267. Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1


  • South Yemeni Intentions Toward North Yemen

Our information on the current military situation between the two Yemens [less than 1 line not declassified], and the immediate plans of Aden remain unclear. We believe, however, that South Yemen is committed to the overthrow of the government in Sana and to the eventual union of the two Yemens under a Marxist government. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

This is not a new South Yemeni objective, [less than 1 line not declassified] it was reaffirmed and given top priority at a closed session of Aden’s ruling party last October. A special committee, including the country’s leader, Abd al-Fattah Ismail, was set up to plan and direct the subversive effort. A new Aden-backed organization—the National Democratic Front—was formed to spearhead the overthrow of North Yemen. The NDF, which allegedly is doing most of the current fighting, is composed largely of North Yemeni dissidents, including some prominent military defectors.2 [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

South Yemen’s decision to increase pressure probably resulted from the perception that North Yemen, under the spiritless leadership of President Salih, needed only a shove to bring it down. [less than 1 line not declassified], South Yemeni Prime Minister Hasani told a visiting Palestinian delegation late last year that Sana was near collapse and Aden had to move quickly, before a stronger leader emerged in Sana. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

[less than 1 line not declassified] the fighting which began last week and is apparently going on entirely within North Yemen, was triggered by a signal from Aden that the time was ripe for bringing down the Salih regime. There are several plausible alternative explanations for the fighting: it may have evolved from a series of border raids engaged in by both sides which got out of hand; or South Yemen may intend [Page 826] to punish North Yemen for sponsoring paramilitary activities, hoping to discourage such action in the future. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Whatever the origin of the conflict, if Aden smells blood and perceives the military action to be seriously undermining President Salih’s position—with bearable political and military costs to South Yemen—we would expect the Aden Government to maintain the pressure. South Yemen could help the exiles establish a government of national liberation in the southern part of North Yemen. The inhabitants of this area are, like the South Yemenis, largely of the Sunni Muslim sect. The residents of the northern part of North Yemen, on the other hand, are primarily Shias. Such a development would almost certainly further erode Salih’s already uncertain position. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Pressure from the Soviet Union, other Arab states through the Arab League, a decisive Saudi move to support North Yemen, or a visible show of support for the regime in Sana by the US might induce South Yemen to back off for the moment. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Aden’s long-term goal of exporting its Marxist system to North Yemen will remain, however, ensuring continued instability in the area. If the current military campaign does not result in a change of government in Sana that is favorable to South Yemen, that country can be expected to seek other opportunities to subvert the North Yemeni Government. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

The Soviet Angle

[less than 1 line not declassified] active Soviet encouragement of current South Yemeni-backed operations against North Yemen, [less than 1 line not declassified] the USSR may be less opposed to PDRY adventurism than in the past. In the fall of 1978, a number of reports indicated that the Soviets were reluctant to support South Yemeni activities because they were concerned that these might provoke foreign intervention which in turn might lead to a war of attrition that they would have to support. In addition, they reportedly felt that this policy was injurious to Soviet interests because it had provoked tensions with North Yemen and Saudi Arabia and was giving imperialist forces opportunities to exploit. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

By the end of 1978, reporting to this effect had ceased, [less than 1 line not declassified] the Soviets were aware of and prepared to support South Yemeni actions with respect to North Yemen as long as no direct invasion by South Yemeni armed forces occurred. No reasons for this apparent shift in position have been cited. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

[Page 827]

The Cuban Perspective

[less than 1 line not declassified] North Yemeni claims that Cuban military personnel are involved in the current fighting against North Yemen, we would not be surprised if Cuban advisers were assisting South Yemeni-supported forces behind the lines in South Yemen. In November the Cubans reportedly agreed to arm North Yemeni dissidents based in South Yemen. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

It is highly unlikely, however, that Havana would risk sending Cuban units or combat support personnel into North Yemen. In Angola and Ethiopia where Cuba intervened militarily on a large scale, Havana could argue that it was performing a defensive role in assisting local forces repel foreign aggression. No such claim could be made in the case of a Cuban incursion into North Yemen and the Cubans realize that such a blatantly offensive move would tarnish their image in the Third World and jeopardize their chances for hosting a successful nonaligned summit in Havana in September. Moreover, Havana would probably reason that direct Cuban involvement would provoke US and other Western countries into increasing military assistance to the North Yemenis. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of Support Services (DI), Job 82T00150R, Production Case Files (1979–1981), Box 6, Folder 90, South Yemeni Intentions Toward North Yemen. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. According to an attached March 1 memorandum from the Acting Chief of the Middle East Division to Carlucci, the Office of Regional and Political Analysis drafted the memorandum.
  2. The National Democratic Front (NDF) was founded in Sana in February 1976 as an overarching governmental opposition group.