29. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Hafiz al-Asad, President of Syria
  • Asad Elias, Press Secretary
  • Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State
  • Isa Sabbagh, Interpreter
  • Alfred L. Atherton, Jr., Department of State (NEA)

Secretary Kissinger: (After introducing Mr. Atherton) Working for me requires a special kind of masochism. Anyone who stays with me for six months becomes devoted.

President Asad: Why six months?

Secretary Kissinger: It takes that long. He has to work 18 hours a day. They tell a story about me that when I was at the White House I had one of my staff prepare a draft which I sent back 12 times to be rewritten. After the twelfth draft, I asked him if this was the best he could do. When he said yes, I said “then I will now read it.”

President Asad: You say they tell this story. Is it not true?

Secretary Kissinger: Almost. When I give a speech, it goes through 12 or 14 drafts.

President Asad: I find that natural.

Secretary Kissinger: You are a great speaker Mr. President.

President Asad: When I deliver a written speech, it also requires great effort and much paper is torn.

Secretary Kissinger: I do the same.

President Asad: Speaking extemporaneously is easier.

Secretary Kissinger: It is too dangerous for me to give extemporaneous speeches. My press conferences are extemporaneous, however.

[Page 138]

President Asad: Ninety-five percent of my press conferences are extemporaneous. But extemporaneous speeches cause problems for persons in positions of responsibility. It is easy to make mistakes.

Secretary Kissinger: Sometimes what one says in the context of a crowd sounds alright but is terrible when you read it afterwards.

You know the President speaks English perfectly. He is taking advantage of the interpreter to have time to think.

President Asad: If my time permitted, I would like six months to study English. That would give me the same confidence as Secretary Kissinger has in his associates.

Secretary Kissinger: In six months we won’t be talking any more of disengagement. We will be in the second phase. That is my certainty.

Asad Elias: I recall a book by Harry Hopkins2 about Franklin Roosevelt, who also required many drafts of his speeches.

Secretary Kissinger: He was a great President, but I am not sure he understood foreign policy.

President Asad: Policies change with circumstances.

Secretary Kissinger: I agree. Great leaders in some circumstances are not great in others. Roosevelt was a great leader in wartime, but he did not understand how to build the world after the war. He did not understand that the location of military forces importantly determines the political outcome. (Asad laughs.) I do not think President Asad needs a lesson on this point. Roosevelt made a mistake in putting our military forces into Southern France instead of the Balkans.

President Asad: Why was that?

Secretary Kissinger: He saw this as purely a military problem. He was looking at how to beat Germany. But in the end the problem was not to beat Germany but to acquire strategic position. Don’t repeat this to Gromyko, but the problem was to achieve a position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. For that purpose, an invasion of the Balkans would have done more good than putting forces into Southern France.

President Asad: Do you mean to suggest that you are taking this aspect into consideration in the Middle East?

Secretary Kissinger: No. In the Middle East we recognize that the Soviets have vital interests. We are not conducting an anti-Soviet policy. We are ready to cooperate for peace. We don’t want Middle Eastern states to be clients of the United States or the USSR. We want them to follow independent policies. I have formed the opinion of President Asad that he is not good material for a client.

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President Asad: That is right. I will be frank; we want to be friendly with all others, and we want them to respect us. We base our policy on what is good for us.

Secretary Kissinger: That is all we ask. The best nations to cooperate with are those that have self-respect.

President Asad: That is true. A leader who is not good for his own country is not good for any other.

Secretary Kissinger: A leader who is the client of one country will be the client of others.

President Asad: This is our firm policy.

Secretary Kissinger: I must tell you the truth. Until I started dealing with Syria, I considered it a satellite of the Soviet Union.

President Asad: Why?

Secretary Kissinger: During the war, we went to the Soviets when we wanted something from the Arabs. Since Arab military equipment came from the Soviets, we thought you would do what the Soviets said. Now that I know President Asad, I think he is not easy for the Soviets to deal with. I am convinced you go your own way. That is all we ask. Therefore, we have no difficulties in our bilateral relations.

President Asad: I agree.

Secretary Kissinger: You know we want to improve relations. We don’t want to add to Syria’s difficulties, but we are prepared to increase our representation in Damascus and to send more senior people.

President Asad: We also desire to expedite the improvement in our relations. There are no bilateral difficulties. Your visits have helped. The first visit was a bit strange, the second less so, and the third time seems natural.3 Some people are talking to us about it. We talk right back to them.

There are no problems between us except the occupation of our land. When people discuss U.S.-Syrian relations, they always come to this. Without American help, our land would not be occupied today. This is a fact. There are those who say things must move slowly, that things must first move in the United States.

But these difficulties will gradually disappear. As a first step, send more senior people if you wish.

Secretary Kissinger: With Egypt, at the start of disengagement talks, we sent an Ambassador even without formal relations. In other words, in November we raised our Interests Section to Ambassadorial-rank.

President Asad: At the start you had an Interests Section?

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Secretary Kissinger: We had a junior officer there.

President Asad: Here in Damascus you had no one. At the present stage, send a higher ranking person if you wish. We have sent a Minister to Washington.

Secretary Kissinger: We have sent you a good man.4 Unless we want to do so for symbolic reasons, there is no need to send a more senior person now.

President Asad: I have no objections to the man you have here now. He is doing his work well. Rank is not always the most important thing. All I meant to say was that if you wished to send a man of higher rank, it is alright. Mr. Scotes has the added distinction of knowing Arabic.

Secretary Kissinger: The choice is between doing something symbolic and just looking for the best person.

President Asad: At this stage the proper person is the one who can work to improve relations. If you send a new man of higher rank who is less attentive to our relations, that would not be good.

Secretary Kissinger: In the United States, Syria has the image of being an unfriendly country. It is a problem for us to take Syria’s side. At some point we need to do something which the American people will see as symbolically more friendly. We do not have to do it on this trip. We can do it on the next trip.

President Asad: When the disengagement agreement is signed, we could raise the level of our representatives and relate it to the signing. Later we could do what you did in Egypt.

We have good relations with President Boumedienne.

Secretary Kissinger: He is a great admirer of yours.

President Asad: We have discussed the resumption of relations. He sent me word of his desire to do so.

Secretary Kissinger: President Boumedienne is a fine man. I write to him often. It is not that Algeria is so important to the United States but Boumedienne is a great person.

President Asad: He was looking forward to seeing you, but his trip to China interfered.

Secretary Kissinger: I know China and admire Chou En-Lai very much. Don’t tell that to Gromyko when he comes back on the 5th. I don’t think he likes Chou.

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President Asad: If you gave Gromyko a choice of Chou En-Lai or Henry Kissinger, whom would he choose?

Secretary Kissinger: He would choose me. But I have a great regard for Gromyko.

President Asad: As you requested, I gave Gromyko your regards. You charged me with this trust and I carried it out.

Secretary Kissinger: What did Gromyko have to say?

President Asad: We reviewed the Middle East situation and how we see disengagement. We gave our views on what is happening. I told him exactly what we had agreed with respect to the POW list and Red Cross visits, that you were returning to Damascus and that we had agreed on nothing during your last visit. Gromyko asked how I viewed disengagement. I said I see it as a step toward full Israeli withdrawal and that this had been made clear to Secretary Kissinger from the start.

Secretary Kissinger: I have always understood that disengagement is not the last step. It is not a peace settlement.

President Asad: We also discussed bilateral matters, including economic matters. When Gromyko returns, he will discuss these matters with the Ministries.

Secretary Kissinger: Gromyko is always well-prepared.

President Asad: I saw him the day after he arrived, at 11:00 in the morning. He left this morning.

Secretary Kissinger: With regard to a peace settlement, the United States is not competing with the Soviets. We are ready to cooperate. You are free to say to Gromyko that our only concern is how to bring this about most effectively. Syrian policy will not be affected by who makes peace but by what is in Syria’s interest.

President Asad: That is true. We will do all possible for peace.

Secretary Kissinger: If the President is willing, perhaps we can discuss disengagement.

President Asad: I have received a message from Fahmy which gives me some idea.

Secretary Kissinger: I have not seen it.

President Asad: It came from President Sadat. You know about it.

Secretary Kissinger: I have not seen the message.

President Asad has good insights. He said to me before that we should give the Arabs U.S. arms to defeat U.S. arms in Israel since we can’t let U.S. arms be defeated by Soviet arms. I want the President to know that I do not forget his words.

It is not impossible that our relations will change fundamentally, so this would no longer sound like such a revolutionary idea. There is no reason for the United States and Syria to be enemies.

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President Asad: Absolutely.

Secretary Kissinger: You can count on this. Besides, you are such a tenacious negotiator that our nerves could not stand having you as an opponent all the time.

President Asad: When will we reach the point where Zionism does not spoil our relationship?

Secretary Kissinger: When there is peace. I do not want U.S. relations disturbed for reasons that are not American reasons.

President Asad: The Arabs only seek justice. I believe that is what all people seek.

Secretary Kissinger: That is correct. But sometimes there are different concepts of justice.

President Asad: Perhaps—but justice is generally clear, especially when it touches on land and tangible things. I believe where large causes are involved, the path of justice is clear. In the Middle East, for example, does not he who seeks to recover usurped land have right on his side? I cannot imagine any objective person disagreeing or asking that we give up territory.

Secretary Kissinger: I understand the Arab viewpoint.

President Asad: It is not reasonable that this problem not be solved. If the problem of the Palestinian people is not solved, there will be no peace. Any Arab who says otherwise is doing us an injustice. It is not possible for any Arab leader to make peace without solving the Palestinian problem. Even if some leader would agree, he could not do so. If Sadat, Hussein and I agree to solve the Palestine problem without solving the problem of the Palestinians, we could not make it stick.

Secretary Kissinger: The question is how to define a solution.

President Asad: At the next stage you need better contacts with the Palestinians.

Secretary Kissinger: You know we have had some contact with the Arafat group. As I said before, we will not play the game of dividing the Arabs. We let every Arab leader know what we do with other Arab leaders. We tell each one the same thing.

President Asad: That is good.

Secretary Kissinger: In the second phase we will increase our contacts with the Palestinians. Can you advise which Palestinians we should deal with?

President Asad: At present, you have contacts with Fatah. That will not be adequate after awhile, though it is perhaps alright at this stage.

Secretary Kissinger: In the next stage we will consult with you, but we must keep this confidential.

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President Asad: Our relations with Fatah are quite strong. We established them before others did.

Secretary Kissinger: Which group is trying to shoot down my airplane?

President Asad: In Syria?

Secretary Kissinger: In Beirut. I don’t want to deal with them. I don’t know who they are.

President Asad: The Palestinian movement is based on Fatah and Saiqa.5 Saiqa is also strong militarily. Perhaps others are more interested in formulations. As concerns training, Saiqa is the best. The relations between Saiqa and Fatah are good. They decide jointly on Palestinian policy.

Secretary Kissinger: It is our impression that Syria controls Saiqa.

President Asad: We are in the same party and have good relations. But Fatah grew up here. We certainly help them. In times of crises, we defend them.

In his 1972 State of the Union Message, President Nixon referred to the 1970 Jordanian crisis as the most dangerous to world peace.

Secretary Kissinger: I remember, we were not on your side then.

President Asad: I ordered the intervention and was there.

Secretary Kissinger: Our concern was not Fatah but Jordan and our conception of Soviet influence.

President Asad: The Soviets had no hand in our intervention.

Secretary Kissinger: I believe that now.

President Asad: They learned about it from the radio.

Secretary Kissinger: How is that possible when the Soviets had advisors in your military units?

President Asad: It was not the business of the Soviets. After we went into Jordan, everyone knew about it.

Secretary Kissinger: The Soviet advisors could have informed their headquarters.

President Asad: They didn’t know about it until we reached the border.

Secretary Kissinger: We misinterpreted Syria, but we were concerned about the Soviets and confrontation. That was our concern, not Syria. We also feared that the Israelis would attack.

President Asad: The French wanted Syria to pull out of Jordan.

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Secretary Kissinger: Did you do so because of what the French wanted?

President Asad: No, we did so when the Arab Committee arrived.

Secretary Kissinger: We did not understand Syria at that time.

Shall we now talk about disengagement? I do not want to press you.

President Asad: Yes.

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t know what Sadat has said to you.

President Asad: He sent disturbing news. I saw General Gamasy.

Secretary Kissinger: I knew about Gamasy’s coming to Damascus.

President Asad: Sadat’s letter was full of verbiage, telling things we both know. There was no justification for indulging in all of this. But the important thing is Sadat’s conversation with you. According to Sadat, you said it would be possible to guarantee the October 6 lines and then it might develop that it would be possible for us to get back Quneitra. Sadat said time would be needed and described the stages and time required for the Egyptian agreement but disengagement on the Syrian front need not take so much time.

Secretary Kissinger: I agree.

President Asad: But Sadat said time was needed.

Secretary Kissinger: I did not know Sadat was writing to you.

President Asad: Sadat said you promised to continue your efforts.

Secretary Kissinger: True.

President Asad: Gamasy described the history of the Egyptian disengagement. I explained that the Syrian situation was different—for example, with regard to POW’s, Suez, etc.

Secretary Kissinger: In essence what you have described is correct. The phrase “guaranteeing the October 6 lines” is an overstatement, but it is not worth arguing about.

The problem is that Syria sees Israel as monolithic and purposeful. I see it as divided, especially while it is forming a new Government. After its Government is formed, it can reach decisions more easily.

I took seriously what you said about not submitting an Israeli plan to you which would be dead from the start. I spent six hours with the Israelis today and ten hours on Wednesday,6 meeting them in small groups. I want to be honest and not mislead you. They have not yet agreed to the October 6 lines. What I said to Sadat was that if President Asad wants to settle quickly and I use pressure, we can perhaps convince Israel to accept the October 6 line in a few weeks. The Israelis [Page 145]have some ideas about the location of forces that are not so different from what you said to me in December.7 For example, Israel agrees to accept any limitations which Syria accepts on the Golan Heights. If there is a zone of light forces on the Syrian side, there would be the same on the Israeli side. This can include the greatest part of the Golan Heights. I recall how you explained this, and then you sent a telegram with further clarifications. This idea is accepted as an idea. The details will need to be discussed but that is not worthwhile until there is an agreed concept.

President Asad: The limitations will be linked to the disengagement line.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes, the Israelis accept this.

Next, I want to stress the following: your idea that there must first be an agreement before you negotiate would make me Syria’s negotiator with the Israelis. I am flattered by this, since I am told that Syrians are good negotiators. But this is not the best way to help you. Eventually there must be an Israeli-U.S. confrontation. Their views and ours are probably not the same. It is best for everyone to defer this confrontation to the second stage and not to exhaust the American domestic structure in the first phase, by seeking to move Israel through the use of great pressure in this phase. Sapir told me today that the American decision on financial assistance is taking a long time.

President Asad: Sadat told me this.

Secretary Kissinger: This is not visible, however. I must proceed according to our methods. To do that I need a Syrian-Israeli negotiating process.

I have an Israeli assurance, which I can make public, that within two weeks, after an Israeli Government is formed, they will send a senior official to Washington to work on this problem. You might also send someone with whom I could work—not for meetings with the Israelis. After some weeks I could return here and conclude the agreement. The details could then be worked out in the military working group. But there is no need for you to now announce a decision on the negotiating forum, which I understand is one of your concerns.

President Asad: I have full confidence in you. The question is the objective we may be able to reach by these means and whether the repercussions of that objective will be positive or negative. I am increasingly convinced that the Israelis do not want to reach this objective, and popular and military sentiments in Israel seem to support my view. The latest Israeli statements indicate that what Mrs. Meir has said about Golan is not just for domestic consumption.

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Secretary Kissinger: Those statements may reflect some Israeli intentions, but the idea of dealing with Syria is so unusual for the Israelis that it will take them awhile to get used to it.

President Asad: In Syria, it has not been our habit in the past to talk about peace. Now we are clear; we want a just peace. I said this during the war. Efforts will be required to achieve peace.

It still remains for us to imagine where these steps will lead. I know you do not represent Israel, but it is a fact that without the United States there would be no Israel. Given this fact, Israel cannot remain adamant. If we accepted the October 6 line, what do you imagine would be the view of the Syrian Army and people?

Secretary Kissinger: I am not asking you to accept that line. I recognize the disengagement line must be across the October 6 line.

President Asad: I would like your views. I have the strong conviction that what you are convinced of is achievable. Do you have an idea about the line? What is feasible? It is not that I am against disengagement, but I am against its having nothing good in it. It could even be harmful.

Secretary Kissinger: How could it be harmful?

President Asad: If it has no meaning. For example, there is the Israeli pocket.8 The people and the army know what the war cost and they know that war is a back-and-forth affair. Our people think Syria was victorious despite the pocket. There is hardly a home in Syria without a son in the army. The people know that the ceasefire prevented our retaking the pocket. We assumed there would be another fighting front.

I believe Egypt should have continued fighting. Sadat sent me a pessimistic telegram during the war when the Israeli penetration occurred on the Egyptian front. I sent him a telegram after he had accepted the ceasefire saying there was no cause for concern. I said the penetration on the Syrian front was in Syria’s favor and that he could wipe out the Suez pocket.

Secretary Kissinger: You didn’t have an army encircled.

President Asad: It [the Egyptian Third Army] should not have been surrounded.

Secretary Kissinger: Why was it?

President Asad: I don’t know. A few mistakes were made.

But we are deviating. Our people feel we fought honorably and that circumstances stopped us. Now the battle is political. Disengage[Page 147]ment falls within the political battle. If it takes place on the October 6 line, the people will ask why we went to war. We say this is disengagement, not Security Council Resolution 242. The people will say why not wait to carry out Resolution 242. If there is a meaningful disengagement line, then we can get support. The refugees must return home. The people must see that Israel did not win.

Secretary Kissinger: Of course the population will return where Israel withdraws.

President Asad: The human problem is on the Golan Heights. Return of the population would create satisfaction and then the people would begin to understand peace. Even Sadat has spoken in this vein.

Secretary Kissinger: You are the leader of Syria and will make this judgment.

President Asad: I have put my cards face up. I described to you the possibilities as I see them. Can we realize these views?

Secretary Kissinger: My view is that you can realize some distance behind the October 6 line, but not the minimum line you gave me.

President Asad: That’s a problem.

Secretary Kissinger: That is my honest feeling. I did not spend 18 hours with the Israeli Cabinet because they can visualize giving up anything behind the October 6 line. The Israelis say to me that they lost no territory to Syria but gained territory from Syria. They think the present line is better than the line of October 6. They see any withdrawal as a unilateral concession. They know there will be a second phase. There could be the same clause as in the Egyptian agreement about disengagement being only a step toward implementation of Resolutions 242 and 338.

I find it nervewracking; both of you say the same thing to me. I would like to see you and Prime Minister Meir face-to-face. When I say to the Israelis they must go beyond the October 6 lines, it is a shock to them. They say why—we won—why go back? What is my answer if they start a propaganda campaign against me in the United States, saying I am asking for unilateral withdrawal from which Israel gets nothing.

I say to you, after they have withdrawn, it will be clear who has withdrawn. If I am any judge, you will not be less determined to achieve your objective than before. Wherever the line, you will say this is the first stage. The people will know you have gained. It is the first phase in a political process.

Now for the question about why disengagement, why not wait for full withdrawal? My answer is that I think any withdrawal changes Israeli attitudes. Their change in attitude with respect to Egypt is great since they agreed to withdraw. Before the war, many said that the [Page 148]Arabs could not make an agreement until their dignity was restored. I understand that. Now, from the Israeli viewpoint, it is better to get withdrawal by agreement without humiliation. If they are forced to withdraw to your minimum line, there will be less chance of further withdrawal. It is more likely to become the final line than if the withdrawal is limited.

President Asad: What will they seek if they are forced to the minimum line?

Secretary Kissinger: They will seek a U.S. commitment not to press for further withdrawal for two years, plus $700 million for arms.

President Asad: Circumstances may change. Once the Geneva Conference machinery starts, they cannot stall for two years.

The line we propose is close to the October 6 line, West of the Quneitra hills. No one could live in Quneitra if we did not hold the hills.

Secretary Kissinger: I have not looked at the topography or at where the Quneitra hills are. I am not yet ready to discuss it in this detail. The purpose of your getting back Quneitra would be to permit people to live there?

President Asad: For this reason, we need the hills.

Secretary Kissinger: I did not say that Israel should hold the hills.

President Asad: Our minimum line is 3–4 kilometers West of the hills.

Secretary Kissinger: How far are the hills from Quneitra?

President Asad: About 1½ kilometers.

Secretary Kissinger: To make sure I understand: Your minimum line is 3 kilometers from the hills, the hills are 2 kilometers from Quneitra and Quneitra is 3–4 kilometers from the October 6 line. Hence, you are discussing a distance of 8–10 kilometers West of the October 6 line.

President Asad: Yes. Remember the map I gave you.

Secretary Kissinger: Is that the present Syrian minimum line?

President Asad: Yes—in the North. It is probably about the same in the South. These were our considerations when we delineated the line—so that most of the inhabitants could return and those villages overlooked by high ground would not be so vulnerable. This is the reason for our line. It is about halfway [between the October 6, 1973 and pre-June 5, 1967 lines].

Secretary Kissinger: I do not think it possible to get Israel back that far as part of a disengagement agreement. That is my honest judgment. There is no sense lying to you. How far back is hard to judge—six kilometers?—I don’t know, I will have to see. Right now I am expending my energies getting Israel used to the idea of some withdrawal.

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President Asad: That’s a problem. If they cannot be moved to a greater distance, there is no point in discussing this again.

Disengagement on the Egyptian front ends March 5?9

Secretary Kissinger: Yes.

President Asad: There are no Israelis on the West Bank. Then Egypt’s military situation is now better.

Secretary Kissinger: There is no question about that.

President Asad: Are the Israelis thinking of a further war—do they want that?

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t think they want another war.

President Asad: What is in their minds? Do they believe it possible that the occupation can continue?

Secretary Kissinger: I think the October War was an unbelievable shock to Israel. The consequences have not fully sunk in. People in shock tend to freeze their positions.

In November, when I talked of returning to the October 22 line at a dinner in Washington—and I was the guest of honor Golda Meir would not even speak to me.10 Now they are accustomed to the idea on the Egyptian side. The first thing is to get a transition in their minds, from hostility to the possibility of peace. This is the importance of disengagement on the Syrian side. If three months ago I had spoken to the Israelis of peace with Egypt, they would have said I was crazy. Now they can talk rationally with Egypt, and they know Egypt wants the same thing as Syria.

With Syria they are not to that point yet. They are fearful; they don’t know your mild nature.

President Asad: If we can’t get them back ten kilometers, our nature is indeed mild.

How far back are they on the Egyptian side?

Secretary Kissinger: It is a different situation. From the Egyptian forward line, perhaps 10–12 kilometers, but this must be related to the depth; there is great depth in Sinai and they evacuated the pocket they held as they would in Syria. Things must be in perspective. All distances are greater in Sinai.

President Asad: Although the Israelis evacuated a sizable amount of territory in Egypt, perhaps the Egyptians found it easier. Gamasy said it was rough dealing with the Israelis.

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Secretary Kissinger: Exactly. Therefore they must be given some time. I never gave a final line to the Egyptians.

There is one thing we can do before you commit yourself. Let them send a representative to Washington in two weeks. After he returns to Israel, you can send a representative so they will not be in Washington at the same time. After that I can return to the area. Then it will be easier to judge.

President Asad: But the line is ten kilometers. I agree time is needed, but everything depends on the line. Their pocket is part of the front; it is 10–18 kilometers deep, but it is not a problem. But if the line is not ten kilometers back, I won’t consider disengagement.

Secretary Kissinger: I never made a commitment to Egypt. If I wanted to gain time, I could say yes to you and then in three weeks say I couldn’t achieve it. But what is at stake is more important. I want Syria’s friendship and trust, so you will know our word counts.

President Asad: I agree. I am telling you things that are inherently harmful to me. Without confidence in you, I would not say them.

Secretary Kissinger: We want to help you. You know the length to which we have gone to contribute to Sadat’s international position. We want to do the same for Syria. We would like Syria to emerge stronger from the negotiations.

I am not asking you for another line. Before you gave the POW list, Israel would not even discuss disengagement. I have spent 18 hours with them, and they are just as tough as you but less pleasant. Since they don’t trust each other, they have eight people in the room at once.

May I ask you frankly, is there anyone you trust enough to send to Washington for frank talks with me after the Israelis leave?

President Asad: Yes.

Secretary Kissinger: I propose to have long talks with the Israelis. There will probably be a new Defense Minister—General Rabin, who is intelligent and one of the few Israelis who thinks conceptually. Most of them speak of hills and roads and of all the things that are not important. When I negotiated the Egyptian disengagement, they had a Cabinet meeting over 30 howitzers.

President Asad: Will it be Rabin?

Secretary Kissinger: Unless Dayan changes his mind.

President Asad: From Sadat I hear that Dayan is a practical man.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes. Before October I thought he was stupid and tough but in the Egyptian negotiations where the Israelis treated me as a traitor (they had demonstrations against me in December), I spent 15 hours with Dayan and others. Three to four weeks later they began to change. I think we are at December in the Syrian negotiations.

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Today I gave the Israelis my reasoning. I told them I don’t want to hear their views now; I wanted them to think for two weeks and then send a senior representative to Washington.

Dayan has become practical. Rabin is also, but he thinks like a Frenchman. He puts forth absurd propositions before drawing correct conclusions.

President Asad: Rabin may be better. He has been a diplomat.

Secretary Kissinger: Remember there was a history behind withdrawal from the Canal. They had considered it in 1971.11 They have never considered withdrawal from the October 6 line, so it is a tough intellectual problem for the Israelis.

President Asad: I remember in 1971 Golda Meir said something about withdrawal from Golan.

Secretary Kissinger: With effort and wisdom, I think we can manage.

President Asad: You said you would call a senior Israeli to Washington?

Secretary Kissinger: Yes. After he leaves, perhaps you will agree to send someone you trust to me. May I ask who it will be?

President Asad: If it is a military man, General Midhat Shihabi, Chief of Intelligence and Reconnaissance.

Secretary Kissinger: It is up to you. It should be someone you trust.

President Asad: Absolutely.

Secretary Kissinger: I will tell you what I think. Your representative will return, and about then I will be ready to come back to the Middle East—or perhaps I will first ask the Israeli to return to Washington. I will decide with your representative what to do. This might be the best procedure. Then there is no need to negotiate in the working group.

President Asad: That is better.

Secretary Kissinger: I will go to Moscow the second half of March. Before or after Moscow, I will come back to Damascus. We will keep you informed of our significant contacts with others. If others tell you something we haven’t told you, check with us as you did from Lahore.12 I may disappoint you but I won’t deceive you. We must have confidence.

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I see Faisal tomorrow. Do you object if I tell him in general terms of our talk?13

President Asad: No objection.

Secretary Kissinger: I also have no objection if you tell him.

President Asad: I tell President Boumedienne everything, and he tells me everything.

Secretary Kissinger: Do you know how to reach him? I believe he is in North Korea.

President Asad: During the Lahore meeting, I urged Boumedienne to see you when he returns.

Secretary Kissinger: I had a good talk with Boumedienne a month ago.14 I wanted to stop in Algeria this time on my way to Damascus. I will write him and tell him I have no objections if he shows you my letters.

President Asad: There still remains the question of the disengagement line.

Secretary Kissinger: This is what must be determined after the visits of Israel’s and your representatives to Washington.

President Asad: What is now envisaged will do us no good. Yet what we want does not seem achievable. What is the solution?

Secretary Kissinger: First, I must get Israel accustomed to the idea of withdrawal beyond the October 6 line. Once they accept the principle, it may be easier to discuss the exact number of kilometers. Also, it may then be possible for us to see if some adjustments are possible in your position. Right now with Israel, the problem is the principle. Once the principle is accepted, it will be eaiser.

President Asad: The line I mentioned was not decided by me. It was arrived at by a number of experts in our Armed Forces.

Secretary Kissinger: It is one thing to devise a line when you are thinking of only your own position. When you know the other side’s views, you can have another look at it.

President Asad: Our first meeting was very formal, and we discussed the whole Golan. But what I said at the first meeting still holds, namely, that disengagement discussions should be held on a technical basis. My point was that neither side should gain an advantage. But this does not appear to be the case.

[Page 153]

Secretary Kissinger: There must be a combination of political, psychological and technical considerations.

President Asad: That is true. We can adjust specific points—a hill here or there. But do you envisage any specific depth for the line?

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t have a map here. I have thought that some kilometers beyond Quneitra might be possible, but I was just thinking out loud. As of now, Israel hasn’t accepted the October 6 line. I do not want to create confusion, and I therefore have not asked Israel.

President Asad: I have confidence in you and therefore I am asking you. I proceed from the premise that if withdrawal beyond the October 6 line is conceptually feasible, it can be done.

Secretary Kissinger: And if there is some flexibility on your side.

President Asad: You have never seen such flexibility. We started talking about all of the Golan, and now we are talking about 10 kilometers. These meetings with you are responsible.

Secretary Kissinger: Israel’s negotiating tactic is to move from the intolerable to the impossible and call it a concession.

President Asad: (laughing) I hope we are not that way.

Secretary Kissinger: If this is the end of your flexibility, I would not want to meet you when you were inflexible. But seriously, considering the history of U.S.-Syrian relations, I consider these meetings with you very special. I appreciate them. I hope, since I am not the Assistant Secretary for the Middle East but the Secretary of State, that you appreciate the time I am spending here.

President Asad: You will hardly find an area of bigger problems of such importance to the world.

Secretary Kissinger: I have spent two-thirds of my time since October 6 on this problem. If your Foreign Minister had answered the phone on October 6 when I tried to reach him to stop the war, I am sure that he would have taken my advice.

President Asad: Really?

Secretary Kissinger: I doubt it.

President Asad: I insisted on going to war.

Secretary Kissinger: I totally underestimated your capabilities. I also thought we should limit the extent of your certain defeat and not create a problem as in 1967. I have learned much since October 6. But I did not expect to be sitting in Damascus with President Asad three months after the war. This is an important chance—historically more important than the number of kilometers. Wherever the disengagement line is, it will not be final.

President Asad: I am confident of that.

[Page 154]

To return to the question of the line, we must discuss it since it will have repercussions both positive and negative. I am not ill at ease with the present line. I do not agree with some of Sadat’s remarks. Specifically, I do not agree with him that Israeli withdrawal from the salient will lessen the pressure on Damascus. From the point of view of our people, I find the salient an advantage. I am surprised our brothers in Egypt do not understand us.

Secretary Kissinger: The major reasons for disengagement are political and psychological, not military. I have never used the military argument.

President Asad: You mentioned “some” kilometers West of Quneitra. What does that mean? In Arabic, this has the precise meaning of between three and nine.

Secretary Kissinger: I would think it would be nearer three than nine.

President Asad: You do not want to define things precisely.

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t want to say something that I cannot deliver. I can deliver the October 6 line even if Israel has not yet agreed. West of that they have conceptual difficulties. I have spent my energy convincing Israel to accept the October 6 line, since I did not want to confuse matters. Once a principle is accepted, it will be easier. It is like the October 22 line in Egypt. At the beginning, even eight to ten kilometers seemed impossible to the Israelis.

This is why I am hesitating. I am not trying to be clever. I am not bargaining. My interest is to try to get the maximum for you, not the minimum. But I don’t know what that is.

President Asad: I believe you. I have been pressing you because I must give some idea of what is feasible to people close to me with whom I discuss this question.

Secretary Kissinger: I understand. I do not think you are being unreasonable.

President Asad: Please don’t think I am putting you through the third degree.

Secretary Kissinger: I think you are extremely persistent.

President Asad: To the extent that we agree conceptually, this will help. I am not saying we must form a single front.

Can I hope that you will expend all possible efforts to realize the minimum I am seeking?

Secretary Kissinger: You can count on that. I will make a maximum effort to get all that is attainable. That is a promise, not a hope. You can call me back to Damascus after a reasonable interlude.

President Asad: I have no more questions.

[Page 155]

Secretary Kissinger: Let me be sure I understand. First, I will invite a senior Israeli official to Washington to pursue the objective we have just agreed on. After he has left, you will send a trusted representative to Washington. We will give you a week’s notice. He will have full security protection. After he returns to Damascus, I will contact you or you will contact me, to discuss the next step. In any case, when I go to Moscow, I will stop here either on my way there or on my return.

I will not concert with the Soviets. I will tell them only what you and I agree. But I need to know what you will tell the Soviets—about our discussions, not about bilateral matters.

President Asad: We can agree on this at the end of our discussion.

Secretary Kissinger: In an emergency, I am prepared to come to Damascus apart from my Moscow trip. In any event, this will be in about a month, give or take a week.

President Asad: You mean after you have invited Israeli and Syrian representatives to Washington?

Secretary Kissinger: Yes.

President Asad: Do you think it will be possible to have disengagement during your Moscow trip?

Secretary Kissinger: I will make a major effort, at least to get agreement on a line. We can then give the matter to military representatives to work out the details. I estimate this will take about five weeks.

President Asad: Do you mean that the Military Committee will be Egyptian, with Syrian officers attending?

Secretary Kissinger: Yes.

President Asad: That will be good for the Geneva Conference.

Secretary Kissinger: There are many peculiarities in the Middle East. Historically, wars start between countries that are at peace. Here they start between countries that are already at war.

Let me give you another example. At the opening of the Geneva Conference, Israel said it would not accept UN auspices, and Syria said it would not go to Geneva. Now Israel wants only UN auspices and Syria wants to negotiate only in Geneva.

The final document must be signed by Syrians, however.

President Asad: The Working Group will be headed by an Egyptian.

Secretary Kissinger: Then both Egypt and Syria must sign. I doubt that Israel will accept only an Egyptian signature.

President Asad: Let them both sign.

Secretary Kissinger: Compared with the Vietnamese, you are not the most difficult person I have negotiated with.

President Asad: We are more flexible.

[Page 156]

Secretary Kissinger: And more human. However matters turn out, I am touched by the humanity of the Arabs with whom I have talked.

President Asad: This is something we learn from childhood. We are not vindictive. For example, we have one custom—more common in rural areas—that when two tribes are enemies and one kills a number of members of the other, if he then goes to the camp of the bereaved, they cannot harm him.

Secretary Kissinger: Is that because he is a guest?

President Asad: Yes.

Secretary Kissinger: If he leaves the camp, is he in trouble?

President Asad: No. Once he has entered the camp or the home of the other, there must be reconciliation. (SOLH!)

We also have the custom of vengeance. If a person is seen outside his territorial limit, he must then be killed.

So you see, your idea of having Mrs. Meir come to Damascus is not so bad.

Secretary Kissinger: This is one of the rewards of these meetings. If the American people learn to know the Arabs better, they will understand them better.

President Asad: We are our own worst enemies.

Secretary Kissinger: After 1967, the Arab mistake was to try to achieve your goals through hostility toward the United States. Friendship will help not only bilaterally but to achieve peace.

I have told you President Nixon plans to come to the Middle East in May, and you said he might come to Damascus. If he is received with the same warmth I have been, the publicity will help in the United States.

President Asad: He will be warmly received.

Secretary Kissinger: I can assure him of this on the basis of my own experience.

President Asad: Egypt has announced his trip.

Secretary Kissinger: No. They announced they have invited him.

President Asad: They said it would be April.

Secretary Kissinger: That is wrong. When he comes, it will be on the same trip—in mid-May. We will agree jointly on an announcement, but we do not have to do this until April. All visits will be at the same time. We have no special favorites.

President Asad: It will be an opportunity for establishing relations with Arab countries.

Secretary Kissinger: It will have a profound impact on relations.

President Asad: Unfortunately, we lack accommodations in Syria. Egypt has the former Kings’ palaces. It is our bad luck that Syria never accepted a King.

[Page 157]

Secretary Kissinger: You have a proud people as a result. The Guest House is very comfortable. The President has simple taste. He does not judge hospitality by luxury. He will want frank and open discussions with you. You and he will find that you can speak frankly and in a common language. I will have the pleasure of seeing you in April before the President’s visit.

I want you to know that we plan to budget some money for cultural exchanges with Syria, for students. It is up to you if you want to take advantage of this.

President Asad: Everyone wants to go to the United States. Our most famous professional people have specialized in the United States.

Secretary Kissinger: I will tell Mr. Scotes to discuss this with the Foreign Ministry.

President Asad: I notice that people who study in a given place return with their attitudes changed. Those who study in America return with high standards.

Secretary Kissinger: And as radicals, whereas those who study in the Soviet Union return as conservatives.

President Asad: What shall we tell the Soviets of our discussions?

Secretary Kissinger: It would not be useful to discuss specific lines with them.

President Asad: I agree.

Secretary Kissinger: We can tell them of the evolution we foresee—namely, that Israel, and later Syria, will send representatives to Washington, and then I will make a return trip to the area. Then Gromyko will come back here again. But that’s your problem. I promise that if Gromyko comes first, I will not follow him around.

President Asad: What if Gromyko expresses the wish to be here?

Secretary Kissinger: Perhaps it would be better not to mention that I will be returning.

President Asad: This time, the Soviets requested that Gromyko be here at the same time with you.

Secretary Kissinger: What if they do so again?

President Asad: We will find a way.

Secretary Kissinger: With the press, I suggest that we say our discussions will continue here and in Washington, and that Syria will send a representative to Washington when this is necessary. Will you say the same?

President Asad: It is up to you to do.

Secretary Kissinger: I will say we had good constructive talks. The matter will now proceed with Israel sending a representative to Washington. After that Syria may be prepared to send a representative. I will [Page 158]say I am optimistic about the evolution of the matter and that I will make a great effort to bring about disengagement. I will say only that I brought ideas here from Israel, and will add informally that anyone who has dealt with the Syrians knows that they do not accept the ideas of others. You can say that you presented your ideas and insisted on them and that the discussions will continue.

President Asad: The press will speculate about specific disengagement lines.

Secretary Kissinger: I will discuss no lines.

President Asad: What if I say you brought ideas and we did not agree with them.

Secretary Kissinger: All right, but don’t be too antagonistic. Make it sound as though there is the possibility of progress so our press does not report a failure.

President Asad: A White House statement referred to your bringing an Israeli plan. It would be better to say we had received the plan and did not agree with it.

Secretary Kissinger: We have not said “plan.” It is better to use the word “ideas.” If you say plan, the Israeli Cabinet will ask “what plan?”

President Asad: Right, we’ll say “ideas.”

Secretary Kissinger: I will say that I brought Israeli ideas, that Syria did not accept them, that you gave me your own ideas, that the discussions will continue, and I will describe how they will continue. On background, I will tell the press the two sides are still far apart.

Israel has given me the names of a number of its soldiers missing in action and wonders if you have any information about them.

President Asad: A number of bodies were buried. We brought a rabbi from Damascus for the ceremony. Perhaps they are some of the missing. You can be sure that the number of living is as I have given to you.

Secretary Kissinger: I trust you. The question is whether you have any information about those who were buried?

President Asad: I will tell Mr. Scotes if we find any of the missing on this list among the buried.

Secretary Kissinger: The Israelis have also given me two other names on whom they seek information. They were seen parachuting and Israel thought they had been captured. We appreciate how meticulously you have kept your word about the Red Cross visits.

President Asad: Given the intensity of the battle, there is no doubt that some who parachuted, including Syrians, were hit.

Secretary Kissinger: This is not an accusation that prisoners-of-war were killed. It is a serious attempt to find out about missing-in-action. I will see that no accusations are made.

[Page 159]

President Asad: I would like to talk longer, but I know you must get up early for your visit to the mosque. After that you will not be received in Israel.

Secretary Kissinger: I will take my chances.

(After amenities, the meeting adjourned.)

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973–77, Box 4, Nodis Memcons, January 1974, Folder 4. Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. The meeting was held at the Presidency in Damascus. Brackets are in the original.
  2. Harry Hopkins, a close adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt during his entire presidency.
  3. Asad previously met with Kissinger on December 15, 1973, and January 20, 1974.
  4. A reference to Thomas J. Scotes who served as the Principal Officer of the U.S. Interests Section, which was established in the Italian Embassy on February 8, 1974. The Embassy in Damascus was re-established on June 16, and Scotes became the Chargé d’Affaires ad interim until the appointment of Ambassador Richard W. Murphy on August 9.
  5. Al-Saiqa was a Palestinian Baathist political and military organization created by the Syrian Baath Party in 1966.
  6. See Document 28 and footnote 3, Document 26.
  7. See footnote 3, Document 19.
  8. A reference to the Israel Defense Force penetration into Syria beyond the June 1967 ceasefire line.
  9. The disengagement actually ended on March 4, a day ahead of schedule. (New York Times, March 5, 1974, p. 3)
  10. In fact, Kissinger spoke with Meir at the dinner in Washington on November 1, 1973, and again the following day on November 2. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXV, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1973, Documents 305, 306, and 312.
  11. See footnote 3, Document 9.
  12. A meeting of Islamic leaders was held in Lahore, Pakistan, February 22–24.
  13. A portion of the memorandum of conversation between Kissinger and King Faisal is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXVI, Energy Crisis, 1969–1974, Document 332.
  14. Kissinger last met with Boumedienne in person on December 13, 1973, in Algiers. See ibid., volume XXV, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1973, footnote 2, Document 393.