BEIRUT: A new set of declassified documents on the run-up to the Syrian intervention in Lebanon’s Civil War sheds light on American diplomacy during the crisis, including contacts with late President Hafez Assad’s regime and U.S. hopes that a Syrian intervention would weaken Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. The documents, minutes of meetings involving U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, reveal the top U.S. diplomat’s open contempt and frustration toward Israeli policymakers for threatening to invade south Lebanon in response to a Syrian intervention.
“You know these Israelis really are shits,” Kissinger said at a meeting in March 1976, expressing anger at the possibility of an Israeli attack.
The archival documents show the U.S. administration had foreknowledge of a possible Syrian intervention, deciding it was in accordance with U.S. interests but refraining from supporting it publicly in fear of the invasion sparking a broad Middle Eastern war.
“Now if I could design the solution, I would go to Assad and say, ‘If you could move in quickly, and if you could give us an iron clad guarantee that you will get out again quickly and that you will not go south of the [Litani] river, we will keep the Israelis out,’” he said in one meeting.
The minutes show a Kissinger deeply involved in Middle Eastern politics, conferring on an almost daily basis with top advisers and closely following Lebanon’s descent into violence while trying to grapple with the insurmountable complexity of its civil war politics.
Kissinger saw benefits to a Syrian intervention, guessing that it would weaken Arafat’s PLO, but he refrained from backing it publicly and in talks with Syrian officials.
The documents paint an image of an irreverent, sharp and sometimes profane man, who was also prone to generalizations, for instance describing Egyptian negotiators as “duplicitous.”
They are also striking because they show the relatively close relationship between the Assad regime and the U.S.
The documents are part of a multi-volume series called “Foreign Relations of the United States.” The volume dealing with the Arab-Israeli dispute includes a set of archival files on meetings concerning Lebanon at the start of the Civil War.
American officials had a low opinion of Lebanese politicians at the time. Former President Suleiman Franjieh is described as “a disaster,” Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt as “crazy” and political leaders as “warlords.”
Syrian intervention in Lebanon was discussed in a meeting on Oct. 13, immediately sparking talk of a likely Israeli retaliation.
“There is no way – no way – in which the Israelis will sit still while the Syrians send in their troops. I am sure of that,” said Kissinger, who sought to find out from the Israelis what level of Syrian activity in Lebanon would be acceptable to them.
Kissinger was also dismissive of the Israeli government, describing former General and premier Yigal Allon as a “sweet fool” and Yitzhak Rabin as “weak,” while lamenting the U.S. failure to influence its ally.
The secretary said he was ready to support Syrian efforts to achieve a political solution in Lebanon.
“We have to go back to Assad ... Ask him what he is up to and, if we agree with him, we will do our best to help him,” he said. “But warn him what he does must be done without the use of Syrian regular forces.”
“Also have him give Assad my best personal regards,” he said to a diplomatic envoy.
In March 1976, as the Americans gleaned more details of the extent of Syria’s potential involvement, American officials sought clarity from Syria over its intentions in Lebanon and how long it would stay there.
Kissinger said the Israelis would intervene because they wished to strike a mortal blow to PLO strongholds in Lebanon, which he referred derisively to as “Fatahland.”
“Their position is that they cannot trust the Syrians,” Kissinger said. “They are not at all sure that the Syrians would leave if they go in, so that if they do go in, the Israelis would then quietly take over strategic points in southern Lebanon and in effect hold them hostage till the Syrians leave.”
But in a meeting with President Gerald Ford in late March, Kissinger said the U.S. might benefit from a Syrian intervention that strikes at the PLO.
“If Syria could go in quickly and clean it out, it would be good,” he said.
Kissinger floated the idea at the time that the Syrians could be replaced by a U.N. force after destroying the PLO.
But Kissinger was frustrated by Israel’s objections, and decided it was not worth the risk to greenlight a Syrian invasion of Lebanon if it risked sparking a regional war.
“If we had freedom of action we could perhaps act differently,” he said. “We could let the Syrians move and break the back of the PLO.”
Such an intervention would unite the Arab world, Kissinger lamented.
“The end result would be exactly what we have worked all these years to avoid: It would create Arab unity.”
He decried what he called “those idiots in Tel Aviv,” saying Israel would not acquiesce to U.S. pressure against invading south Lebanon unless America threatened to end military assistance and support sanctions in the U.N. against Israel.
Even after Syria’s intervention and the ensuing stalemate with the PLO, Kissinger said Syrian failure in Lebanon would mean the country’s fall under the sway of the PLO and the possible overthrow of Hafez Assad.
“I want to make it clear that a Syrian defeat in Lebanon would be a disaster,” he said at a meeting in the summer of 1976.
But he also described Syrian ambitions in Lebanon in hegemonic terms, agreeing that they sought “ancestral” ambitions. “I started with the assumption the Syrians would succeed. I forgot the infinite capacity of the Arabs to screw things up,” he said at a June 1976 meeting. “I thought they’d weaken the PLO, make it an appendage of Syria, bring in Jordan, and create a Greater Syria. I still think this is what [Assad] has in mind.”
Kissinger also excoriated the Israeli lobby in Washington for trying to shape American foreign policy.
“The Israelis used to lobby for their own interests,” he said at a meeting in August 1976. “Now they are lobbying to change the entire course of our policy to coincide with their own policy rather than our interests.”