238. Memorandum From John W. Foster of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1

SUBJECT

  • The Situation in Syria

You asked what is going on in Syria. Although much of our information comes from poor sources, we can see the general outlines. What we can’t judge is the relative strength of the contending groups. The people in Damascus could be over-reacting to a largely imaginary threat, or they could be one step from defeat.

The coup in Iraq a month ago, which brought a right-wing Baath government to power, encouraged the exiled Syrian Baathists in Beirut and frightened the radical Baath rulers in Damascus. Damascus is taking [Page 464] the reports of plotting in Baghdad and Beirut seriously. We know that there is plotting, but we don’t know where it will lead or how much support the plotters will get from Iraq.

To counter the threat, Damascus has cracked down—we aren’t sure how much—on potential opponents in Syria. One result has been an increase in suspicion within the government and a decrease in domestic support.

The crackdown—rather than coup plotting—was probably the reason the former Army Chief of Staff fled to Beirut, and this could also be the reason the Syrian pilots flew to Israel but it is more likely that they just got lost.

Because most of the plotters are in Beirut, the Syrians have tried to put pressure on Lebanon. Their main effort was a transit tax which hurt the Lebanese, but also hurt the Jordanians, Saudis and Kuwaitis. The major result so far has been an increase in Syria’s isolation in the Arab world.

The Syrian rulers have never been popular, but most Syrians don’t think the alternatives to the present regime are much better. If the exiles try to seize power, they will find neither popular support nor popular opposition. The only question is whether they are strong enough to seize key positions in the government. The answer to the question is in Baghdad and Damascus. Our sources are in Beirut and Amman. If the exiles win, Syria is likely to be less radical, but it would still be among the Arab extremists.

Our main concern in all this is the effect on Jordan. There are indications that the plotters hope to overthrow Hussein as well as the Syrians. The Jordanians believe that Hussein is becoming increasingly vulnerable, and that our “pro-Israeli” policies contribute to radical strength.

John
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Syria, Vol. I, Cables and Memos, 4/64-10/68. Secret.