283. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • President Ford
  • Vice President Rockefeller
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State
  • Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
  • David Matthews, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare
  • Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Bipartisan Congressional Leadership (list attached)
  • Leslie A. Janka (note taker)

SUBJECT

  • Swine Flu Immunization Program, the Turkish Base Agreement, Lebanon Strife, and Transition Quarterly Funding in the Security Assistance Bill

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Lebanon.]

Secretary Kissinger: Let me turn now to Lebanon. We are facing three issues in the Lebanese crisis—a split between the Christian and Moslem communities, the split between the radical and moderate political views, and the intervention of outside powers.

The Christian-Moslem conflict arises from the constitutional structure of Lebanon which is based upon the proposition that the Lebanese population is equally divided between the Christians and the Moslems. However, it is now estimated that the population is 60 percent Moslem, and this is especially true if you consider the influx of large numbers of Palestinians.

The Moslem community is further split between radical groups supported by the Soviet Union and Libya and what could be considered more moderate factions. Another complication is the fact that the leader of the radical leftists Kamal Jumblatt is a Druze and therefore cannot play any role in a constitutional confessional structure. He is therefore in favor of deconfessionalizing the Lebanese Government.

We also have the Palestinians who are divided into basically three factions. As you can see from this map,2 the population is divided in such a way that the Christians hold the mountainous areas north of Beirut, while the PLO control territory in the south.

[Page 1011]

The Lebanese crisis began in the Christian-Moslem fighting last fall. From the beginning we were in touch with all parties. As you know, I met with the Lebanese Foreign Minister in September at the UN.3 However, the fighting worsened. The next phase was a Syrian mediation effort which succeeded in late January.4

Today we are faced with the situation where there is no central authority of any kind in Lebanon. From the middle of March we have faced the danger that Syria might intervene. Our concern is based upon the fact that Israel would move into Southern Lebanon should Syria intervene in Lebanon and that would clearly risk a full scale Middle East war.

In this crisis we are facing a strange reversal of roles, with Syria supporting the Christians and fighting the PLO. Syrians are also supporting the moderate wing of the PLO, while cutting supplies to Jumblatt leftists and protecting the Christian areas. The Egyptians on the other hand are supporting the radicals because of their hatred for the Syrians.

The United States would prefer the same political outcome as the Syrians do, and so do the Israelis. But the United States and Israel do not want Syrian military intervention. But the paradox is that without Syrian intervention the PLO may in fact win. Our policy is designed to prevent a Syrian intervention, but to support their political mediation efforts along the lines of the January 22 settlement.

Last week we sent Ambassador Brown, one of our most senior and experienced diplomats, to Beirut in an effort to get communications going among the factions. We are the only country that everyone is talking to. So far, there is general agreement that there will be new elections for a new President and for getting parliament reconvened.

But I repeat the biggest problem is that there is no central authority at all in Lebanon, and even a new government will not have a strong security force to prevent the outbreak of new hostilities which could be started by any Lieutenant; and thus the whole thing would break down. If the cease-fire breaks down, Syrians will move in and Israel will surely move also. And therefore we have a very high potential for a wider Middle East conflict.

We have stopped Syrian intervention three times, so therefore the U.S. role is very important in keeping the parties restrained. We have been lucky and so far we have been making progress. We are now trying to get a security force set up with buffer zones between the fac[Page 1012]tions. We are in close touch with all the parties, with the exception of the PLO, and we are in very close and constant touch with the Israelis.

The Lebanese economy is running down very badly. Each faction is surviving on outside support. The economy of Beirut is totally devastated.

Representative O’Neill: How do you explain what the Sixth Fleet is doing off the coast of Lebanon?

Secretary Kissinger: It is there for the possible evacuation of the 1,000 Americans left in Beirut. About 6,000 Americans have already left the country but our ships are not off the coast of Lebanon—they are about 36 hours away.

We recognize that any American force put into Lebanon would have to be prepared to fight all of the parties. We have never had and we have no intention now of putting American forces into Lebanon. The fact is that we could not even get diplomatically active until the Syrian mediation effort failed, simply because any U.S. action would tend to unite all parties against us.

Representative McFall: Can we get Egypt to pull out its support? Can the United States talk to the moderate PLO elements?

Secretary Kissinger: We are talking to the Egyptians now. Egypt will be willing to standdown if the Syrians could be kept out. But we have to recognize that the Egyptian role is really a minor one. On the whole, Syria has emerged as the supporter of the Christians and in opposition to the PLO and the Communists.

With regard to contacts with the PLO, we have had a firm policy of not talking to the PLO on the Middle East because the PLO will not recognize the existence of Israel. But we are now dealing with a Lebanese problem, not the broader Middle East issues. Nevertheless, we have so far not talked to the PLO.

Representative Anderson: Where are the radicals getting their arms from?

Secretary Kissinger: From Libya and Iraq. But the Syrians have acted to interdict the flow of supplies to the radicals by putting in its own troops disguised as Palestinians and by having its Navy patrol the coasts.

However, if Syria achieves the domination of the PLO factions, which is what it wants, then its policy in the Middle East might change. What we are working on is a Syrian political solution without Syrian intervention. Deconfessionalization would mean that the Christians would be made a permanent minority and Lebanon would become a pure Arab and a radical state, which neither Syria nor Israel would want on their borders. We have to recognize that the whole thing in Lebanon could fall apart very easily.

[Page 1013]

Representative Rhodes: Does Syria have territorial ambitions against Lebanon?

Secretary Kissinger: Syria lost some of the eastern valley territories when France created Lebanon. But more importantly, Syria has always wanted a dominant role in Lebanon. If the Syrians intervene militarily in Lebanon, they would smash the PLO just as the Jordanians did in 1970 and then reconstitute under Syrian domination. The question is what is the best outcome for the U.S. and Israel. We hope to be able to avoid making this difficult choice by achieving an independent Lebanon. Israel has been very restrained in all of this but the situation has very precarious elements in it.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Lebanon.]

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, CL 283, Presidential File, April 1976. Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the Cabinet Room at the White House. Attached but not printed is the list of bipartisan congressional leaders.
  2. The map is not attached.
  3. See Document 263.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 267.