This is a quarrel of rulers, not peoples. The people suffer, especially when the South's Scuds hit San'a and the North's planes bomb southern towns. The North thought it would vanquish the South quickly, but has not. To win, the North must occupy the South. The South, to win, has only to keep the North at bay.

Most foreigners have fled the oil fields, jeopardizing revenues mostly in the South. Arab states have a great interest in brokering an accord, especially Saudi Arabia, which abhors conflict on the Arabian peninsula. This is the Arab League's problem.

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