For years, the Soviet Union has worked diligently and resourcefully in the byzantine vineyards of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, tightening its grip on the political processes in South Yemen by increasing its military and economic presence. Today the Soviets appear ready to attempt to reap the fruits of their labor: reunification of South and North Yemen and the consolidation and strengthening of Soviet influence in the volatile and strategic Arabian peninsula.
Three important events this year serve as early warning signals of Soviet intentions. They are the wildly misinterpreted emergence of Ali Nasser Muhammed as the top man in the PDRY, and the fall of controversial and radical president Abdul Fattah Ismail in April; Nasser Muhammed's subsequent cordial and lengthy reunification talks with North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic) prime minister Abdul Aziz Abdulghani and his attempts at rapprochement with moderate Arabs; and the Soviet Union's opportunistic sale of arms to North Yemen, filling a vacuum left by the United States and the bumbling Saudi Arabians.
On April 21, in a sudden shake-up that stunned South Yemen's neighbors and confounded the US State Department, it was announced that Fattah Ismail had resigned for reasons of ill health. No one believed that story, but State Department experts saw this sudden change as a blow to reunification of the two Yemens, since Ismail reportedly was eager to move toward reunification and Nasser Muhammed was perceived as more cautious on the subject. The New York Times dutifully chimed in by reporting that Nasser Muhammed was more open to establishing friendly relationships with the West and with Saudi Arabia, and that he was more independent of the Soviets.
But there was more to the transfer of power in South Yemen than met the eye. Ismail first came to power in 1979, seven years after the Soviets signed a 10-year military agreement with South Yemen's then president Salim Ali Rubay. The Soviets then began their military build-up in earnest, increasing the number of advisers in South Yemen from 1,100 to 2,500 in a matter of months after Rubay was deposed in an Ismail-led, East German and Cuban-supported coup. The struggle between Rubay and Ismail, which culminated in Rubay's execution, centered on local, interparty issues. But the critical difference between the two leaders from the Soviet perspective was that Rubay favored rapprochement with the Saudis—a stance that did not sit well with the Soviet Union.
Although relations toward the Soviet Union were cemented under Ismail, the radical Marxist did not prove as malleable as the Soviets would have liked. Ismail consistently irritated and worried his Arab neighbors, first with his support of the Dhofar revolutionary group in Oman, then with his supportof leftist elements in North Yemen, which did not make things easy for the Soviets in their efforts to open a bridge to North Yemen. The coming of Ismail also marked the end of the PDRY's rapprochement efforts with Saudi Arabia, which further frightened the skittish Saudis.
Ismail's ouster can be traced directly to the competition between the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia for favored status with North Yemen. In 1978 North Yemen, under the leadership of President Ahmed al-Gashmi, had excellent relations with Saudi Arabia and hopes of better relations with South Yemen, under the leadership of the moderate Rubay. All that changed when the radical Marxist Ismail came to power. North Yemen, threatened in its border war with the Ismail-led PDRY, still hoped for good relations and assistance from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis responded by asking the United States to send almost $400 million in military aid to North Yemen, including 12 F-5E aircraft, 64 M60 tanks, and related parts, technology, and equipment. This equipment eventually was delivered to North Yemen, but not before the Saudi Arabians had vacillated about sending additional aid. The Saudis wanted to help the Yemenis fend off the PDRY but at the same time did not want to strengthen North Yemen militarily. This vacillation, and the Saudis' unwillingness to pay the US for the airlifted equipment, proved to be their undoing, North Yemen, walking a tightrope between the big powers, opened discussions with the Soviet Union and requested military aid. The Soviets promptly (according to Yemeni analysts) delivered a number of SU 22 jets, Mig 21 fighters, as well as a variety of tanks.
The Soviet Union, at first fearful of the Saudi Arabian and US response to the border war, jumped at the opportunity for an opening to North Yemen. But Ismail persisted in his belligerent stance toward North Yemen and thus threatened the Soviets' new relationship with the YAR.
In effect, the Soviets gave active support to the down fall of Ismail and ended updoing what they always have done: sacrificing ideology to military ambition. The Soviets undermined and helped topple a Marxist regime to help further their own strategic interests. By promoting Nasser Muhammed to the PDRY leadership and by presenting him to the world as a moderate and reasonable politician, the Soviet Union has managed to accomplish two things: it has made the PDRY palatable to the rest of the Arab world, and thus has furthered the cause of Yemeni reunification.
In the wake of Ismail's departure, the wily Nasser Muhammed lost no time making public displays of friendship with the Soviets. On May 5, Nasser defended his country's close ties with the Soviet Union, even while calling for closer, more "equal," relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbors. On May 6, Politburo members Andrey Kirilenko and Boris Ponamarov met with a highly placed member of the ' South Yemen government. At the end of May, Nasser traveled to Moscow and was greeted with open arms. In the meantime, seeking to legitimize his moderate stance, Nasser made reassuring trips to Kuwait, the Gulf states, and Syria.
Nor has Nasser Muhammed dragged his feet on reunification. Speaking at the opening of the conference between the two leaders, Abdulghani said: "We 'realize that Yemeni unity is a great contribution on South Yemen for a series of talks to explore the practical, philosophical, economic, and military prospects of reuniting the two Yemens. The talks between the two "brothers," according to Yemeni sources, were steeped in cordiality and with much talk about the common "homeland"—in terms not unlike those used by Adolph Hitler just prior to the Austrian Anschluss. Both leaders reaffirmed that the reunification of the "homeland" is the destiny of the Yemeni people and that the initial steps toward reunification would begin with the expansion of trade between the two countries and the beginnings of joint economic projects and cooperation.
Abdulghani, who appears to have little in common politically or philosophically with Nasser Muhammed, nevertheless left little doubt about his feelings on .reunification. Speaking at the opening of the conference between the two leaders, Abdulghani said: "We -realize that Yemeni unity is a great contribution on the part of our people to the achievement of Arab unity. Our unity is intended to attain our noble objectives of progress, freedom, and democracy. . . . Through this I responsibility and hope, our people will be able to move freely and easily through the development stage toward the establishment of a highly developed Yemeni society."
In a joint statement both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to "peaceful reunification," a process that would begin with the expansion of trade and the eventual integration of their respective economies. While the substance in practical terms of the meetings between Nasser Muhammed and Abdulghani produced no concrete agreements, the tone and intent were more serious than in past reunification attempts. Military integration and cooperation probably are not far behind, and probably would involve the assistance of Cuban, Soviet, and East German advisers.
It is obvious that the Soviet Union would prefer to see a united Yemen under the leadership of the PDRY. It is likely that this could happen when the two countries actually begin to implement reunification, especially the matter of joint military enterprise and organization. It is here that the presence of Cuban, Soviet, and East German advisers will make itself felt. A united Yemen, under PDRY leadership and friendly to the Soviet Union, would allow the establishment of a permanent Soviet military base squarely below Saudi Arabia.
But it is by no means certain that peaceful reunification will take place. There are enough religious, ideological, political, and traditional differences between the two states to keep several pots boiling. The PDRY is predominantly Sunni, for instance, while North Yemen is dominated by Shiites who are constantly at odds with their own Sunni minority. The political orientation of North Yemen, predominantly a military dictatorship, is certainly a strange bedfellow for the Marxist PDRY and its party-dominated government machinery.
The Soviets recognize that reunification is fraught with dangers for them, and they consider the prospect of a civil war between the PDRY and North Yemen with apprehension. A civil war, while presenting military opportunities, presents the hollow prospect of a direct military confrontation with the United States, which, if threatened with the prospect of losing Saudi Arabia to the Soviets, may have to resort to guns instead of Olympic bans. It is a prospect the Soviets, struggling knee deep in the mountains of Afghanistan, may not want to risk.
In realistic terms, however, the United States cannot relish the prospect of a Yemeni civil war. However tempting it might be to use force, in terms of international reaction and legal justification, such a course may prove to be impractical. Instead, the United States should constantly and forcefully prod Saudi Arabia to overcome its fear of a strong North Yemen, encourage the Saudis to cement and be consistent in their ties with North Yemen. Perhaps then Saudi Arabia, which is the real prize in the Arabian Peninsula, will come to realize that the real outside threat to its own existence is a unified Yemen, led by the PDRY.
Amos Perlmutter is professor of political science and sociology at American University and author of several books on the Middle East.