274. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The Secretary
  • Under Secretary Sisco
  • Assistant Secretary Atherton
  • Assistant Secretary Saunders
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Day
  • Ambassador Murphy
  • Jock Covey, Notetaker


  • Lebanon

The Secretary: Right. Where do we stand then?

Sisco: Well, I personally think that Roy’s assessment at the staff meeting2 was very full this morning. I think we are seeing the beginning of a Syrian pull-out. And I think the Syrians will get Jumblatt over to Damascus tomorrow and will continue to seek a political solution.

The Secretary: Well, that means the Israelis have again done themselves in. Through their brilliant strategy, we will have succeeded in pushing Syria to the left. What do you think?

Murphy: I think the Christians will be able to hold out.

Atherton: We may end up with partition. The Christians will probably be able to defend the Mt. Lebanon area.

The Secretary: How big is the Mt. Lebanon area?

Atherton: All told, it’s about ⅓ of the country.

Day: It includes part of Beirut.

Atherton: They still have the militia, they have weapons, they have a port . . .

Day: And in the meantime, there is trouble brewing at home for Asad.

Atherton: The worst possible outcome is that not only will Asad’s policy fail, but that the policy itself will be unpopular.

The Secretary: But why did he pursue this policy?

Murphy: I think he may be afraid that the dispute would slop over into Syria. After all, Syria is a patchwork quilt of small groups . . .

[Page 977]

The Secretary: But why wouldn’t he have supported the PLO? It would have been more natural.

Day: I think he thought at the beginning that the political solution had a good chance. He had support from both the left and the right—excluding the extremists on both ends. But then as the situation developed, the left started to pull away. But he still remains a major base. He still has his part of the PLO.

Murphy: Yes, that’s easy to lose sight of. He still retains considerable support among the Palestinians.

Sisco: You mean the Saiqi? How large a group is the Saiqi in relation to the rejectionists and the rest of the PLO?

Murphy: Oh, the rejectionists are just a miniscule part of the PLO, and the Saiqi is about ¼ the size of the Fatah.

Atherton: I don’t think that Asad wants Lebanon to be an extension of the Syrian front.

Murphy: Oh no, he’s told me “why should I want to go to Lebanon to fight Israel?”

The Secretary: The thing that’s so strange is that his interests and Israel’s are parallel. This is just another one of those horrors that Israel has inflicted on the rest of us. If they had only let him move . . . and clean out the PLO in the process . . .

Murphy: Well, he never would have cleaned out the PLO.

Sisco: The thing is that in Israel, they’re not able to make much of a distinction between Asad and the Syrians whom they deeply mistrust and the left wing of the PLO and the rejectionists. I don’t think Egypt can make the distinction either.

The Secretary: Oh yes, Egypt can make the distinction. Egypt wants only to humiliate Syria. They want chaos in Lebanon.

Saunders: Well, it’s myopic in the sense that it could lead to war.

The Secretary: No, because they are convinced they can sit the war out. It would be better to have them fighting—their hatred has reached that point.

Murphy: If the worst case does not come about, and I certainly hope it doesn’t, I think it’s important to get across in detail some sense of how much we share their concerns and what we did in Israel. I think you’re able to see in the messages we got from them a note of gratitude for our efforts.

Saunders: I don’t think they would be talking to Jumblatt tomorrow if they had decided to go ahead. Maybe they will turn out to be more open minded about a UN effort.

The Secretary: Well, we don’t have to worry about a UN effort any more. Sonnenfeldt has now involved himself. We are now assured that it will grow to crisis proportions.

[Page 978]

Sisco: How is he involved?

The Secretary: He is in London sending messages to me, telling me that he needs instructions on what he should be telling the French about the initiative on the UN. I will tell him he should just stay out of this.

Sisco: Yes, I believe that he should just tell them that any comments or suggestions should just be sent directly to Washington.

Day: I agree that if they’re seeing Jumblatt tomorrow, they won’t move today.

Atherton: And Hussein is in Damascus today. We may see a report sometime tomorrow from him. You know the Jordanian assessment has been right on the mark.

The Secretary: Absolutely.

Saunders: The difficulty is you can’t always tell when Arab maneuvers are just tactical. I can’t see how pulling back will help them with Jumblatt.

Day: Well, the barrage yesterday was seen as an atrocity, and it may be just beyond toleration.3

Saunders: Maybe they’re not actually pulling out.

The Secretary: No, I don’t think they are.

Saunders: Their pull back may be just to help put the Christians back in.

Day: And that means they’re still manipulating the situation.

The Secretary: I think we have to get a message to the Syrians. We have got to give them some essence of what has come about. We should tell them that we are trying to understand the situation. That in the present circumstances, Israel is sorely tempted to try to go in to clean out the PLO. We have made very clear to the Israelis the disastrous consequences of such a move and we think our warnings have stayed their hand. Then we have to make four points. First, if the Syrian military moves into Lebanon, the probability of the Israelis moving in is over-whelming. Second, if the Syrians associate themselves with local forces in a non-overt manor, it may be tolerable. That is, there is a possibility of containing the reaction. But to contain the reaction, we must know the facts. The danger of Israeli action increases if Syrian forces go below the Beirut–Damascus axis. Third, we agree with the Syrian approach. We think our most useful role would be to talk with the Christians. If they can bring Jumblatt around, we think we can help with Franghi. We would even talk to Jumblatt if the Syrians think that would [Page 979] help. But we do not want to disturb the Syrian efforts, so they’ve got to tell us what they want us to do. And fourth, we’ve been approached by various people suggesting a UN session, perhaps called by the French. Ask them what they think.

Now, this should be warm and personal, but should not be a letter from me.

Sisco: An oral message from you?

Murphy: Yes, I think that would be very good, especially since we have to remember that we’re looking ahead to UNDOF and we want to be able to demonstrate to them that we’ve really tried.

Day: Could I make a suggestion for a slight change? Instead of saying that we are prepared to talk with the Christians—we have been saying all along that we are prepared to talk to the Christians and they have been criticising us for not carrying out our promises. Can we just say that we are going to begin talking to the Christians?

The Secretary: Yes, but not until we hear from the Syrians.

Since we are agreed on this approach, I think we should be able to get this out by noon.

Atherton: Actually, we’re all delighted. This is exactly what we came in to suggest you do.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973–77, Box 16, Nodis Memcons, March 1976. Secret; Sensitive.
  2. The staff meeting took place on March 26 from 8:12 until 8:56 a.m. (Ibid., Henry Kissinger Staff Meetings, Box 9)
  3. On March 25, Moslem forces led by Jumblatt shelled Beirut, forcing President Frangieh to flee the city. (New York Times, March 26, 1976, p. 1)