[Page 113]

15. Memorandum of Conversation1

SYRIAN PARTICIPANTS

  • President Hafez al-Asad
  • Foreign Minister Abd al-Halim Khaddam
  • Abdal Karim ’Adi, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs
  • Abdullah al-Khani, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Asad Elias, Notetaker

U.S. PARTICIPANTS

  • The Secretary
  • Ambassador Murphy
  • Philip Habib, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • Alfred R. Atherton, Jr., Assistant Secretary for Near East and South Asia
  • Isa Sabbagh
  • Robert H. Pelletreau, Deputy Chief of Mission

After an exchange of pleasantries on the weather and on energy, the Secretary said he brought to the President warmest greetings from President Carter. He then delivered a letter from President Carter to the President.2

Asad said he welcomed the Secretary’s visit particularly as it was his first visit to Syria. This, of course, did not mean he would not welcome him another time. The President also welcomed Mr. Habib and Mr. Atherton, who was a familiar face.

The Secretary said that President Carter had felt it imperative that he make this trip at this time to emphasize the importance which the President placed on finding a solution to the Middle East problem. In addition, the Secretary said that both the President and he had felt it would be most helpful if he could have an opportunity to meet with leaders in the area and their advisers at first hand in order to discuss the substantive and procedural issues involved and to gain a better understanding of these issues as the United States moves to formulate its plans to assist in the search for a peace settlement. The Secretary said he had found his discussions to date very informative and useful and thought he had gained a better understanding of the points of differ[Page 114]ence and points of agreement on substantive and procedural matters. In several areas he had found agreement among everyone. First, that there should be an effort to reconvene Geneva in at least the last half of 1977. Second, the object of this meeting would be to discuss an overall Middle East settlement. All sides had also agreed that if procedural questions could be overcome there should be no preconditions to discussion of the substantive issues. There were, the Secretary added, deep differences regarding the various substantive issues and there was also a deep difference at the moment regarding the question of the PLO and its participation.

President Asad reiterated his welcome and asked the Secretary to thank President Carter for his interest in the area and for his recent correspondence including the letter which the Secretary had delivered. He said that Syria also appreciated the fact that the Secretary’s visit at this early stage indicated the importance the United States attached to the area. No doubt, the President continued, the Secretary had had to endure a series of lectures during his trip. He recalled that when he had first met Secretary Kissinger they had agreed to begin their talks with a general tour d’horizon.3 Dr. Kissinger had begun and talked at length before finally excusing himself saying he had been a professor and had forgotten himself. The President had replied that he had been a soldier and soldiers had a tendency to be brief but there were exceptions to this rule. The President said he mentioned this episode because he suspected that the Secretary had heard several lectures. He had no intention of repeating things the Secretary had already heard. He said that the Secretary must have gotten a clear idea of Syrian views from Foreign Minister Khaddam. In addition, Syrian views should be well known to him from prior discussions with which he must have familiarized himself. He had always expressed his views frankly. A criticism he had was that United States diplomacy had helped to drive wedges between the Arabs and that had been a U.S. objective. He said that when he had pointed this out to Secretary Kissinger, Kissinger had denied it saying that the U.S. wanted the Arabs to be unified in their search for peace. But, the President added, actions had to be judged by results. Perhaps it was easier for the United States to envisage peace when the Arabs were split than to envisage it when they were united. Perhaps, also, this was giving the United States the benefit of the doubt. It was Syria’s position and fundamental belief that movement towards peace could only be achieved with the Arabs united. Division between Syria and Egypt could never be conducive to peace or result in genuine successes. If the Arabs were able to move together, they would be more [Page 115]capable of achieving results and less likely to commit mistakes. Since all the Arabs now wanted peace, why not let them move together towards peace? The Arabs, of course, were responsible for their own relationships but in circumstances of struggle between them, no one could work for peace.

The President stated that the Arabs were now agreed that a comprehensive solution to the Middle East conflict should be sought. On this, they were unanimous. The Arab position was that Israel must withdraw from all the territory occupied during the 1967 war. The President said he wished to emphasize the word “all”. He recalled that this had been said many times in the past but he wished to emphasize it again since it was his first meeting with the Secretary. Even if a state of war continued for hundreds of years with clashes every other year, Syria would not give up one inch of its territory under any pretext or condition. The President said he and Sadat had agreed on this common fundamental position. It was also Syria’s fundamental position.

The second point, Asad said, concerned the rights of the Palestinians, and the third was termination of the state of war. Over the years, much had been heard about the meaning of termination of the state of war—whether it was settling a problem through peace or becoming neighbors or engaging in commercial, economic, and diplomatic exchanges. Syria, the President said, could envisage two situations—peace or war. When Syria referred to ending the state of war, it meant it had moved to a condition of peace. Israel, however, for various reasons and perhaps psychological impulses, wanted to impose certain things which Syria could not envisage happening and did not have in mind in the process of moving from a state of war to a state of peace. When Israel demanded recognition as a prerequisite of peace, Syria might be tempted to say Israel wanted to impose conditions on this subject on the Arabs, or Syria might be tempted to say that Israel aimed at placing obstacles on the path to peace. Syria could not really believe that Israel was naive enough not to recognize that what Syria wanted was to end the state of war. Recognition on the other hand was an attribute of national sovereignty. The President said he would not put it past Israel to try to say which diplomats Syria should be sending to serve there, and rejecting this one or that one as a former terrorist or anti-semite or something else. President Nixon, Asad recalled, had visited China but the United States still did not recognize China. The subject of recognition was one thing and a condition of peace was another. Many nations without a state of war between them had no diplomatic exchanges and did not recognize each other. In pressing this point Israel was trying to impose elements extraneous to the substance of peace. Syria wanted to achieve termination of the state of war as one of the three basic elements of a settlement. As for the future, if what was [Page 116]achieved was good, then something more might come of it. If what was achieved was not good, then something bad would result.

The President said that Syria favored reconvening the Geneva Conference but he wanted the Secretary to know that he was not very optimistic about the conference and therefore not very excited about it. Syria supported the conference in principle and had done so since 1973 because it saw no better alternative. Even though Syria had not participated before, Syria nevertheless supported the conference. The basic problem, however, was not the reconvening of Geneva. The basic problem was the substance rather than shape or form. Even if solutions were found to procedural questions the substantive issues would still have to be faced.

Another issue, Asad said, was the method of discussion at the conference. Syria wanted the conference to discuss principles. This point had been agreed with President Nixon. It was agreed that the discussion should focus on topics and not be held on a country-by-country basis. But any method that led to a solution based on principles was agreeable to Syria.

The President said that Syria thought Israel wanted another kind of peace, an agreement on a condition of tranquility and perhaps the ceding of certain villages, the retention of settlements in the occupied part of Golan, the retention of settlements on the West Bank, annexation of all of Jerusalem, establishing military bases along the Jordan River (meaning the West Bank would remain under Israeli hegemony), and retaining settlements in Sinai and part of the territory of Sinai. In light of all these aspects of the peace desired by Israel, it was clear that Israel would lose nothing by calling for a permanent cessation of hostilities. Israel’s concept of peace was very different from the Syrian concept.

The President said he would like to say frankly that he could not and would not be able to continue this policy without the assurance of U.S. support. There were, he said, encouraging signs from the new administration, despite its short existence. Syria believed these U.S. initiatives were commensurate with the U.S. role in the world and in the Middle East area. Why, for example, must Israel be assured an unlimited flow of arms? The U.S. knows better than anyone that the military balance is in Israel’s favor. It was not conceivable that the Arabs would acquiesce in the results of election campaign decisions without complaining. President Ford must have been very excited (to have agreed to such sophisticated weapons sales). Syria had heard that Israel had received arms which were not even in the United States military arsenals. Israel certainly did not need this kind of weaponry for defense. What Syria asked of the United States was that it take an objective and [Page 117]neutral attitude consistent with its role as a great nation and with its interests.

Syria was confident, the President went on, that if the struggle continued, its inescapable ultimate result will not be in favor of Israel. The development of life and the nature of things were not in Israel’s favor. Israel was the aggressor and life tended to move along paths closely parallel to justice. Even when those striving for just causes lacked strength, this would not always be the case. Time was on the Arab side.

President Asad said that Syria was very serious and earnest in seeking peace, but it sought peace, not capitulation (in Arabic salam not istlislaam). Although conceptually, the word “peace” implies justice, the President said, he wished to emphasize this by adding the adjective “just” to Syria’s desire for peace. He said he believed the United States was capable of expediting the movement towards peace. He repeated Syria was objective and hopeful about the new U.S. administration.

The Secretary thanked the President for speaking so clearly and concisely about the issues as he saw them. The Secretary said he wholeheartedly agreed with the President’s statement that movement towards peace would be more easily accomplished with the Arabs unified. He said he wished to assure the President that the United States had no intention or desire to drive a wedge between the Arabs.

With regard to basic issues, the Secretary continued, his talks in Israel had revealed the same three basic issues as the essence of a settlement. There were differences on the question of total withdrawal but there was agreement that the issue of withdrawal was fundamental. There was also agreement that the question of the Palestinian people was a core issue which must be resolved. Differences existed with respect to the meaning of peace. Israel would define it as more than termination of the state of war. But Israel was also prepared to discuss all questions without preconditions at the Geneva Conference. Regarding methods of the conference, the Secretary continued, he tended to agree that the preferable way to proceed would be through discussing topics rather than on a bilateral basis. He said he did not know the position of Israel on this subject. He had gathered that President Sadat leaned more toward bilateral talks, but perhaps he was wrong on this point.

Asad said Syria had not discussed this question with Egypt either. Syria considered this question premature but it had agreed with Egypt that all the territory occupied in 1967 must be returned. If there had been disagreement with Egypt on this basic point, Syria would not go to Geneva. In fact, the reason Syria had not gone before was disagreement with Egypt on this point. If the Arabs went to Geneva without prior agreement, Israel would be the only winner. Syria had had this experience before.

[Page 118]

The Secretary asked the President to explain his views on two issues: the rights of the Palestinian people, and how to deal with the substantive/procedural question of the PLO and how it should participate. The President replied that if the Arabs, the United States, and others agreed on what the rights of the Palestinians were then the procedural questions could be solved more easily. The Arabs would then have the freedom to discuss it. But since the substantive question was not clear, it needed the proper people to discuss it. That was why the Arabs had agreed that the PLO was the proper party to discuss the issue. During the Rabat Summit conference,4 Asad recalled, King Hussein had said he was being offered a settlement to the Palestinian question which involved withdrawal of only a few kilometers. Later Asad asked Secretary Kissinger whether what was being offered was a settlement or merely a disengagement. Kissinger replied it was a temporary settlement. But even this showed it was not merely a disengagement. The Arabs had agreed that the PLO should be the party to discuss the Palestine issue. Asad said he had suggested to UN Secretary General Waldheim that he might want to raise this question with the Israelis. The Israelis say they object to the PLO but they also object to the Palestinians having any rights.

Assume, Asad said, that the PLO were set aside, then how would the rights of the Palestinians be achieved? The Israelis say it must be within the context of negotiations with Jordan, but this treats only the form and not the substance of the issue. Even if it were discussed within the Jordanian framework the substantive question would still have to be asked whether the Palestinians would regain their rights. Thus, the Arabs had agreed that the PLO must represent the Palestinian question.

The Secretary noted that President Sadat had suggested that this question might be resolved in advance in a Jordanian/Palestinian framework.5 He asked Asad whether he had any precise idea how such an arrangement would work. Asad replied that when he had talked with Sadat they had discussed this possibility in general terms but not in detail. They did not try to reach a conclusion. Sadat might have reached a position on types of relations between a Palestinian entity and Jordan, but, the President said, he did not think that Sadat had a clear idea on the nature of these relations. The Secretary commented that this was his view as well.

Asad said Jordan was also bound to ask what was the nature of its role. If it was only to facilitate getting around a problem, Jordan might not be willing to play the role of a facade, especially if that role had a [Page 119]price tag (held risks). Then too, the President said, as far as the PLO was concerned, on what basis could it agree to such a relationship with Jordan?

In frankness, the President said he did not believe in these smaller entities but rather in the totality and unity of the Arab nation. Partition among the Arabs would never produce benefits for the Arab world. History and colonial heritage had divided the Arabs. Today, however, even powerful European states were seeking unity. Therefore, it was even more logical for the Arabs with their common language, culture, and history to seek unity. There was no doubt that some powers had an interest in perpetuating smaller states. The President said that he did not want to digress further but had wanted to distinguish between current issues and their wider, deeper background. In summary, he said, he could not reply adequately to the question regarding the further relationship between Jordan and the PLO.

The Secretary said he was not clear what realistic alternatives existed with regard to participation of the PLO. President Asad replied that alternatives were hard to see. Although it was not exactly an alternative, Syria believed the Arabs should go as a unified delegation. Such a delegation would not cancel the aspect of an independent PLO representative. If the PLO did not agree on the basic issue, whether there was a unified Arab delegation or a separate Palestinian delegation would make no difference. Nothing would happen, the President said and added that he could not say more now.

The Secretary said he had discussed with King Hussein and President Sadat alternatives for longer range relations between a Palestinian entity and Jordan. Each had given three or four possible alternatives as to how it might be handled. President Asad replied that at this time dealings between Syria and the PLO were not as good as they might be. Contacts were good, he said, but at this stage Syria was not discussing substantive matters with the PLO, as it had in the past. This did not mean that Syria did not know Palestinian views, but Syria was loathe to speak in the name of the Palestinians. The Secretary asked whether the March 12 meetings of the Palestine National Council would clarify these issues. Asad replied, perhaps, but it would not necessarily do so. A predisposition existed to discuss them but the Palestinians were not now capable of deciding what the conference might ultimately take up. Asad said he was not fully aware of the nature of possible alternatives as seen by other Arab leaders but he would probably be discussing this subject with them. He knew from a recent statement that Egypt was dangling the notion of some sort of Palestinian entity within a Jordanian framework but it was not clear. He did not wish to say something to the Secretary of which he was not 100 percent sure.

[Page 120]

The Secretary noted that the Soviet Union was co-chairman of the Geneva Conference and had the responsibility, as did the United States, to cooperate in a search for a peaceful solution. The United States expected the Soviet Union would cooperate and the Soviet Union has indicated that is the manner in which it wishes to proceed. The Secretary went on to say that the United States was deeply committed to play a constructive role in the search for a peaceful solution. He believed the United States could play this role because it had good relations with both sides and it could help move the discussion in a constructive fashion. In this respect the United States looked forward to working in closest consultation with Syria. Asad replied that he hoped these consultations would continue and lead to positive results. He said the Secretary could be assured that Syria’s dealings with him would always be frank and honorable.

President Asad confessed that Syrian/Soviet relations were pass-ing through a stage of frigidity. Syria did not want this but the Soviet Union had started it through bringing up differences regarding Lebanon. Since the Lebanese situation had improved some contacts had taken place but there had been as yet no substantive improvement. Syria’s policy and attitude were clear cut, Asad asserted. Syria appreciated the Soviet Union’s previous support but insisted on making its own decisions based on its national interests. If the Soviet Union was Syria’s friend it should have confidence in Syria’s policies and support them. Syria wanted the Soviet Union to respect its national decisions. The two could then be friends.

The Secretary said he thought his visit to Lebanon had served a useful purpose though it had been brief. He had indicated United States support for President Sarkis in his efforts to reunify the country. Lebanon also needed assistance in its reconstruction efforts and to relieve suffering as a result of the conflict. The Secretary said he had made a statement in support of Sarkis.6 Sarkis himself had felt this might be useful. In addition, Sarkis was concerned over the difficulty of reconstituting his internal security forces and his army. He thought it would take three to six months. A plan was being prepared for him by the Minister of Defense which would allow Lebanon to move with greater speed in reconstituting these forces. In addition, President Sarkis’ economic problems were severe in both the short and long term. The United States has agreed to support him over the short term and would also be studying what it might do along with others to help over a longer period. The United States would be talking with others to try to enlist their help.

[Page 121]

President Asad asked whether the Lebanese had requested any equipment. The Secretary replied that they had made no specific requests but had spoken of their needs in general terms. Asad said he had recently met with Sarkis and urged him to move as rapidly as possible to reform the Lebanese army. He knew that this would not be easy but a start had to be made. Syria’s ability to help was not great. It could assist in training, and perhaps, organization, but it was not in a position to re-equip the Lebanese army.

On the question of South Lebanon7 President Asad said he thought the United States’ position could have been firmer. It was not logical that Israel should have a right to say which troops could move where inside Lebanon. This was the right of a sovereign state. Could Sarkis, for example, ask such questions about movements inside Israel? Israel’s concern in this case was manufactured. The forces in question posed no threat. Like the rest of the Arab forces in Lebanon they have been cleared for security not for war. This can be seen in the way they are deployed. If the objective were to face Israel, Syrian troops would be more effective in their traditional formation than in Lebanon. The result has been that the Israelis are claiming a great victory. Asad said that if this matter had really been of basic concern to Syria, it would never have backed out. Asad had told this to Sarkis frankly but had also said he was leaving the matter up to Sarkis for a decision. Israel, Asad asserted, had intended to take advantage of the new United States administration and test it.

Asad said he had advised Sarkis to try to pull together a Lebanese military force but so far the Lebanese capabilities were inadequate. The thirty soldiers they sent to Nabatiyah were easily driven back.

The Secretary agreed that the only solution was to accelerate the development of an indigenous force in Lebanon. He said that he could assure the President that the United States had counselled restraint on the Israelis during the time messages were being exchanged. The Secretary added that publicity from Israel had been regrettable to say the least. Because of this Israeli position, there had been no security in Southern Lebanon.

Asad returned to the point of providing military equipment. The Secretary explained that the United States had a problem with providing equipment to police activities under U.S. law.

President Asad said Syria’s wish was to end the problem of Lebanon as quickly as possible. From the very first day of its involvement Syria had sought to protect the interests of both the Lebanese and the Palestinians. Syria’s involvement in Lebanon had gained it nothing but [Page 122]heavy expenses. Lebanon itself has no ability to repay these outlays and the Arab financial aid is merely symbolic. It does not amount to even one month’s expenditures. In addition, there were pressures against Syria from the Eastern bloc as well as France and the United States.

The Secretary said President Sarkis had told him he was most appreciative of Syrian help. Asad replied that Sarkis was working hard and seriously to overcome his problems. He was the strongest President Lebanon had had so far. He was the first Lebanese President to have sufficient military force and he is gaining support. He knows, Asad concluded, that the circumstances in Lebanon require this.

  1. Source: Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Records of Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State, 1977–1980, Lot 84D241, Box 10, Vance Exdis Memcons, 1977. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Robert Pelletreau on February 21 and approved in S on June 23. A typed notation in the upper left-hand corner of the page reads “Draft.” The meeting took place at the Presidency.
  2. An unsigned and undated letter from Carter to Asad is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Trips/Visits File, Box 102, 2/14–21/77 Vance Trip to the Middle East: 1/77–2/17/77.
  3. Kissinger and Asad met for the first time on December 15, 1973, in Damascus. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXV, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1973, Document 393.
  4. See footnote 8, Document 6.
  5. See Documents 10 and 11.
  6. See footnote 11, Document 14.
  7. See footnote 3, Document 6.