286. Minutes of Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Lebanon


  • Chairman
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • State
  • Roy Atherton
  • DOD
  • Donald Rumsfeld
  • William Clements
  • JCS
  • Gen. George S. Brown
  • CIA
  • George Bush
  • NSC Staff
  • Brent Scowcroft
  • William G. Hyland
  • Michael Hornblow


Secretary Kissinger: This morning we are going to have a brief review of the Working Group’s work.2 After this there will have to be an NSC meeting on Lebanon and Cuba so that the President can make decisions. (George, do you have a briefing?)

Mr. Bush: I don’t believe a briefing is necessary this morning. There is no new intelligence on the current situation. It is rocking back and forth. I can’t confirm the withdrawal of any Syrian troops. Their troop presence seems about the same as it was.

Secretary Kissinger: We are everybody’s whipping boy. Egypt is accusing us of colluding with Syria. Syria is accusing us of colluding with Egypt. Jumblatt says we’re colluding with the Christians. The Christians say we’re colluding with the Moslems.

Gen. Brown: I would like to tell you about an incident that happened last week. As you know Pan American had been flying into [Page 1024] Beirut once a week. The flights have been bringing in blood for the hospital, mail and some supplies for the embassy. Last week we had to go in with a 141. We parked on the military side of the airport. An attaché was present. Bandits held up the plane and searched it for weapons. They didn’t do any harm, but did steal all the regular mail. I have now told our people that no flights should go into Lebanon without specific authorization from Washington.

Secretary Kissinger: That seems sensible.

Mr. Atherton: If there is a need for a flight it could be checked out in advance with Dean Brown.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes. If Brown knows in advance he could work it out.

General Brown: I heard on the radio this morning that there was gunfire at the Beirut airport.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes, I heard that, too. Let’s talk about the Lebanese situation. There’s not much to say. It is extremely precarious. George, how many Syrian troops are in there now?

Mr. Bush: We believe there are between 5,000 and 6,000 Syrian troops there now. It is also the Intelligence Community’s assessment that the Israelis would resist any Syrian move to the Latani River with mechanized force.

General Scowcroft: I believe the DIA has a slightly different estimate for Syrian troops. Closer to 4,000.

Secretary Kissinger: Is that 5,000 figure in addition to the PLA forces?

Mr. Bush: There are not great differences between our estimate and the DIA estimate. We believe there are about 5,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon.

Secretary Kissinger: Is that in addition to the PLA forces?

Mr. Bush: Yes.

Secretary Kissinger: We are bringing Dean Brown back for consultations. We will then send him out again to Lebanon just before Meloy arrives.

Mr. Clements: Did he see Malik?3

Mr. Atherton: No, Malik is out of touch with reality.

Secretary Kissinger: Regarding Lebanon it is to be expected that if no group wins, all the groups will be mad. It is almost inconceivable but Egypt has been complaining to us that Israel hasn’t yet moved. We are left holding the bag. Syria is not happy with us because we have [Page 1025] been restraining them from moving in with full force. The Christians also are unhappy with us and it now looks as if Syria may end up dominating the PLO with the result being that the Christians would end up in worse shape than they are now. Let’s talk about the military situation if it blows up.

Mr. Hyland: If war starts over Lebanon our initial estimate is that by the end of D–3 or D–4 Israel would be able to mount a successful drive against Syria and be within 15 kilometers of Damascus. Syria would then be in a desperate situation and would ask for Soviet intervention.

Secretary Kissinger: Asad might not want to fight there. His strategy is to bleed the Israelis.

Mr. Hyland: Losses in the air might hurt them more than losses on the ground.

Secretary Kissinger: During the last war they got near Damascus in three or four days.

General Scowcroft: I would like to suggest a new element. The Israelis could move in back of Mount Hebron into Lebanon and really wrap things up.

General Brown: That is really rough territory. There is quite a defile there.

Mr. Hyland: We have looked at the situation. Our interpretation is that the USSR could in three or four days put in 7,000 to 8,000 troops—one airborne division. However, it is more likely that Russian intervention would be with aircraft that would enable them to get there faster and with greater numbers.

Our group looked at possible U.S. moves. The first possibility would be a show of force. We could move an infantry battalion from Europe to Crete. However, there might be a political problem. Can we go to Crete?

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t think so. In 1973 Crete let us use their airfields. I don’t think we could move ground forces onto Crete.

General Brown: The only flag that can go into Crete is the NATO flag. We have no bilateral agreements with Crete that I am aware of.

Secretary Rumsfeld: So it would not be proper to move in our ground forces.

General Scowcroft: No.

Secretary Rumsfeld: We’re not speaking about definite plans are we, these are just contingencies?

Mr. Hyland: Well one of the first movements of our ground forces would be in Cyprus.

Secretary Rumsfeld: What about the Guadalcanal?

[Page 1026]

Mr. Hyland: There’s also the 509th from Vincenza.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Wouldn’t the Italian Government object?

General Brown: Yes. We could move the 82nd.

Secretary Kissinger: Where?

General Brown: To Israel.

Secretary Kissinger: Let’s talk about where we might move American forces.

General Scowcroft: There are three places, Crete, Cyprus, or Israel.

General Brown: We are thinking in terms of Incurlick, Turkey.

Secretary Kissinger: That probably won’t be possible—not after Congress gets through.

Mr. Bush: Henry, is that letting up at all?

Secretary Kissinger: No, it’s going to turn into a real brawl.

General Brown: We do have a force at sea. We have Marines on the Guadalcanal. It is 24 hours away. We do have specific evacuation plans.

General Scowcroft: Shouldn’t we look at our objectives?

Mr. Clements: You’re right Brent, just why should we move into Israel?

General Brown: What would be the consequences if the Soviets moved into Syria?

Secretary Kissinger: In the previous Middle Eastern crisis we had reinforcements in the Mediterranean before the Soviets did anything.

General Brown: A lot depends on the Soviets.

Secretary Kissinger: Our initial problem is to make sure that the Arabs see us in a position of high readiness in the Mediterranean. Our second problem is to see what we would do if the Soviets moved. In the first phase there would be no U.S. troops sent into Israel. In the first phase we would make clear our intention to stay out as long as the Soviets stay out.

Secretary Rumsfeld: What would the Turks, Italians, Soviets, Germans, and Greeks do in this situation?

Secretary Kissinger: I can tell you the Turks would very likely try to prevent our overflying. The Greeks and the Italians would certainly play up to the Arabs as much as possible. The Germans might close their eyes to some of our troop movements as long as we didn’t advertise them.

Secretary Rumsfeld: But don’t we want to advertise our movements?

Secretary Kissinger: No, that would not be necessary because the Soviets are well aware of our movements. We better face the fact that [Page 1027] we will get no support from Europe. The Europeans would be committed on the Arab side.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well if that is true, it only leaves us with the Guadalcanal or the 72nd Airborne Division.

Secretary Kissinger: We can move troops out of NATO, but we can’t earmark 5 divisions.

Secretary Rumsfeld: I would opt to use the troops in NATO or the 82nd.

General Scowcroft: The question is where to land them.

Mr. Clements: If we get concurrence from some Arabs that we should put troops into Lebanon, then the NATO equation changes.

Secretary Kissinger: However, it is quite likely that Lebanon would not permit us to land our forces there, that is, if there is a Lebanese government at the time.

Mr. Clements: Oh I think there will be some form of Lebanese government. If we receive an invitation from the Lebanese government—then Sadat might back it up.

Secretary Kissinger: If there is a war between Syria and Israel it would be a miracle if Sadat stayed out of it. It is inconceivable to me that Sadat would support us if we landed troops in Lebanon.

Mr. Clements: Well, I’m trying to think of one move ahead. U.S. troop, in Lebanon could prevent an Israeli-Syrian war.

Secretary Kissinger: If there is no Syrian-Israeli war it is conceivable that we could move into Lebanon, but it would be a tough and possibly costly move and I’m not at all sure that Egypt could support such a move.

Secretary Rumsfeld: If we did go in, the PLO might not fight us. They’re more interested in destroying the other factions.

Secretary Kissinger: We’re talking about totally different situations here. If U.S. troops move in as a buffer to separate opposing forces it could well embroil us with the Syrians. The Syrians might then move massively into Lebanon. We might then be faced with protecting the PLO from the Syrians. Once we move in, there is no easy way to get out. Are we really prepared to take on Lebanon?

Secretary Rumsfeld: But aren’t we really worried about Beirut not Lebanon? If the Israelis move to the north and we put in U.S. troops, that does us no good vis-à-vis Beirut.

Secretary Kissinger: If the situation gets out of hand in Lebanon, we must ask ourselves what national interests we have there which would lead us to put in our forces.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Our national interest is to try to prevent a Middle Eastern war.

[Page 1028]

Mr. Clements: That is right.

Gen. Scowcroft: If the Israelis start moving we could put in our Marines near the Litani River.

Secretary Kissinger: We are talking about two totally different situations. If the Israelis move, do we put in U.S. forces? If the Israelis don’t move, do we put in U.S. forces? If we move our troops into separate opposing forces along the Litani River, that effectively would halt any Israeli advance. But the Arabs would oppose this and take it as our siding with Israel.

Mr. Clements: I just think I disagree with you there Henry. If it really looked like the Israelis were going to win, then the Arabs could very well support U.S. troop involvement.

General Brown: We could move in before the Israelis move and be in place and let the Israelis try to walk over us. It could be at the old UN line. It is kind of a wild idea.

Secretary Rumsfeld: It would be a tripwire.

Secretary Kissinger: If that happened the Israelis would start swearing that we are in collusion with Syria. The Egyptians would also start screaming but for different reasons.

Mr. Clements: We could easily take care of that in one conversation with Sadat and convince him that this would be in his best interest. As long as we are in there we are perceived to be in cahoots with the Arabs and that could be helpful.

General Brown: Helpful where?

Mr. Clements: With NATO and the Arab world.

Mr. Hyland: The marines would land offshore?

Mr. Clements: They could come in by plane.

General Scowcroft: How—from the Guadalcanal?

Secretary Kissinger: How long would it take?

General Brown: It would take 28 hours.

Secretary Kissinger: Israel would not move in that fast if Syria goes in.

General Brown: The only military plans we have are evacuation plans.

Secretary Kissinger: We need to have plans for two contingencies: (1) U.S. forces on the old UN line; (2) U.S. forces on the Litani River.

General Brown: We don’t have any plans now. Just some concepts.

Secretary Rumsfeld: What bothers me is that we are talking about the last step of things—military action. But military action should only be taken after political and economic actions.

Secretary Kissinger: We have been active diplomatically but we need to have military plans in case the other things fail.

[Page 1029]

Secretary Rumsfeld: In this paper4 there is no focus on political or economic steps we should take.

Secretary Kissinger: We have been doing nothing else in this crisis.

Mr. Clements: I know you have been working hard, Henry. I would like to point out that the whole Arab world is opposed to Syria putting their troops in.

Secretary Kissinger: Jordan might support Syria and so might the Saudis. We have managed to keep Syria out until now. It is hard to know if they will move.

Mr. Atherton: I am not certain Israel would move as quickly as we have been suggesting.

General Scowcroft: The Israelis might not consult with the U.S. before they move. They would anticipate that we would exert strong pressure on them not to move. But they might want us to keep them from moving.

Secretary Kissinger: The Israelis might not be eager to move. They realize that the outcome of a move on their part might be massive pressure on them to return to the 1967 borders. What do we do if the Soviets intervene after Syria gets creamed?

Mr. Clements: By making a move like this we can prevent that from happening. We should get hard at it and discuss the possibility of putting U.S. troops into Lebanon with Sadat.

Secretary Kissinger: I would not discuss that sort of thing with Sadat without the President’s authorization.

Mr. Clements: Of course, but we could talk to him on an exploratory basis.

Secretary Kissinger: Where would we put our troops? Would we put them between opposing factions or on the Litani River? Sadat might very well construe such intervention as an invitation for the Soviets to move in.

Gen. Scowcroft: We would only do this if the Syrians move in militarily. But then the U.S. forces would be in direct opposition to the Syrian forces and we don’t have enough troops.

Secretary Kissinger: Asad would vehemently oppose this and would threaten to fight. There is a chance he might acquiesce to U.S. forces on the Litani River or the Israeli border. We would then get his support but at the same time lose Sadat’s support. Sadat might support a U.S. move into Beirut but that has the highest possibility of combat and we would have to go in with overwhelming force.

Mr. Clements: If we go into Beirut it would get people killed.

[Page 1030]

General Scowcroft: The Litani River or the old UN line seems the only useful U.S. contingencies.

Secretary Kissinger: If we do make a preventative move it would get Syria in for sure.

Mr. Clements: That is the difference between us, Henry. I am convinced there is enormous Arab pressure on Syria not to go in. Of course before we move in we would have to do our homework.

Secretary Kissinger: Well so far we have managed to get off of the real danger point. There seems to now be a 52 to 48% chance of a settlement. With all due respect, Defense should not constantly say they cannot make up military plans until the political and economic steps have been taken.

Secretary Rumsfeld: Well just what do you want Henry? Tell us what you want and we will do it. Just put it on a piece of paper.

Secretary Kissinger: I want to know what do we do if the Soviets intervene.

Secretary Rumsfeld: We can provide it. Just put it on a piece of paper.

Secretary Kissinger: I want to know what happens if the Israelis win and then the Soviets intervene.

Mr. Hyland: There is a plan and a schedule of possible movements we could take. A lot of it depends on Cyprus.

Secretary Kissinger: Do we have the right to put in forces there?

Mr. Hyland: No. We would have to approach Callaghan and get his approval. This would be a risky step for the UK because they would be risking an oil embargo.

Secretary Kissinger: Could you move the 82nd division to Israel without using an intermediate staging area.

General Brown: Physically yes but I would like to use Lajes.

Secretary Kissinger: What if you don’t get Lajes. We need to have three different plans. (1) U.S. forces on the Litani River; (2) U.S. forces on the Israeli-Syrian border; and (3) The third plan is in two stages. What reinforcements would we need in the Middle East if there is an Israeli-Arab war but without Soviet intervention. The second part is to consider what steps we would take if there is Soviet intervention.

Roy will have to work up a diplomatic scenario for the first two. If we send in the marines what do we have to do beforehand? Is there any more planning?

Mr. Bush: I am going to look into strengthening our intelligence collection capabilities in the area.

  1. Source: Ford Library, NSC Institutional Files, Box 25, Meeting Minutes, WSAG-Originals, March–April, 1976. Top Secret. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room.
  2. The Working Group was updating contingency plans; see Document 284.
  3. Charles Malik, former Lebanese Foreign Minister, was one of the founders of the Front for Freedom and Man in Lebanon, which was renamed the Lebanese Front.
  4. Presumably a reference to a Working Group paper; it is not attached.