245. Memorandum From Gary Sick of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • The Yemen Coup and Assassination

Current Situation

The facts that we have are scanty, but they seem to be holding up well. The South Yemenis apparently rigged the assassination of President Ghashmi of North Yemen, probably for two reasons: (1) to throw the YAR into confusion and prevent any military reaction to their own coup which was already planned; and (2) to discredit PDRY President Ali and provide at least a superficial motive for removing him from office. It worked. Subsequently, the party leadership either staged a coup attempt by Ali, or else took advantage of such an attempt, to bombard the Presidential palace and execute Ali. The effect was to leave Abd al-Fattah Ismail, the hard-line Marxist party chief and ideologue, as the key power in Aden. In Sanaa, the North Yemenis have pulled themselves together quickly, have installed an interim President, and are now considering next steps. (S)

What It Does NOT Mean

The PDRY was already the most radical2 Marxist state in the Arab world. The change of leadership will not mean a loss to the free world, only more of the same. Even with the leftist “pragmatist” Salim Rubaya Ali in office, the Saudis had given up on Aden as much as six months ago, considering it a lost cause and beyond the reach of their moneyed entreaties. A power struggle has been going on between Ali and Ismail almost from the day they took collective command of the PDRY. They were both committed Marxists. The PDRY has been following a Marxist policy actively and openly for years, including unblushing attempts to interfere in the policies of conservative states throughout the area. The Ghashmi assassination was their first successful murder of a head of state, but not for lack of trying. They have numerous notches on their sword handles for the killing of lesser political figures in their own nation and elsewhere. The change in policy may make them [Page 764] marginally worse, but barring a relinquishment of their prized nationalistic credentials in the form of base rights to the Soviets, it is difficult to see how Ismail acting on his own can surpass his past performance with Ali as partner. (S)

What It Will Mean

—The Saudis, the North Yemenis, the Shah, and others in the region will see this as further confirmation of their deepest fears, viz. the Soviets, having installed their crew in Kabul, having attempted the same in Baghdad, with Addis in their pocket, have now added another link in the ever-tighter chain encircling the moderate Arabs. The regional moderates will press us to do something, and they may be tempted to try to do something themselves. We have reliable indications that the Saudis are seriously considering going to war with the PDRY and are seeking regional support. (S)

—With regard to the Soviets, it is not clear at this point that they will enjoy any greater access to Aden than before. The Soviets have been pressing the Adenis for years to give them base facilities—and have been rejected in each case. Those decisions were taken while Ismail was in a strong position in the government and almost certainly reflected a collective view with strong nationalist overtones. Ismail may prove to be more susceptible to Soviet blandishments, but that is far from certain at this stage. (S)

What To Look For

In measuring the extent of Soviet gains, there are three possible yardsticks:

1. Base Rights. Return of the Soviet repair ship or floating dry dock to Aden would be a clear indication of a change in policy. Soviet use of Aden airfields for military (as opposed to transport) flights would be a major deviation from past PDRY policy. A significant increase in Soviet or Cuban military presence would be in the same category.

2. Intervention in North Yemen. Active PDRY military intervention across the border or encouragement of tribal dissidence on a large scale would reverse the live-and-let-live pattern which has characterized the uneasy relations between the two Yemens over the past several years. It could prompt the Saudis to intervene directly.

3. Dhofar. A concerted attempt to reignite the Dhofar rebellion in Oman3 would mark a sharp policy change. (S)

These are listed in descending order of probability. The PDRY did not stop supporting the Dhofar rebels because they lost interest in the [Page 765] export of revolution. They stopped because they were roundly defeated and had nothing to gain by going back for another round. With regard to North Yemen, it is not clear that Aden has enough tribal or political assets to be more than a nuisance, and the threat of energizing the Saudis into a major confrontation is not likely to be appealing. There are, however, more hard core communists of the card-carrying variety in the North than the Marxist South.4 This, plus the tangled tribal relationships, will continue to give Aden the ability to interfere in the internal affairs of North Yemen almost at will, a capability reciprocated by Northern assets in the South. (S)

U.S. Interests

Our ultimate concern is the stability of Saudi Arabia. The presence of a Marxist state on the corner of the Peninsula is not a factor for stability, but its extreme poverty, total political isolation, and preoccupation with its own internal power struggles have kept it from wielding any significant influence beyond the borders of its equally impoverished neighbor to the north. This is not a desirable situation, but it must be weighed against the risks in attempting to change it by force. (S)

The PDRY regime is fully in command of its own government and people so far as we can tell. It will not topple easily, and it controls a respectable, blooded military force. The worst possible outcome of this affair in terms of our own interests would be an intervention attempt by the Saudis which failed and tended to discredit the Royal Family. There was a lot of talk in North Yemen and Saudi Arabia in the days immediately following the Ghashmi assassination about North Yemen launching a war against the south, backed by Saudi Arabia, with such states as Iran and Jordan standing at the ready.5 That may have been merely frustration and rage in the heat of the moment, but it is dangerous in the extreme. There is no realistic prospect that North Yemen—with or without Saudi assistance—could in fact bring down the Aden regime. It is more likely to reveal Saudi (and Yemeni) military shortcomings and embroil the entire Peninsula in a war no one can win. (S)

We and the Saudis have everything to lose in widening the conflict, and we should not encourage it in any way. The British intend to issue a formal statement today counseling restraint on all parties. Although it may not be what Prince Turki and the Shah want to hear, we should take the same line. (S)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 94, Yemens: Temporary: 6/78. Secret. Sent for information.
  2. An unknown hand crossed out the words “most radical” and substituted the word “only.”
  3. See footnote 2, Document 237.
  4. An unknown hand placed a question mark in the right-hand margin next to this sentence.
  5. In telegram 3110 from Sana, June 26, the Embassy reported on Ransom’s conversation with al-Asnaj, in which the latter informed Ransom that he planned to “call on Saudis and Omanis to join YAR in intervention in South Yemen.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780264–1077)