252. Memorandum From Samuel Hoskinson of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • The Yemens

I have reviewed all of the information available in Washington pertaining to the situation in the Yemens and discussed the problem at great length with the key Saudi policymakers, involved United States Government officials in the field, and ranking UK intelligence and FCO officials. This memorandum presents my resulting assessment of the situation and thoughts on how we should proceed.

The Situation

There is little question that the Soviets, and especially the Cubans, played a direct and critical role in Abl al-Fattah Ismail’s violent ouster of Salim al-Rubayyi Ali from the PDRY Presidency in late June.2 While there is some dispute about what may have stimulated Ismail’s move at this time, all our intelligence indicates (and virtually everyone in the field agrees) that the Soviets and Cubans decisively intervened to tip the balance of the fighting in favor of their longstanding ally, Ismail.

The Saudis believe that the Soviets encouraged Ismail to make his fateful move against Ali and inspired the assassination of North Yemen President Ghashmi3 because of the Saudi success in developing Ali into a moderate nationalist (albeit still Marxist) alternative to the Soviet-backed Ismail faction who would settle the longstanding north-south Yemen conflict and keep the Soviets at bay. The British, and some Americans, believe the Saudi approach had failed miserably some time ago as Ismail gradually gained ascendancy over Ali and other potential rivals and that Ismail’s [Ali’s] ouster from the Presidency in June was merely the final coup de grace. Thus the degree of Soviet inspiration behind the events of June remains somewhat obscure. All agree, however, that once the fighting started the Soviets and Cubans did throw their local military weight behind Ismail. The lesson has not, of course, [Page 783] been lost on the neighboring Arab states who are fearful that they could be next and are looking to us for help.

Soviet motivation is clear. At a minimum they want to establish and maintain a secure base of operations in South Yemen which can provide logistics support for their Indian Ocean fleet and give them a presence on the Red Sea and Arabian Peninsula. The Saudis believe—and I agree—that the Soviets also see South Yemen as a base for expanding their influence elsewhere in the Middle East. North Yemen is a logical next target for Soviet-Ismail adventurism and neighboring Oman is vulnerable as well. The threat is also aimed, however, at Saudi Arabia since the loss to the Soviet orbit of either or both of these traditionally Saudi-dominated areas would seriously undermine Saudi political dominance of the Gulf states as well. In the process there could even be a popular loss of confidence in the ability of the House of Saud to govern Saudi Arabia and increased divisiveness within the Saudi ruling circle.

Soviet success in pursuing these objectives will turn to a considerable extent on the fortunes of Abl al-Fattah Ismail in the months ahead. From all indications, Ismail is a true believer Marxist determined to revolutionize his own country and export the revolution abroad as well. He knows what he wants and will not be persuaded to settle for less.

Ismail, with Soviet and Cuban help, has only achieved the first step of seizing power in Aden and pacifying the population there. He still must consolidate his power throughout the country before he can get down to revolutionary business in earnest. Best Saudi and American estimates are that this will take some six to eight months. After that, most observers believe Ismail—backed by the Soviets and Cubans—will begin his onslaught on North Yeman and heat up the Dhofar rebellion again in Oman as well as introduce Communist “reforms” into South Yemen. In the meantime, Aden will continue to be a haven for international terrorists and other radicals.

Ismail’s strength is his ruthlessness, almost messianic zeal and, most importantly, the backing of the Soviets and Cubans. On the other hand, he still faces some serious obstacles. We know there are still potential rivals within the regime and disputes within the hierarchy over who should be named to leadership positions. More importantly, a sizable part of the army may be disaffected or, at a minimum, not responsive to government direction. Traditional tribal and religious conflicts, some of which have been exacerbated, will also complicate Ismail’s life. Finally, the desire for revenge by the extended families of those killed or purged by Ismail cannot be disregarded in a traditional society like this. Unfortunately, in the opinion of most close observers of this situation, the balance at this point would seem to be slightly in [Page 784] favor of Ismail consolidating his power base throughout South Yemen in six to eight months.

The situation in North Yemen is mixed as well. North Yemen’s new President Ali Abdallah Salih’s greatest strength is his strong backing from the Saudis who were very instrumental in his rise to power. He is, however, an impetuous man of very limited experience and intellectual depth. The Saudis believe they can control Salih but as an ace in the hole they are frank to say they are maintaining their influence with key tribal leaders who can bring strong pressure on any regime in Sana. Salih apparently has little popular support, especially in the important southern province which differs ideologically and religiously from the tribal north. There is also a raft of various leftists, Ba’thists and South Yemen sympathizers who can stir up trouble in Sana. They are especially resentful of Salih’s conservatism and close ties to the Saudis. Our embassy in Sana gives Salih about six months in office but there does not appear to be anyone much better in the wings.

The Saudis at all levels are extremely concerned about the situation in the Yemens. To a remarkable degree, the Saudis share our assessments. For them, of course, the problem is more immediate and they are consequently eager to develop a meaningful program to counter the threat from South Yemen. At the same time, they seem to fear the possible consequences of attempting to take on the Soviets alone. In short, the Saudis will act to protect their interests but to an extent they fear such actions will anger the Soviets, they want us as a full partner to shield them against repercussions.

The Saudis indicated to me that they want to develop a multidimensional program designed to put maximum pressure on Ismail while at the same time working to reduce the vulnerabilities of North Yemen and Oman. Parts of this program are still in the conceptual and formative stage but the major elements are clear. North Yemen’s “defensive” military posture must be strengthened in partnership with the U.S. though not to the point where it could also be a threat to Saudi Arabia. Oman should be assisted militarily as well. Economic development assistance is another element, although it is not clear precisely what the Saudis have in mind.

[1 paragraph (11 lines) not declassified]


Assuming that my assessment of the situation is reasonably accurate, the U.S. has an obvious strong interest in countering this most recent example of Soviet expansionism. Unlike the Horn of Africa, the Yemen situation is one where we are well positioned to draw the line and even reverse an important Soviet gain. Soviet/Cuban intervention in the internal affairs of South Yemen is clear-cut, the Ismail regime is already [Page 785] isolated in the Arab world and vulnerable from within, the threatened neighboring states want our help and we have vital interests in the political stability of the Arabian Peninsula.

In this situation, there would appear to be three basic alternative courses of action we could take.

1. Limited diplomatic/military aid reaction. This is essentially the approach we are taking now. It involves a very limited military supply program for North Yemen in cooperation with the Saudis and what amounts to little more than diplomatic loss covering moves. No concerted effort is being made to put pressure on the Ismail regime, political or otherwise.

The major argument in favor of this approach is that it does not commit U.S. prestige, but is not totally unresponsive either. The argument against it is that this is tokenism at best and at worst a weak response that will only encourage Ismail to press on with his revolutionary program and the Soviets to engage in similar adventurism elsewhere.

2. Maximum diplomatic/military aid/propaganda pressure on South Yemen. Under this approach we would mount an international diplomatic and propaganda offensive to expose the Soviet hand in South Yemen and rally international opinion. We would work closely with the Saudis on both military aid to strengthen North Yemen’s and Oman’s defenses against conventional military attack and subversion and on various forms of economic and diplomatic pressure on South Yemen. The objective would be to isolate and put the Soviets and South Yemen on the defense and thereby, hopefully, neutralize them.

The major argument for this approach is that it would go beyond limited defensive reaction and pressure the Soviets and Ismail. The major argument against, is that we could well end up with the worst of both worlds by drawing international attention to the problem only to witness the Soviets continuing to back Ismail’s effective efforts to undermine both North Yemen and Oman. In short, Ismail is unlikely to back off and the Soviets, rather than being defensive, could well choose to press on with enough success to leave the outcome in doubt or up the ante in military supply and other support to South Yemen beyond our political willingness to respond in kind.

3. Counteroffensive. This approach, in addition to the actions undertaken in option 2, would involve us in a covert action program [less than 1 line not declassified] to intensify Ismail’s existing internal problems, make life more difficult for the Soviets and Cubans in South Yemen and if completely successful lead to Ismail’s downfall.

The argument for this approach is that it offers the prospects of rolling back the Soviets from an area where they have intervened and [Page 786] thereby regaining the international respect and influence we have lost as a result of the Soviet/Cuban thrust in Africa and the Middle East. It may be a long time before such an ideal opportunity like this arises again. On the other hand, there would be some inevitable Congressional concern about “destabilizing” a regime even as odious and illegitimate as Ismail’s.

Obviously each of these options needs to be systematically developed to understand more precisely what would be involved and the implications. The Yemen situation is serious enough to warrant such a study effort.

In the meantime, irrespective of what option we select, there is an immediate need for much better intelligence coverage. The Yemen’s until recently have been of secondary interest to the U.S. and our intelligence effort has been minimal. We now need to examine what needs to be done to bring it up to speed with our changing interests.


1. That you commission the PRM at Tab A to study on a priority basis the three options.5

2. [3½ lines not declassified]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 56, Yemen. Secret. Sent for action. Inderfurth’s and Bartholomew’s initials are on the first page of the memorandum.
  2. See Document 244.
  3. See Document 243.
  4. Inderfurth placed a bracket around both recommendations and drew an arrow from the bracket to the margin below and wrote: “ZB, I suggest you sign the memo at Tab B to Turner now. Before signing the proposed PRM, however, I suggest that Sam consult with Gary Sick and Bill Quandt. Rick.” Brzezinski responded: “OK—Sam is out until 28 August—show to Sick/Quandt now for views. Good memo.” According to an August 17 covering memorandum, attached to another copy of Hoskinson’s memorandum, Inderfurth sent the memorandum to Quandt and Sick on August 17. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Subject File, Middle East, Box 92, YAR: 8/78)
  5. Neither Tab A nor Tab B is attached. An undated and unsigned draft PRM is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 92, YAR: 8/78.