268. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The Secretary
  • Gen. Scowcroft, NSC
  • Bill Hyland, NSC
  • Under Secretary Sisco
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Day
  • Ambassador Murphy, Syria
  • Jock Covey, Notetaker


  • Lebanon

The Secretary: Now that we have NEA involved, we probably have 500 State Department officers working on the problem. How are we going to keep it out of the press?

[Page 950]

Day: There are only two officers working on this. Me and Draper—the Lebanon country officer.

The Secretary: We can’t very well do this without the country director. Who else has he brought into it?

Day: No one.

The Secretary: All right. Where are we then?

Sisco: We have been greatly encouraged by Khaddam’s response.2 It’s obvious to me personally that he is going to wait.

The Secretary: Where is Dinitz?

Scowcroft: He’s standing by in his office.

The Secretary: (asks his secretary to have Dinitz come over) What did you and Brent tell him today?

Sisco: Just what you told us to tell him. Just what was in the cable.3 Here, this is a pretty good summary of what we told him.

The Secretary: Now who did this go to?

Sisco: Only 60 posts (laughter). Actually it went only to Tel Aviv and Damascus.

The Secretary: What was the classification?

Sisco: The highest—that means it will take at least 48 hours to reach the New York Times. (laughter)

The Secretary: Who is the Chargé while you are gone?

Murphy: Pelletreau.4

The Secretary: Is he a good man?

Murphy: Definitely. He’s been there for about a year and . . .

The Secretary: What would he have to do for you to admit that he isn’t a good man?

Murphy: I’d have to admit that I hadn’t picked him myself.

The Secretary: You picked him?

Murphy: Yes. After you took Scotes away, I had my chance to pick whoever I wanted.

Sisco: So far he’s doing a very good job.

As I look ahead I personally feel that the first move ought to be to try to get the Syrians to institute some minimal arrangement . . .

The Secretary: The first problem is to ask him what he has on his mind.

[Page 951]

Murphy: We don’t know yet whether he’s been able to get back to Khaddam.

The Secretary: Well, if he hasn’t, tell him to get back in first thing in the morning. It’s important to know what they have in mind. There is quite a difference between sending in 2,000 or 20,000 troops. What do you think they have on their mind?

Murphy: More than 2,000 . . .

The Secretary: Well, how long do you think they’re going to stay? How will we ever get them to leave?

Day: Khaddam said that he really had no clear idea of what sort of numbers they might be dealing with.

Murphy: But it’s interesting that Khaddam is concerned about getting the PLO out as soon as possible. He is afraid of the resentment that is building up against them.

The Secretary: But then who would have the forces to hold the situation together?

Murphy: Well, the politicians seem to be coming together. And if that works, then the need for military presence would diminish.

The Secretary: But that’s just not realistic. That hasn’t worked from the beginning. It’s important now to get them to tell us what they have in mind. It’s one thing if the Syrians tell us that they will be going in for one week and then withdraw, or even if they intend to go in for a month and we give our own guarantee that they’ll withdraw. That’s one situation. But it is entirely different if the Syrians go in with no intention of leaving. The Israelis simply won’t accept that. What do you think?

Hyland: The Israelis certainly won’t accept any sort of permanent presence.

The Secretary: What is your solution?

Sisco: Well, I think personally that what we need is a very modest augmentation of the Syrian forces. Let them bring in a few units on a well-camouflaged basis. I don’t think it would pose any great problems for Israel. They would understand that the augmentation groups would pull out the moment a political solution has been arranged. Also, other PLA units could simultaneously concentrate to share the role of separating the forces.

The Secretary: How do you put that to Asad? How do you make that into a proposal?

Sisco: Only with the agreement of Israel.

The Secretary: Yes, but how do you propose to the Syrians that they move troops into Lebanon.

Murphy: That would mean that they would have to pull troops out of hot spots like Tripoli, and that those troops would themselves have [Page 952] to be replaced . . . although they could draw on some of those 5,000 Saudis that are in Syria.

The Secretary: Saudis in Syria . . . What do they do?

Murphy: Nothing much. They sit around in highly polished trucks. They’ve been there ever since the war and they could be put where they are needed in order to free some of the other troops.

Sisco: The trouble would be with Egypt.

Scowcroft: Yes, they would believe that we had connived with Syria to allow them to infiltrate troops into Lebanon.

The Secretary: What’s your idea?

Hyland: Strategically, it’s a real opportunity for Syria. The problem is with Egypt.

The Secretary: The only way this could be made tolerable to Israel would be with an American guarantee. They would only use a Syrian move to justify an attack on Southern Lebanon. And if we tell the Syrians that it’s okay for them to move, then I’ll be up to my ass in alligators with the Egyptians.

What do you think the Israeli perceptions are?

Scowcroft: What surprises me so much is how relaxed they’ve been for the last two weeks.

The Secretary: Maybe they think they can move in. Their secret dream for weeks has been that they could move in and clear up Fatahland. You know I issued a strong warning to both sides while I was in Dallas.5

Sisco: Let’s go back a little bit. Personally I think we probably ought to hear what Dinitz has to say first. There can’t be any augmentation without risks. So we should continue to do what we are doing. You saw the report [less than 1 line not declassified] today.

The Secretary: It’s beginning to look as if Syria is ready to move.

Hyland: That could be.

The Secretary: What does Kirk think? You have all the information he would have don’t you?

Hyland: Yes. You saw the Defense Attaché in Damascus reports that the Syrians are massing just about at exactly the place where they would group if they were going to go in.

The Secretary: What’s making me so uneasy—what doesn’t make any sense to me, is that Israel is so relaxed. It’s just not natural. They must know something that we don’t know. For one thing our exchange [Page 953] of information has been completely one sided. We have briefed them, but what have they given us?

By the way, where is Atherton? Is he on his way back?

Sisco: Yes, that was arranged today.

The Secretary: Atherton was briefing them daily at my request. [2 lines not declassified]

Hyland: They know everything that we know.

The Secretary: But do we know everything that they know.

Sisco: Well let’s just be absolutely accurate. We told them our assessment and they told us their assessment so in that sense it was a two sided exchange of information.

The Secretary: Look, it’s just not in their nature to behave this way. Israel will seize on any adverse development and use it to push for more arms or milk us for assistance. And they are not doing it.

Sisco: Just so that we can get it on the record: there are actually two other options that we haven’t considered. Number 1, there’s the possibility of a mixed Arab force, and number 2, it might be possible to arrange a UN cease-fire, to set up some sort of Waldheim instrumentality . . . although that would simply act as a cover for the Syrians . . .

The Secretary: Syria would never accept a mixed Arab force.

Murphy: The last time we mentioned it was about two months ago. Their response was quite negative.

Sisco: They viewed it as an anti-Syrian move.

Hyland: What I find so fascinating is that virtually yesterday they were pushing for a political solution, and today they’re ready to climb right in.

The Secretary: There’s no doubt that Sadat is trying to become the spokesman for all the radicals.

Day: One reason that the Syrians might have got their wind up is that what happened over the weekend was probably seen as a significant victory for their enemies. The PLO and the other radical Arabs scored some substantial gains and the Syrians are of course trying to support the Christians.

Sisco: It’s weird. It is truly weird. It only proves how unpredictable it can be to work in the Middle East.

The Secretary: This report from Damascus—I think I could just read it to Dinitz.

Sisco: Yes, I think it is a very calming and reassuring cable. The Syrians are trying very hard to be responsible.

The Secretary: I don’t think we need to send anything out to Syria before tomorrow morning. They won’t move without hearing from us. [Page 954] After I see Dinitz, we should meet again to figure out what we are going to say to the Syrians.

Scowcroft: The problem if Syria goes in is how to get them out. There has to be an understanding that they would be replaced within a given period by a mixed force or a UN group . . .

The Secretary: Never. You think that if the Syrians go in as a solitary force that they would ever leave only to be replaced by other Arabs?

Murphy: That would mean virtual annexation. I don’t think they really want to do that.

But it is interesting that they have come to us this time and that they seem to recognize the risks. Only a week ago Asad seemed to be genuinely—physically—surprised when I explained to him the Israeli factor.6

Hyland: It’s just strange that they should have been so optimistic and so relaxed, and only five days later be ready to go tearing in. It’s true that they came to us, but if they came to us then they must have gone to the Russians, too.

The Secretary: Should we go to the Russians?

Hyland: Not now, I don’t think. You know Gromyko is in London?

The Secretary: If Gromyko is in London then we could always ask Callaghan to approach him.

Scowcroft: Would Syria have been talking to the British?

Sisco: No, I don’t think so. Khaddam did say that they were also consulting with others but he did not say with whom.

The Secretary: There would be no problem with the Syrians if we discussed this with the British. And the Syrians couldn’t object if the British on their own took it to Gromyko.

Sisco: It’s still early.

Hyland: If Dinitz says that a move by Syria would be intolerable, where are we then?

The Secretary: First thing is to get some answers to my questions. We need time. Everything hinges on the Syrian response. We need some information—like how many Syrians are they planning to send across? What are they going to do? How long will it take them to do it? If we go back to them for the information we gain at least 24 hours. Rather than say that they should do this or they should do that, we should get some answers to our questions. It will also help to keep the Israelis quiet. Those sons of bitches are awfully eager to give the Syrians a real blow.

[Page 955]

(Meeting interrupted for small group discussion with Ambassador Dinitz, and resumes after 30 minutes.)7

The Secretary: What is your judgment now if the Syrians move in—if Israel says it will leave only if Syria leaves. Oh, you didn’t hear Dinitz’ proposal. Le me recap them for you quickly. Their position is that they cannot trust the Syrians. 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.

Murphy: Did he give you any specifics?

The Secretary: I asked him to get some specific answers to our questions back by tomorrow morning. What he means by “strategic,” what he means by “quietly” and so on. I asked Dinitz, what if Syria tells us they intend to go in for three weeks and we provide a United States guarantee that they will get out when they say they will. He told me that the domestic situation in Israel probably would not permit it. I’m inclined to say, screw the domestic situation. That’s not our most fundamental problem. Our real problems will be with Egypt.

Day: And there may be other problems with the timing. What if we give our guarantee and it comes time for the Syrians to get out, but the situation is still falling apart and it’s obvious that the Syrians are the only ones that can hold it together?

Murphy: It would be fairly easy for the Syrians to tell us how many people they intend to send. But I don’t see any way they could tell us how long they expect to be there. And in any event, it’s bound to get out that the Israelis are holding Southern Lebanon hostage.

The Secretary: They would announce it.

Sisco: They can’t possibly keep it quiet. They would be fighting . . .

The Secretary: With the PLO. For them that would make it all worthwhile. But then again, maybe they would go in there like the U.S., and make a lot of noise without actually making contact . . . send in some F–4’s to do figure 8’s.

Sisco: Now I finally understand why the Israelis have been so relaxed over the last few days.

The Secretary: They have just been dreaming of an opportunity to go in and clean up Fatahland.

Murphy: But that would only push the Fedayeen north.

The Secretary: That’s all right. That means they would be further away from the border.

[Page 956]

Hyland: Would that be bad for the U.S.? I don’t think it would be worse.

The Secretary: But how can the Syrians tell the Israelis it’s all right to run around Southern Lebanon. What would they tell the Egyptians? And what if the Syrians break the agreement?

Day: They can’t be a party to any such agreement and still remain leaders in the Arab world.

Murphy: Sadat will say that Asad is a traitor to the Arab cause.

Sisco: Sadat would be sorely tempted to put himself up as the defender of the PLO. I think it’s highly significant that they had now come to us. Henry what do you think it says to us about Syrian relations with the Soviets?

Scowcroft: While you were in the back room, Bar-On just casually dropped the fact that they considered going to the UN.

The Secretary: Dinitz also rejected the mixed Arab force idea. That would simply be a 24-hour expedient in any case. Look, they simply want Syria to go ahead and take the north. That means they get Southern Lebanon.

Hyland: That wouldn’t be so bad in terms of U.S. interest. Except that the Israelis would then have that part of Lebanon where they would have a guerilla war on their hands.

The Secretary: Listen, there are no guerilla wars where the territory is occupied by a force with no moral compunctions. You remember there was never any guerilla activity in the Korean zone in Vietnam.

Day: I just don’t see how we can be a party to any operation that allows Israel to take over part of Lebanon.

The Secretary: No, we wouldn’t be a party to any proposal. We have to be able to tell both sides we’re opposed. But the first problem is to keep everybody quiet and to force both sides to answer our questions. Right now we have to tell the Syrians that we know. And it’s also time to talk to Egypt, because if it comes out later that we knew all of this and never told the Egyptians . . .

All right, let’s tell the Syrians that we have to get answers to the following questions: How many troops they want to send and where they want to put them; what guarantees are there that they will leave and when they will get out. We have to tell them that it’s essential to have their answers before we can make any judgment as to the best course. But our cable should begin with a statement of the dangers that we see, that the dangers of a move outweigh any foreseeable benefits. Then we can say that it is our judgment that if they move, that Israel will then move into Southern Lebanon—I would not tell them yet that we have discussed the situation with Israel—and we need to know what their reaction would be in that situation.

[Page 957]

Sisco: That still sounds an awful lot like a U.S. proposal.

The Secretary: You are right. We should ask him simply to elicit as much as he can about their intentions. To just sound them out about their thinking. It’s a pity you’re not there because you could go in to see Asad.

Murphy: Just tell him to see Asad.

The Secretary: Can he do that?

Murphy: Yes, by all means.

Sisco: Khaddam so far has been all right. He has been quite reasonable.

The Secretary: Asad is simply much wiser than Khaddam, but let’s keep it at the Khaddam level.

All right. Then I better get Dinitz in to say we need answers to our questions to them. And we had better make it clear that we do not acquiesce in their moving into Southern Lebanon. I will not tell Dinitz that I am telling the Syrians about them wanting to move into Southern Lebanon. If they knew that, they might try to pre-empt us. I think that’s about all we can do for tonight.

Scowcroft: Well, we should get something out to the Egyptians.

The Secretary: Yes, but let’s talk about that after I talk to Dinitz now. (meeting interrupted for small group meeting with Dinitz and resumes after 15 minutes)8

The Secretary: Okay, now what do we do with Egypt? My fear is that Syria will tell all of this to some Arab and the talk will go around and get back to Egypt. In fact, this whole thing could by a Syrian ploy to break up our relations with Egypt. We’ve got to tell the Egyptians something. I think it’s important to tell them that the Syrians are thinking seriously of moving into Lebanon and that this presents a high risk of provoking an Israeli response. Then we should ask them if they have any ideas about how this situation should be dealt with.

Sisco: Henry, I just want to point out to you that in a previous cable, the Egyptians made two suggestions about what should be done. First, that we should press the Syrians to get out of Lebanon entirely. Now they obviously won’t do that and even if they did it would simply leave the whole country in the hands of the PLO. Second, they demand that Franjieh be pressed for his immediate resignation. Now, that would not get anybody anywhere, and in any case it is already part of the Syrian plan.

Now I just hope that whatever we send to the Egyptians won’t cause them to go back over this whole litany. We can’t say very much in [Page 958] any case. It can be a very short cable. In a way I am more concerned about it causing the Egyptians to get themselves involved.

The Secretary: That’s okay. That would be one more reason for the Syrians not to go in, and even if they did, then it would be an inter-Arab problem. No, we simply have to warn both sides very strongly. You should add that sentence from Dallas (press conference) about the warning. Tell Eilts to go in to see Fahmy urgently and tell Porter to go to the Saudis to do the same. And we should also send one to Hussein.9 You know, all we are doing is telling them the truth.

Hyland: It is the literal truth. After all, Franjieh himself has invited them in.

Sisco: Why not mention that, since it’s going to come out by tomorrow anyway.

The Secretary: Then we don’t have to mention it. It would only complicate it. Let’s keep it as it is. Mention to Hussein that based on his experience he can probably see that the Israelis are just looking for an opportunity to make a blow against Syria.

Hyland: So where do you think we come out at the end?

The Secretary: I simply am not very eager to do anything with Syria that would allow them to drive the Egyptians and the PLO out. The only result would be that the Israelis would go in and clear out the PLO, and they would be seen to be doing it in collusion with us. It might be different if we could get an iron-clad guarantee that they would be out in three weeks.

Hyland: It would be very interesting if it worked out that way. It would show that we can get agreements and get people to stick to them.

The Secretary: But we simply can’t let the Israelis go in, and yet it would be almost impossible to keep them out.

Scowcroft: Exactly. How in the world could you possibly keep them out?

The Secretary: Then the answer is probably to keep the Syrians out.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, CL 347, State Department Memorandum of Conversations, Internal, December 1975–March 1976. Secret; Sensitive.
  2. Khaddam’s request is in telegram 722 from Damascus, March 23. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, P850107–2570)
  3. See telegram 70097 to Damascus, March 23. (Ibid., P840089–2117)
  4. Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr.
  5. Kissinger made a speech and held a news conference in Dallas on March 22 and 23.
  6. See footnote 3, Document 267.
  7. No memorandum of conversation for this meeting has been found.
  8. No memorandum of conversation for the meeting has been found.
  9. These instructions were sent in telegram 71006 to Cairo, March 24 (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, P840090–2124), telegram 70405 to Jidda, March 24, (ibid., N760002–0551), and telegram 71008 to Amman, March 25 (Ibid., P840090–2126).