279. Telegram From the Embassy in the Yemen Arab Republic to the Department of State1
1862. Subj: (S) Soviet Role in YAR. Ref: State 065767.2
1. (S-entire text).
2. Summary: A direct request to the YARG for immediate expulsion of all Soviet military advisors at this time would be unwise. YARG officials have said they would like to see the Soviet military advisors leave but, given the present internal and international circumstances, we believe this will have to be done quietly and gradually. A phased [Page 853] withdrawal of Soviet military advisors, as described below, is less likely to become a controversial political issue and therefore more likely to be acceptable to the YARG. End summary.
3. Despite the pounding that the YAR Army took from Soviet weapons in the hands of the PDRY during the past three weeks, the YAR attitude towards the Soviets remains ambivalent. On the one hand, President Salih, the YARG and many Yemenis believe that the Soviets supported the PDRY attack, if they did not actually instigate it, and the YAR Army now knows for a certainty that the Soviets gave more and better weapons and training to the PDRY than to the YAR. We have also heard that, although the Soviet military advisors continued to report for work during the fighting, they did very little to help the YAR Army or the Air Force, remarking instead that if the YAR had accepted the Soviet offers of new equipment, rather than waiting for U.S. aid, they would have been better able to defend themselves. On the other hand, we have heard remarkably little public criticism of Soviet behavior. YARG leaders have repeatedly claimed that Cubans and even Ethiopians were fighting with PDRY forces inside the YAR, but they have not specifically mentioned the Soviets in public. Many Yemeni politicians are of two minds about the Soviets; in strictly Yemeni terms, they would like to see them go as soon as they are sure the USG will take their place as arms suppliers and advisors; in pan-Arab terms, however, the political figures are reluctant at this time to cut all ties with a country that has strongly supported the Arab position vis-a-vis Israel.
4. Internally, President Salih’s position is even weaker than before and all of his rivals are jockeying for position and for both internal and external support. A decision to expel the Soviets would be politically dangerous. In present circumstances, we doubt whether President Salih has the power or the courage to take such action.
5. We estimate there are currently about 120–150 Soviet military advisors in the YAR—about 30 with the Air Force, 12 with the Navy, 6 at the military academy and most of the remainder with the armored units and artillery. Soviet advisors to the air defense units were withdrawn by the YAR prior to the recent fighting, on the grounds that they had already provided all the training the YAR Army needed on the equipment it was using, and for some time prior to the fighting, Soviet advisors needed prior approval from military HQs before visiting a military unit. At the same time, the initial exposure of the Yemeni military to our MTTs, which began early this year, has had a positive effect. We have received numerous compliments on the friendliness and professionalism of U.S. Army trainers as compared with Soviet advisors. As our training programs expands, the Yemeni armed forces will have a growing respect for the competence of our soldiers and our military system.[Page 854]
6. If the Soviets perceived that we were determined to force the government of President Salih to expel all their military advisors immediately, they might well try to instigate a coup, since we do not think they will give up their position here without a fight. The most likely group to spearhead such a coup is the Air Force, commanded by Major Dayfallah, who is Soviet trained and has frequently been accused of being pro-Soviet. Chief of Staff Ali Shayba is also very close to the Soviets. Some internal elements of the pro-PDRY Democratic National Front might join this attempt, but it would need more widespread support in the Army to succeed. Whether or not this support would be forthcoming would depend on other elements in the YAR political equation, such as the Nationalists and the Baathis, as well as the tribes. If such an attempt were successful, we believe the result would be a coalition government that would include pro-Soviet elements but not be dominated by them. The attitude of such a coalition government might be more favorable to the continued presence of Soviet military advisors than that of the present government.
7. Despite the publicity given to our arms supply effort to the YAR, the fact of the matter is that the only useful arms we sent while the fighting was going on was 7,000 LAW anti-tank missiles. As of March 16, we have delivered 12 105 howitzers, 12 TOWs and a number of grenade launchers, with associated MTTs, but the planes, tanks and long-range artillery pieces the YAR particularly wants and needs have not yet arrived. Until we, the Saudis and/or the Jordanians actually begin delivering these weapons, and training the Yemenis how to use them, the YAR will be extremely reluctant, for both military and political reasons, to give up the weapons they have and the Soviet advisors who keep them running.
8. We believe the best way to proceed on this problem is on a step-by-step basis. We understand that the YAR is planning to move the remaining MiG–17s and the Soviet advisors associated with them to Hodeida, once they have a firm ETA for the F–5s in Sana. As the F–5s become operational, the YAR can be expected to rely more and more on them as its principal air weapon. In the meantime, the MiGs will probably join the “static display” of deadlined Soviet aircraft in Hodeida, particularly if the Soviets continue to refuse to supply spare parts. As the aircraft break down, the need for Soviet advisors will disappear and they can quietly be sent home. The same system could be followed with the tanks: once the M–60s have begun to arrive and YAR troops trained in their use, the older Soviet tanks and their Soviet advisors could be moved to a remote location and then retired from service. This might take longer than in the case of the airplanes because the YAR military is supplied at the moment entirely with Soviet tanks, but it would remove the Soviet advisors from the scene and prevent [Page 855] them from interfering with our efforts to supply and train the YAR armed forces. A suggestion along these lines to the Yemenis could come more appropriately from the Saudis or the Jordanians than from us, as was the case with the F–5s. This keeps the matter in the Arab context and makes it easier for other Arab states to accept.