219. Memorandum of Conversation1
Tête-à-tête Meeting between President H. Asad and Secretary of State Dr. Henry A. Kissinger (following larger meeting)
[Counselor Isa K. Sabbagh interpreted]
1. U.S.-Syrian Relations
The Secretary humorously reiterated his feeling of disappointment at his quiet but amicable reception in Damascus, as contrasted with what he had had, and would have again later in the evening, in Israel.
President Asad (Also humorously) said similar receptions could be arranged, but for the seriousness of the Syrian character and the true traditions of hospitality.
The Secretary said he realized that; from the President on down, the Syrians have been most hospitable and cordial to the Secretary and his group.[Page 811]
President Asad: We always make a distinction between a person and his policy. In the case of Dr. Kissinger, President Asad felt truly sorry at the failure in March ’75 of the U.S. peace efforts. But objectively and realistically “we did our bit to make your mission fail!”
The Secretary: You can only do your best! But seriously your timing of doing things seems strange. Just as we were about to reach a positive point with Israel, vis-à-vis the West Bank involving Jordan, you engineer the Rabat Summit stand,2 making it impossible for Israel to negotiate with the PLO. Now, we have your Syrian-Jordanian declaration of joint commands and councils, etc.3 Frankly, anybody who could have unison with Jordan and the Palestinians at this juncture is ingenious! But didn’t somebody jump the gun by a few months?
President Asad: We know how this latest joint communiqué is going to be interpreted against us. Actually, we have not set up anything jointly yet. We expressed hopes and intentions looking towards the future. I have always told you my views favoring Arab unity. This is no exception. But if you let this development strengthen the hand of those Congressional elements opposed to your carrying out your promise of giving Jordan the 14 rocket battalions, you would be making a grave mistake whose significance would go beyond the borders of Jordan. [Just before the Secretary took his leave, President Asad repeated this thought again—in fact for the fourth time—specifically referring to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and North Africa as countries whose faith in U.S. promises and policies would be greatly reduced and shaken.]
President Asad continued: “Don’t you worry, Jordan will get what it needs: from you, from us or from any other source.”
The Secretary: We hope Congress will reverse itself. We do want to give Jordan what we promised King Hussein.
President Asad: You would be well advised to do so. The world is already thinking you have a strange system where more than a dozen loci of power seem to exist. The world is beginning to think that nothing should be surprising coming from the U.S. Congress. Why should Congress be anxious about what happens between Syria and Jordan. Why should U.S.-Arab relations be almost entirely based on Israel’s wishes, demands or what have you?
The Secretary: I was disappointed that a meeting between President Asad and President Ford did not take place in Europe as we had hoped. Of course we realize that time was short on both sides. But a [Page 812] meeting between the two Presidents would be very useful. For one thing, President Asad would hear the U.S. policy straight from President Ford who is a straightforward man [less complicated than former President Nixon] and a man of his word. “Frankly we cannot tolerate any more a nation of 3 million dictating to U.S. policies which are not necessarily in our best interest.” [The Secretary underscored this line more than once.] Secondly, if Presidents Asad and Ford meet, this would be definitely useful to Syria’s image in the U.S.
President Asad agreed and hoped a meeting could be arranged in Europe. To meet in the U.S. would be difficult at present, said the Syrian President.
II. The PLO
Secretary Kissinger, responding to President Asad’s remark that the U.S. non-recognition of the PLO was a big mistake, said the Syrian President surely appreciated how delicate this point was and how, as in anything else, timing was of the essence. Furthermore, we all know that the Palestinians did not have the untarnished reputation for keeping things quiet, not to mention their “genius” for not agreeing among themselves as to who should represent them.
President Asad emphasized that contacts on a high level should be established with the PLO.
Secretary Kissinger suggested that perhaps George Shultz, former Secretary of the Treasury “who is closely associated with President Ford and me” could visit the area once again and be put in touch with Palestinian elements which the Syrian President might recommend.
President Asad promised to talk to the PLO about this.
[According to news reports, President Asad did receive Yasir Arafat a day or two after Dr. Kissinger’s visit to Damascus—IKS]
Secretary Kissinger emphasized that it is not the U.S. policy to split up the Arabs. “What would we get out of this, save going contrary to the logic of history?”
That’s why we hope the Syrian President understands that an Egyptian-Israeli agreement, if it is finalized, would be in the right direction of making the Israelis used to the idea, indeed the necessity of agreements with the Arabs.
The Secretary conceded that an agreement between Israel and Syria would be more difficult than the one on Sinai (the differences between the two being, inter alia, in the terrains, the temperaments of Egypt and Syria!).
President Asad expressed deep doubt that anything would be achieved between Israel and Syria at this rate, and given Israel’s con[Page 813]tinued intransigence and declarations. “What’s the use of a few kilometers in the southern Syrian front? No, if Israel remains in Golan, as her actions and strengthening of settlements seem to indicate, then it is absolutely hopeless even to fool our people with any hopeful prospects. What would any Syrian, or any Arab for that matter, feel when he sees Quneitra as a ghost town? What kind of liberation can we call that when the Israelis are not only looking down on Quneitra but also building more and more things right on the edge of that city! Are we kidding?!”
Secretary Kissinger promised to give the Syrian President’s legitimate pre-occupation serious thought in order hopefully to come up with some kind of a suggestion. Continuing, the Secretary explained how precious time was lost because of Watergate and what happened as a result of this “historic accident” i.e., the resignation of former President Nixon. If this had not happened, the element of continuity in our efforts and in using our influence might very well have solved several of the problems we are still facing.
Now President Ford is beginning noticeably to recoup a lot of prestige which the American presidency had lost. He still has a vocal and pro-Israeli Congress to deal with, especially those 40 members who realize that, no matter what happens, they are not going to be re-elected.
With President Ford elected, and Congress having new faces, the tempo could be quickened in pursuing a solution. President Ford, you would notice when you meet him, has positive views on this problem, not unlike what former President Nixon unfolded before you during his visit to Damascus.4
President Asad was glad to hear this about President Ford. He added that the Egyptians had described President Ford as honest, courageous, and straightforward.
Asad asked about President Ford’s chances in the coming elections.
Secretary Kissinger was almost completely certain of a Ford victory.
Asked about the Democrats, Secretary Kissinger replied the only Democratic candidate he could see was Kennedy. However even Kennedy has similar views regarding this problem (!) said the Secretary.
The Secretary told Asad that Rabin had said that by mid-October 1975 (if the agreement with Egypt is reached), Israel would be willing to send a representative to Washington for quiet talks about the Syrian front.[Page 814]
“While I am not asking you for a reply now,” continued the Secretary to Asad, “I’d venture the thought that, in order to maintain the secrecy and low-key aspect of such discussions,” President Asad need not send a representative at the outset to Washington. Either the Syrian Ambassador there, or, more discreetly, our Ambassador to Syria, would be summoned once or twice for consultations. Thus we could start or resume the Syrian-Israeli ball rolling, very quietly and pending this the Secretary would keep President Asad informed of any new developments.
The Secretary also gave a tentative “iffy” promise to go back to Damascus: if necessary, if he had any new thoughts on the Golan step, if his schedule did not lag too far behind, etc.
IV. US Aid to Israel
President Asad asked, in seeming consternation, about the reported $3 billion-plus assistance from the U.S. to Israel!
Secretary Kissinger said the figure was grossly exaggerated. It was much less than that. In any case, added the Secretary, it would not be in the form of a ready check in the whole amount. Rather, the assistance would be proportioned in such a way as to keep us in an effective position of influencing Israel through 1977.
In sum, the Secretary urged President Asad not to upset the apple cart (as he is capable of doing!)—frankly for Syria’s own good. We (U.S.A) need time to tide us over until after the elections. This did not mean that we would in the meantime, do nothing. No, we would be resorting to arranging things quietly and in a preparatory way with Congress and with American public opinion. The Israeli-Egyptian agreement, if and when it comes about, should help the process we have in mind.
The Secretary advised, for instance, against the Arabs, and through them the non-aligned nations, insisting on Israel’s ouster from the UN. This would prove counter-productive and would certainly be interpreted as Arab unreasonableness. So, let Khaddam have an opportunity (in Lima, Peru) to exercise his famous composure!!5
Asad, smilingly, said “We were not urging that Israel be chucked out of the UN, but that she be held to the promises stipulated in her birth-certificate, i.e., membership in the UN.” The Syrian President added: “If Israel does not, she will receive her punishment: if not this year, then the next, or the next.”
The Secretary, conceding President Asad’s rare gift of machination, suggested that working for peace required a few other consider[Page 815]ations to be borne in mind, e.g., clear objectives, the image abroad, timing of steps, increasing friends and supporters and so on.
President Asad said he had always enjoyed exchanging philosophical views with the Secretary. Clearly, he (Asad) appreciates the Secretary’s need for more time; but by the same token, the Secretary surely appreciates Syria’s unswerving demand for deeper results to show the people that America’s intercessional efforts are not just talk or show.
The Secretary said the Syrian President had always been honest, frank and forceful of expression with us. We would do our very best to move expeditiously into the next step on the Syrian front, bearing in mind the President’s concerns.
- Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Kissinger Reports on USSR, China, and Middle East, Box 4, August 21–September 1, 1975, Volume I (3), Sinai Disengagement Agreement. Secret; Nodis. The meeting took place at the Presidential Palace. Brackets are in the original.↩
- See Document 112.↩
- On August 22, Syria and Jordan announced the formation of a supreme command to coordinate and direct military action against Israel. The communiqué was issued at the end of King Hussein’s State visit to Damascus. (New York Times, August 23, 1975 p. 7)↩
- See Document 92.↩
- A reference to the Non-Aligned Conference held in Lima August 23–29.↩