266. Telegram From the United States Liaison Office in Riyadh to the Department of State1

343. Embassy Jidda sends. Military addees handle as Specat Exclusive. Subject: Saud Calls for Direct Commitment of US Support in Potential Conflict With PDRY (S). (Ref: A) Riyadh 0340,2 B) Riyadh 0341.3

1. Secret-entire text.

2. Summary. Following is MemCon of 1 March meeting in which Prince Saud reiterates Saudi commitment to use its own forces if necessary against PDRY, defines military aims and justifications, and seeks US commitment to supply arms and help in planning. End summary.

3. Ambassador West, DAS/ISA Murray met with Prince Saud and Foreign Minister Prince Saud and Intelligence Director Prince Turki bin Faysal morning of March 1 at MODA headquarters to continue their discussions on the Yemen situation. Ambassador and Mr. Murray were accompanied by USMTM/Chief MGen Cathey, RADM Lyons of JCS–J–5, Embassy officer Cave, DATT Col Hunt, David Ransom, and LTC George W. Plummer, both of ISA (NESA) and other Embassy and USMTM officers. A large number of Saudi military officers were also present, including Chief of Staff Gen Humayd, LTG Kabbani of MODA’s Foreign Assistance and Cooperation Office; LTG Muhammad al-Shayah, LTG Asad Zuhayr; LTC Fahd Abdallah and several others.

4. Prince Saud began the meeting by stating that PDRY leader Abd al-Fattah Isma’il is expected to arrive in Moscow tonight 29 February. The Ambassador asked for the Fon Min’s analysis. FonMin responded simply: “He’s going to report to his masters.” Then said that if Soviets want to contain conflict they will ask him to withdraw his forces. Ambassador suggested that this is perhaps the reason we have not yet [Page 822] heard any response to our demarche to Soviet Union on situation in Yemen.4

5. Prince Saud continued by noting that letter is being sent to YAR President Ali Abdallah Salih to ask for permission for Saudis and US reps to visit battle fronts in Yemen. Purpose for this visit is to collect all of the information available on forces and equipment available and report back. Report should indicate the shortcomings and gaps in the Yemeni inventory which Saudi Arabia and the US may supply.

6. Mr. Murray responded that the Sana OMC/Chief, Col Ralph Broman, will accompany the fact-finding team. The Ambassador asked for the timing of the proposed mission. Prince Saud said it would leave today. The Saudi MTM Chief Col Seuwayil will carry the letter to Salih and will head the Saudi team.

7. Prince Saud continued by saying that the previous evening’s meeting5 had indicated intent on the part of the United States to do everything it can to supplement Saudi efforts to contain situation, meet any eventuality in South Yemen threat and, if worse comes to worst, to provide Saudi Arabia with whatever is needed—to supply what support is needed, prevent reverses and help Saudi Arabia achieve its military objectives.

8. Mr. Murray responded that was not fully accurate; important qualifications should be noted. The first is that we cannot go beyond the law. We must look at the circumstances. The second is that it depends on the military requirements. We have to know what you have in mind. We have received a list of your requirements, and we have basically supportive attitude but it is not clear how all these requirements fit into circumstances. However, we are willing to continue the discussions, and it is probable that MGen Cathey is the one best suited to continue the dialogue in the first instance.

9. Somewhat tersely, Prince Saud declared that Saudi Arabia does not wish to be caught in vicious circles. “We will cut up our vicious circles and help you. We will take your people into our confidence. Our intention is to see the situation through; to use our military forces to involve ourselves in the fighting with South Yemen if the fighting continues in North Yemen. We have not yet given you the details, as you have not said that you are committed. You have made only qualified commitment.” Speaking in rapid but deliberate tones, Prince Saud emphasized that Saudi Arabia is making a direct request to be told quickly if the US will support Saudi Arabia within the scope of US law. Situation moving quickly. In the meantime, Saudi officers will [Page 823] present US officers with operational plans. These will be discussed with MGen Cathey and any others you may choose. This group will examine what the possible operational measures will be.

10. Mr. Murray asked for clarification. As this appeared to be a formal request, he wished to raise several questions. Are you asking for a commitment to support Saudi Arabia in actual operations? Are these operations hypothetical? Prince Saud responded no, adding that we do not deal in hypothetical situations. Mr. Murray stated that it was his understanding that the Saudis were approaching the Yemen situation in three ways. First, they are undertaking efforts to work out a diplomatic solution. Second, if this fails, then they hope that the South Yemenis will be expelled through [by] the Yemen Arab Republic. Third, if this fails as well then Saudi forces will be used to solve the problem. As the first two options have not yet been exhausted, is not the third option hypothetical?

11. Prince Saud said this was the right order but we must prepare at same time for all eventualities. Thus, preparation for the third option is not hypothetical. It is a reasonable concern which must be met.

12. Mr. Murray asked for further clarification. He asked whether the preparations in the last instance are preparations for movement by Saudi forces, not into North Yemen, but into South Yemen? Prince Saud replied affirmatively. He said that the US knows the capability of the SAG forces. We will inform you of the current disposition of the Saudi forces at the forthcoming combat as we perceive it. We expect you to contribute your thoughts. Participation by the US is not joining in the planning phase only but joining in the implementation phase too.

13. Mr. Murray considered the FonMin’s points briefly. Then he responded that while MGen Cathey can serve as a channel of communication to the USG, passing on information received, he cannot give formal advice on behalf of the US Government or advise privately on Saudi plans.

14. Ambassador West said he wanted to anticipate some of the many questions that will be asked in Washington about Saudi decision. For instance, someone who defends his territory is always in a stronger position vis a vis law and public opinion than someone who attacks the territory of another. Saud replied that PDRY had not violated Saudi borders but had done so in YAR. He asked rhetorically if USG would support SAG if it fought inside Yemen and said that choice of attack across Saudi-PDRY border is military decision, an easier way to respond to aggression. He noted in passing that border with PDRY was not internationally recognized—a benefit of being ruled by the British, according to Prince Turki.

15. Ambassador West asked if Saudi attack successful in forcing PDRY withdrawal, would SAG withdraw? Prince Saud answered in [Page 824] the affirmative at once, adding that SAG did not intend to occupy territory or force a change of government in Aden.

16. Admiral Lyons noted that Saudi decision would broaden the conflict. Prince Saud nodded. Ambassador West pressed to know if Saudis had definitely made decision. Yes, said Prince Saud. He added that Saudis were picking up signs of greatly increased Soviet naval activity in the Bab al-Mandab Straits. Mr. Murray asked if, in Saudi view, Cubans will become involved. Prince Saud said equipment placed in PDRY would allow 13,000 troops to be introduced. What are the military consequences of this, asked Murray. That is enough to face Saudi forces, said Prince Saud plainly. How do you deal with that contingency, asked Murray. That’s your problem said Saud. In absence of Cubans, Murray asked, what is your estimate of forcing PDRY withdrawal from YAR? We think we can succeed, said Saud. Would YAR be helpful, asked Murray. Yes, said Saud.

17. Prince Saud then suggested an afternoon 1 March meeting with General Cathey to go over Saudi contingency plans.6 He asked for Cathey to contribute his thoughts as well as listen. Murray said Cathey could not do this; that would require special USG approval.

18. Murray then read over his notes of commitment which Prince Saud was seeking (see para 7 above). Prince Saud claimed he had not asked us to “prevent reverses” but to help attain military objective (#)7 SAG. Prince Saud added he was not defeatist in his thinking. He said issue was basically a military one: “We want you to provide whatever our requirements are to keep military operations going.” “US forces?” asked Murray. “I’m not counting on US military personnel since USG won’t even help with planning,” replied Saud.

19. Prince Turki then asked if US team to Sana could give YAR and Saudis its views. Murray said team could describe situation and suggest some steps that were needed but could not give tactical advice. Prince Turki concluded by asking—Prince Saud joined him—if Murray and the Ambassador would ask permission for US advisory team which could go beyond observations and advise YARG on tactical formations. Prince Saud also wanted permission for MGen Cathey to advise of Saudi plans.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 93, Yemens: Border War: 2/79–3/4/79. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Sent for information Immediate to the Department of Defense, Jidda, Sana, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Printed from a copy that was received in the White House Situation Room.
  2. See Document 265.
  3. In telegram 341 from Riyadh, March 1, the Liaison Office reported a February 28 late night meeting among Saud, Turki, West, and Murray. Saud “wanted blanket assurances that USG would provide whatever logistics and arms supply support was necessary, getting waiver of all restrictions on President by Congress because of urgency of situation. We said USG understood urgency of situation and was prepared to provide appropriate support.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790093–0835)
  4. See footnote 2, Document 263.
  5. See footnote 3 above.
  6. See Document 265.
  7. As on the original, presumably indicating an omission.