283. Memorandum From Gary Sick of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) and the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Aaron)1


  • The Yemen Border War—A Revisionist Perspective

The Intelligence Community is significantly revising its views of what actually happened in the Yemen border war as they go back and fill in some of the gaps in the information available at the time. Some of the conclusions of the analysts closest to the issue are as follows:

—There was no unusual Soviet resupply. The flights which were reported were part of a routine pattern.

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—The fighting was far less intense than we had been led to believe. There are virtually no signs of destruction in Qa’tabah, for example, where we had been told there was total devastation.

—The force levels on either side amounted to about 3,000 men, with the YAR enjoying a possibly slight numerical advantage.

—The incident may have started as a result of cross-border raids from the YAR, prompting a PDRY response.

—Only three of the 11 PDRY battalions were engaged, whereas a major effort would probably have called for commitment of 6 battalions or more.

—There is no evidence of Ethiopians involved in the fighting.

—A group of Cuban forces did arrive in Aden on the same day that the first U.S. airlift flight arrived in Sanaa. There is no evidence of any foreign personnel crossing the border.

—There were significant defections from the YAR military to the south. The YAR Government may not have known what was really going on.

—The so-called National Democratic Force [Front] was a rag-tag collection of about 1,000 political and military defectors from the YAR which was never under the direct control of the PDRY and was relatively ineffective in the fighting. (S)

There is no consensus about the motives and objectives of the PDRY. They clearly wanted to see the YAR regime fall and be replaced with a leadership more sympathetic to them. They may have expected a military coup in Sanaa as they won their first battles. It is not clear that they ever intended to take the Sanaa-Taiz road, although their appetites may have grown when they experienced such great success in their initial strikes. They faced a key decision point after the fall of Qa’tabah and before beginning what could have been a more costly drive up into the foothills. As it happened, the tribal forces of the north began to arrive and the political process by the Arab League began to move into full gear at that point, which may have led to the PDRY decision to leave well enough alone. (S)

The political process on both sides of the border remains murky, but analysts have offered the following observations:

—The PDRY evidently felt that the USSR did not provide as much backing as the PDRY wanted or expected.

—The Soviets may have felt some constraint due to their larger interests in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. In that regard, Saud’s overture to the Soviets in the midst of the battle may have been calculated.

—The Iraqis and Syrians were decisively important in getting the PDRY to stop fighting. Until Iraq and Syria weighed in, Arab League [Page 861] efforts were largely futile. The PDRY found itself unexpectedly friendless.

—The Iraqi intervention was a major investment in developing a new relationship with the Saudis, and it served them in good stead later at the Baghdad meeting.

—The major leverage available to the Saudis was the “American card,” which they played effectively. (S)

All of this being said, the central elements of the problem remain about as we saw them at the time:

—There was a concerted effort by the PDRY to destabilize the Salih regime in the YAR by means of a military attack across the border.

—The attack was conducted with Soviet materiel and at least Soviet acquiescence.

—There was a serious threat of intervention by Cuban forces.

—The YAR military was largely ineffective and threatened to collapse at least locally.

—The Saudis regarded the crisis as a major threat to their security and viewed our participation as a fundamental test of our political relationship. (S)

Thus far, the revision of the record has been confined to analysts at the working level. There are no present plans to publish a formal review. (S)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 93, Yemens: Border War: 3/13/79–5/79. Secret; Sensitive. Outside the System. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates that Brzezinski saw it.