269. Message From the United States Military Training Mission in Dhahran to the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Embassy in Saudi Arabia1

32597. From DASD (ISA) Murray. Subj: Joint Planning With Saudi Arabia.

Summary: Saudi move to force PDRY withdrawal from Yemen, by force if necessary, presents USG with difficult but important decisions on US security role in Middle East and support of YAR and Saudis. Developments in Yemen come at time of strain in our relations with Saudis. They are hopeful but skeptical of our willingness to follow up Brown visit2 with actions in military supply and security field but acutely aware of our demands on them for cooperation on peace process, oil, other issues. Incursions of last two weeks in YAR present Saudis with threat to their vital interests. I basically agree with their analysis of threat and think we must take seriously their decision to intervene by attack on PDRY. They have explained their strategy to us in detail except for military plans, which can be generally deduced, however. They are pressing us for commitment. We must decide whether and how to encourage or discourage them from military action in PDRY and tailor our support to that decision. There are alternatives to their military scenario. I feel we should seek to avert Saudi attack on PDRY in favor of intervention, if necessary, only within YAR and separate efforts in fields of diplomacy, economics, political action. Money to support this strategy and make it successful—and above all to make sure Saudis are not dealt humiliating defeat—I see us required to provide additional assurances, specific equipment and other forms of help, which are outlined below. As Ambassador West departed Riyadh before this cable was drafted, his comments are needed. End summary.

1. You have the reports of our conversations with Saud and Turki on Wednesday and Thursday.3 Unlike February 18 meeting,4 this time talk was entirely of actual contingency developing in Yemen, including Saudi Government’s commitment in principle to military action against [Page 831] PDRY and request by SAG for US military support. Saudi request raises two serious policy issues for US: whether to encourage or discourage Saudi military action against PDRY, and the extent of US military support for SAG.

2. Mood in the country, as far as one can judge from our limited exposure, is one of business as usual, with no apparent expectation of imminent hostilities, despite recall of all military personnel to units and placing of armed forces on alert. Mood among the leadership, however, is more serious. Army and Air Force leadership, according to General Cathey, is more active than he has ever seen it, burning the midnight and weekend oil. Prince Saud was particularly nervous and drew, at least for our benefit, the most stark conclusions from current events. He was clearly trying to convince us that a crisis was at hand requiring dramatic increases in U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. Crisis comes at a time of unusual strain in U.S.-Saudi relations. Too many critical issues—oil, the dollar, peace negotiations, security—are being argued simultaneously, and in an atmosphere of uncertainty arising from Iran, the more aggressive Soviet policy demonstrated in PDRY, Ethiopia and Angola, and continuing Saudi doubts about American willingness to act. The relationship is made more sensitive by the mutual recognition of unalterable interdependence.

3. Nevertheless, there is a sense of hope and anticipation of U.S. security assistance arising from the Brown Mission. Secretary Brown brought the President’s decision that the United States would play a more active role in assuring the security of the Middle East, and particularly Saudi Arabia, and this was received at the time in euphoric terms. The euphoria was not noticeable in our talks this time. The military are disappointed that there is not a firm American commitment to further arms supply, and Saud is suspicious about the U.S. security commitment and the American-Israeli connection. Nevertheless, there is an eagerness to believe that the President’s decision reflected a real “sea change” in American policy and that practical measures would follow. Saud’s request is meant to plumb the depth of the policy change.

4. Yemen is a test case. The remoteness of Yemen, its backward economy, tribal society, weak government and uncertain politics are all reasons to mount important policy initiatives elsewhere. Nevertheless, Yemen is contested ground. The contest has taken a particularly sharp form in the last few years as Saudi leadership, now less defensive, has tried to use its new wealth and ambition to oust the Soviets from both Sana and Aden and give local governments an Islamic and Western oriented character. The Soviets, smarting from other reverses in the Middle East, have mounted massive programs of arms deliveries and political support for radical groups. The leadership in both the PDRY and Saudi Arabia is insecure. Both governments see the struggle for [Page 832] Yemen as a life and death matter for themselves. The Saudis, who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their effort in Yemen, now fear incursions of the YAR from the South, backed by an expansionist Soviet Union, sufficient to topple the Salih regime and perhaps shift the balance in the Yemens against Saudi Arabia and the West. Yemen thus becomes a test case of U.S. security policy in the Middle East even though we might prefer other locations and circumstances.

5. The threat from Aden is real. While allowing for Saudi astigmatism in the matter of radical states, it is hard to fault their analysis of threat from PDRY. The Ismail government is openly devoted to overthrow of governments throughout Peninsula. It proclaims itself part of world revolutionary movement. It is Communist in most doctrinaire sense, repressive in Stalinist manner, supportive of terrorist groups and liberation fronts for Oman and the Gulf states as well as Yemen. Whatever checks were placed on these extremist tendencies by local nationalism and self-interest seem to have been removed by the Soviet and Cuban supported coup against President Salih Rubaayya Ali last June.5 Although we here have only fragmentary information, much of which is conflicting, fighting by PDRY forces in YAR has now continued for almost three weeks with no sign of let-up on PDRY side. Tanks, artillery, and possibly some air strikes have been employed. Four lodgements within YAR across wide front from sea coast plain through mountains to eastern desert region, suggest something in excess of usual border fighting. It is also way out of proportion to any YAR-sponsored activity by South Yemen exiles in PDRY. Saudis believe PDRY aim is to topple regime in Sana for one of their own choosing, with aim of unification of North and South: at minimum, Saudis believe PDRY will attempt to establish a rival regime in southern YAR to bring down Salih in slightly longer term. We will get more specific information about situation on ground when qualified observers report but at this point it looks like conflict has been militarized and escalated, and stage has been set for set-piece battle to change political complexion of South Arabia.

6. Saudi Arabia has a carefully conceived plan for dealing with the current crisis. The Saudi plan falls into three stages: to mount a considerable diplomatic effort to force withdrawal; to strengthen the YAR to meet the threat itself; and third, to be put into effect if the first and second stages fail, an attack by Saudi forces against PDRY itself.

A. Saudis have energetically pursued, with considerable success, the convening of the Arab League, a consensus of Arab opinion (including Iraq and Syria) against the PDRY, and the likely tightening of the [Page 833] screws on PDRY through economic sanctions as well as procedures for cease fire, withdrawal, and observers along the border. The Saudi ability to press a diplomatic solution rests, in their eyes, on developing a position of strength from which they can carry out the third phase if necessary.

B. Phase two actions are numerous and varied. Direct financial aid is being given YAR military and key officers. Provision of new equipment, both from Saudi arsenals as well as from US and other sources, is equally important. The Saudis see the greatest need as aircraft, air defense equipment, antitank weapons, and artillery. The Saudis have stated that they are prepared to find third-country nationals if necessary to man specific equipment if the US is prepared to supply the equipment.

C. Personnel is a key problem in the YAR Army not only from the point of view of skill and training deficiencies but also from the more elementary point of view of numbers. The YAR Army has suffered numerous defections in the wake of assassinations of two heads of state in less than 18 months, and its ranks have been leeched even more insidiously by the simple lure of better paying jobs in the civilian economy in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia. Embassy Sana has had frequent reports that the number of effectives serving in the YAR armed forces is certainly under 15,000 and may be under 10,000 men. To overcome this need, the Saudis have turned to their erstwhile friends, the tribes of North Yemen, whose ability to raise large groups of well armed and formidable warriors is considerable. Tribal efforts, however, are notoriously mercenary and short-lived, and they cannot use heavy weapons, but they appear to be making an impressive contribution at the present moment to the efforts of retaking Harib, Sayda, and Qataba.

D. Phase three in the Saudi view, as far as we are able to discern, is a carefully designed and limited military operation to attack PDRY forces from three sides. Based on circumstantial evidence and local speculation, the following appears to be Saudi strategic thinking. The first element in the attack is the YAR effort along its southern border, with the aim of tieing up as many forces as possible in the mountainous terrain. The Saudis probably anticipate an “Omani front” both to seize some territory in eastern PDRY and tie up PDRY forces there. The SAG military stated possible use of PDRY dissidents for this purpose. This leaves the Saudis to attack from Sharura toward Zamakh, Al-Abr, and Minwakh, plus a drive down into the mouth of the Hadramaout Valley to a town called Hanayn. This is a thrust of between 50 to 100 miles from the large forward operating base of the Saudis at Sharura. It is within the range of Saudi aircraft. Saudis already have about a 5,000 man force (mostly motorized infantry) at Sharura and are making arrangements to more than double this number soon.

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E. The Saudi scheme of operations is, according to Saud, not intended to result in long-term occupation or dismemberment of South Yemen, nor is it intended—to judge by Saudi statements—to topple Aden by direct assault. It is intended, however, to create a situation in which the PDRY Army and political leadership might decide to overturn Abdul Fattah Ismail in the aftermath of PDRY defeat and withdrawal from Yemen.

7. The Saudi request for US support and endorsement should be carefully considered. The decisions we take on the Saud request may have far-reaching consequences. On the face of it, Saudi Arabia is asking for a major commitment from us—a commitment to back up Saudi military action and, if necessary, to intervene to rescue them from Soviet/Cuban military reaction. Nevertheless, notwithstanding Saud’s statement to me that Saudi Arabia had “decided” to intervene militarily, we see little enthusiasm here for military action, and the prospects that Saudi Arabia will implement its decision are not high. The risks are real, however, that events could propel Saudi Arabia in the direction of intervention, and we should respond to the Saudi request for American support with this possibility in mind. Accordingly, we should examine closely the two crucial policy issues Saud has placed before us: (1) should we encourage or discourage Saudi military action against PDRY; and (2) what should be the extent of US military support in these circumstances.

A. A successful Saudi military action in South Yemen would be a defeat for the PDRY, a setback of some proportions for the USSR, and a significant gain in credibility for the United States (and Saudi Arabia). It would offset, and perhaps overcome, impressions current in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world that the friendship and support of the United States is of little practical value, and that the United States will not act in the face of Soviet-supported aggression. It would give practical sustenance to the President’s new security policy enunciated by Secretary Brown earlier this month. It would deal a rebuff to Arab radicalism and sound a cautionary note for other Arab radicals. It would obligate Saudi Arabia to the United States in a new way.

B. Encouraging Saudi military action in PDRY has real dangers however. The Saudi military effort will almost surely fail, either because of Saudi incompetence or because of Soviet-Cuban intervention. It is uncertain, even improbable, that the Saudi attack could achieve its aim of forcing a rapid PDRY withdrawal from YAR; it is unlikely that the Saudi military action could be completed successfully before a Soviet-Cuban counteroffensive had occurred; and it is certain that the Saudi forces could not withstand a Soviet-backed attack by proxy forces. A Saudi defeat, as Saud said to me, is “politically intolerable” and could lead to the eclipse of the Saudi royal family’s leadership, and a political [Page 835] unravelling in the Peninsula. Saudi Arabia will look to us to bail them out. But the United States will be unable to muster the necessary domestic-political endorsement for US military support for a Saudi invasion of an independent state. The United States will thus be found wanting when the chips are down. These real risks appear to weigh more heavily than the fond hopes.

C. Full US support requirements implied by the Saud request are enormous. If we encourage Saudi military action, we should also be prepared to (1) meet urgent equipment requirements of Saudi Arabia and YAR, for both political and military reasons, at expense of our own stocks; (2) resupply combat-attrited expendables and major end items; (3) give the necessary planning and tactical advice and intelligence support to enhance operations; (4) politically, work to achieve domestic political support and, diplomatically, take a very hard line with the Soviet Union; and (5) prepare for a US military presence in Saudi Arabia and a last-resort commitment to protect the Kingdom.

D. There is also a lesser level of support possible. We could (1) make general commitment to supply necessary equipment to both Saudi Arabia and YAR and be generous in our interpretation of “necessary”; (2) expedite the deliveries of F–5’s and supply Redeyes under suitable control arrangements for the YAR; (3) provide training teams and tactical advice to the YAR in order to raise the proficiency of YAR forces quickly; and (4) create a logistics support arrangement, involving US military personnel in country. We could also develop an action program, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, for involving third-country military personnel in support of the YAR (Jordan and Egypt for example). So far as we know, however, Saudi Arabia has not been active as of yet in this. Although telling us they agree in principle to third-country participation, they have left it up to the YAR to arrange and haven’t offered to pay for any costs.

8. There are alternatives. Discussion above has focused on options as conceived by the Saudis; we should think in terms of alternatives to the risky and difficult attack by Saudi forces on PDRY. First alternative is use of Saudi forces within YAR, and second alternative is diplomatic effort which extends far beyond one-month period which Saudis have so far mentioned informally as limit of their patience.

A. Military commitment within YAR involves air strikes by Saudi aircraft on PDRY enclaves in Harib, Sayda, Qataba, and Waza’iyah areas and/or commitment of some Saudi Army units—artillery, antitank, air defense, local security, and helicopters—in YAR, either in central locations in Sana (to free YAR units for movement away from capital) or on major avenues of approach.

B. This alternative has several unattractive features to Saudis, including not only problems they mentioned, i.e., danger of accidental [Page 836] attacks on local tribes by Saudi aircraft and inadvertent destruction of villages by Saudi fire but probably also problem which Saudis did not mention, [2 lines not declassified]. Other difficulties with commitment within YAR is that it is not likely to be decisive or quick as strike directly at PDRY might be, and it means that fighting will take place on soil of victim rather than aggressor. It could be wasteful and protracted conflict, subject to the divisions and personalism of Yemeni politics.

C. On other hand, commitment within YAR ranges Saudis alongside YAR in clearly defensive role which would make diplomatic case more palatable. It would tend to contain conflict in Yemen rather than widening it. It would be easier to draw in other forces in pan-Arab peacekeeping or expeditionary force and it would sustain morale of YAR Government and fighting capability of YAR forces. Last and not least, it would be far easier for USG to mount resupply effort for Saudis and Yemenis and convince domestic and international opinion of correctness of our role.

D. Diplomatic effort should not only be much longer than Saudis now anticipate but also should be much more far ranging effort than attempt to get paper decision in Arab League. Saudis have sophisticated view of economic and commercial pressures which can be brought to bear on PDRY. Remittances, shipments of Arab oil to Aden refinery, payments of Arab aid are most important props of marginal PDRY economy and more important than Communist aid. Cut-offs would not necessarily be decisive but would create unrest in population and some potential for division in leadership over foreign adventure which sacrifices national welfare for international revolution. Political isolation of PDRY—especially if Syria and Iraq can be brought along—would strike at Arab credentials of Aden regime. Condemnation in Arab League is of passing importance by comparison, as is UN call for withdrawal, but these could be added to efforts to rally international opinion against “renegade” regime in Aden.

9. Based on foregoing, I recommend the following: respond to Saudi request for US security commitment by telling SAG that (1) the United States is prepared to state, in a public forum, our commitment to go to the aid of Saudi Arabia, in accordance with our constitutional processes, if Saudi Arabia is subject to unprovoked aggression; (2) we strongly discourage an attack directly across Saudi borders on PDRY but will support efforts, if necessary to use Saudi forces within YAR to force PDRY withdrawal, and will do what we can in this regard to supply attrited expendables and essential major end items; (3) subject to Saudi undertaking not to attack PDRY directly, we will provide needed military equipment items, including air munitions, on expedited basis to ensure SAG can negotiate from a position of strength; and (4) we are prepared to work jointly with SAG to examine YAR [Page 837] military needs and to further accelerate deliveries of tanks and APC’s now on order.

10. In addition, I also recommend the following: A. Diplomatic. An active diplomatic effort in support of Arab League attempts to arrange a cease fire and withdrawal of PDRY forces. We could press Soviets urge these actions on Ismail in Moscow. We might make available to YAR, for public release, aerial photographic evidence, if any, of PDRY incursions. Privately and publicly we should discourage Saudis from phase three intervention in PDRY.

B. Joint planning. Continue discussions now underway with regard to planning for the defense of Saudi Arabia. This would include examination of threats, contingencies, responses, and requirements. Do not agree now to joint planning for offensive operations against PDRY.

C. Intelligence sharing. We should arrange to share intelligence of a regional and tactical nature. We might do this through the planning team.

D. Tactical advice to YAR. Provide small number of area-knowledgeable people to form joint team with Saudis in giving tactical military advice to YAR military, and in developing ways to improve military capabilities of YAR.

E. Increase US naval presence in the Indian Ocean modestly, as a readily available but over-the-horizon military force, not intrusive on local political sensibilities but periodically visible through port calls. Consider the development of co-located operating bases and periodic deployments of USAF aircraft.

F. Agree to expedite delivery of Saudi F–15’s to first quarter of 1981, as requested. Agree to recommend to Congress this year items of high value to Saudi Arabia, especially F–5 munitions. Offer to update 1974 survey of Saudi military forces to assist in long-range planning requirements.

G. Expedite the delivery of 12 F–5 aircraft to YAR, with deliveries by 1 April, if by that time, Saudi Arabia provides from its own resources, or acquires from third countries, necessary pilots and support personnel and equipment. This should have a useful bolstering effect on Salih.

H. Agree to the deployment of Saudi-manned Redeyes to YAR, as alternative to giving Redeyes to Yemen itself. Expedite the repair and delivery of Redeyes now in pipeline for Saudi Arabia. Agree to provide additional 318 Redeyes requested of Secretary Brown.

I. Expedite delivery to YAR of 64 M60 tanks and 50 M113 APC’s for delivery by May. Agree to provide TOW missiles on expedited basis if Saudi Arabia will agree to their purchase.

J. Undertake with Saudis to develop additional assistance program for YAR through joint military survey of YAR requirements. Tailor [Page 838] suggested equipment to achieve modest but real improvement in overcoming YAR deficiencies. Concentrate on training teams and nonsophisticated equipment.

  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; Specat Exclusive. Sent for information Immediate to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  2. See Documents 185 and 186.
  3. See Documents 265 and 266.
  4. Telegram 259 from Riyadh, February 18, described a meeting between Brown and Sultan, during which the two officials discussed the U.S.-Saudi-YAR tripartite military relationship. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790095–1049)
  5. See Document 244.