293. 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. This morning we have a spate of reports2 on a showdown that seems to have taken place about October 23-24. On the basis of this third-hand information from Damascus, the intelligence community’s best guess is that:

Prime Minister Zuayyin’s policy of cooperation with the USSR and local Communists went too far for Defense Minister Asad who decided to oust Zuayyin. Baath Party leader Jadid—the most important figure in Damascus—thought that if Asad succeeded he would be too powerful a rival and decided to stop him. An equally good explanation is that Asad moved against Zuayyin to be in a position to oust Jadid. In any case, Asad and Jadid had a showdown, and our sources in Beirut are reporting that Asad—backed by the army—won. So far there has been nothing official from Damascus to indicate a struggle, much less the winner.3

If Asad won, Syria might move away from the USSR slightly, but it would still be the most radical Arab nation. They might heat up the border with Israel, but they’re more likely to continue showing restraint in view of their obvious shortcomings. If Jadid won, the pro-Soviets would be likely to move Syria even farther left. Another possibility is that fighting among the Baath radicals will give the exiled Baath moderates [Page 579] and their Iraqi friends an opening, but the moderates are moderate only by comparison.

John
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Syria, Vol. I, Cables and Memos, 4/64-10/68. Secret.
  2. A list at the end of the memorandum indicates that the following reports were attached: telegram 13810 from Beirut, October 28; [5 document numbers not declassified].
  3. On October 29 the Syrian Baath Party announced the formation of a new Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Nur al Din al Atasi who replaced Prime Minister Yusuf Zuayyin. The Embassy in Beirut assessed the change in government as “the most fundamental change in the character of the present Syrian regime since it came to power February 1966.” The Embassy noted that the Syrian military had emerged as prominent and that Defense Minister General Hafiz al Asad was the second most important member of the Cabinet. (Telegram 13880 from Beirut, October 29; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 15-1 SYR) In a later analysis of the governmental change in Syria, the Embassy concluded that Baath Party Secretary-General Salah al Jadid had been forced to accommodate Asad’s expanded power and role, but that there had not necessarily been a split between the two long-time political allies. (Airgram A-1446 from Beirut, November 18; ibid.)