15. Report Prepared in the Vice Directorate for Production, Defense Intelligence Agency1
SYRIA-ISRAEL: COLLISION OVER LEBANON (U)
(C/NOFORN) Syrian and Israeli policies in Lebanon appear to be evolving in a direction that will lead to a major confrontation. This possibility has little to do with the tactical situation in Beirut or in southern Lebanon, but is a consequence of fundamentally contradictory policies. Syria must remain involved in Lebanon if it is to achieve a solution favorable to its own regional interests. Israel, meanwhile, appears to seek an end of Syrian presence there. For Israel, the coming clash with Syria in Lebanon represents the awakening of a conflict that has lain largely dormant since the spring of 1976.
(C/NOFORN) After more than two years of overt involvement in Lebanon, Syria’s goal of developing a unified, stable, and responsive state on its western border seems more remote than ever. No visible progress has been made on the basic problems complicating the Lebanese situation; no strong central authority has emerged, no national consensus favoring unity has developed, and powerful armed groups opposed to Syrian aims have not been neutralized. The latter problem is the most immediate.
(C/NOFORN) Syria’s current difficulties are with its erstwhile allies-of-convenience, the Christian militias of the Phalange and the National Liberal Party. When Syria first intervened overtly in Lebanon in 1976, the Christians were being worsted by the combined forces of the Muslim Leftists and the Palestinians. Syria feared that if that coalition should triumph, the emergent Lebanon would risk coming under radical Arab influence—particularly that of Syria’s arch enemy, Iraq. Out of fear for Syria’s strategic interests, Damascus moved against the Muslim coalition, effectively siding with the Christians. That threat was eventually surpressed, but the Christians soon turned on their “rescuers”, realizing that Syria intended neither to dismantle the Palestinian forces nor permit the Christians to reassert their ante bellum hegemony in Lebanon.
(C/NOFORN) The Christians utilized the respite afforded by Syrian intervention to improve substantially their military posture and [Page 40]have emerged as the most powerful non-Syrian force in Lebanon. At a minimum, they are capable of defending the areas under their control against the Muslim Leftists and Palestinians. It is clear that if the Christians cannot dominate a new Lebanon, they will try to fragment the country along confessional lines to achieve unencumbered political dominance in the areas—the richest in Lebanon—under their control. This objective has brought them into direct conflict with the Syrians. The first clash occurred at Fayadiyah in February 1978, and since then the tempo of fighting has increased. The results have not been disappointing to the Christians, and they seem more determined than ever to thwart Syrian designs.
(C/NOFORN) For its part, Israel’s policy toward the Syrian presence in Lebanon has until recently reflected some ambivalence. In late 1975 and early 1976, Tel Aviv expressed strong opposition to Syrian intervention in the Lebanese civil conflict because of the threats such a development would pose to Israel’s security. Of particular concern was the threat to Lebanon’s status as a Christian-dominated non-confrontation state, and that posed by a Syrian military presence along Israel’s northern border. The careful manner in which Syria handled its escalating intervention in Lebanon, its tacit acknowledgement of Israeli security concerns, US pressure on Israel not to over-react to Syrian moves, and the transitory security benefits that the Syrian involvement provided Israel allowed Israeli officials to come to accept a carefully controlled Syrian presence in Lebanon. Israel at times was called upon to control Syria’s actions, but at no time did Israel appear to be moving to end Syrian involvement. Tel Aviv, however, never accepted that the Syrian presence should become either permanent or dominant and, to a very real degree, Syria is in Lebanon at Israel’s sufferance. It now appears that the Israeli Government has decided to end the Syrian adventure in Lebanon.
Syria’s Position and Options
(S/NOFORN) In the face of its difficult position in Lebanon, Damascus has three basic options: withdraw from Lebanon; confront the militias and prepare for a prolonged occupation; or temporize and hope for favorable developments. Syria has so far pursued the third option, partly out of natural caution and partly out of fear of the repercussions from exercising options one or two. The third option, however, is beginning to prove counterproductive. No favorable developments are on the horizon, and a series of escalating clashes, separated by tense cease-fires of more and more limited duration, has been occurring. Christian hardliners appear intent on provoking a Syrian military attack in the belief that Israel will come to their assistance. So far, how[Page 41]ever, there is no indication that President Assad, who would personally make the decision to implement one of the other options, has decided to do so. Nevertheless, Christian provocations and the unproductiveness of the present policy probably will eventually force him to reconsider. A withdrawal from Lebanon—partial or complete—would be an open admission of a massive policy failure and would entail serious risks to the stability of the Assad regime. Before taking such an irreversible and dangerous step, Assad will most likely essay a military solution. Although Damascus is thoroughly aware of the Israeli factor in such a decision, Tel Aviv’s low profile during the fighting in Beirut in the latter half of July may have led Syria to believe that Israeli support of the Christians has its limits. Certainly, there is some support in the Syrian military—especially in Lebanon—and government for a more militant policy. At some point, it will probably seem preferable to probe Israel’s commitment to the Christians, rather than move directly to the withdrawal option. However, if Damascus feels it can count on Israeli forbearance, it is probably miscalculating. In the final analysis, Tel Aviv will not permit the Christians to be crushed.
Israeli Perceptions and Responses
(S/NOFORN) The developments that prompted Israel to shift its policy are not known, but Israeli policymakers may have concluded after early July that Syria had no intention of ever leaving Lebanon; there was no chance to restore Lebanon to a unified state; and that Syria would inevitably attempt to crush the Christians. They probably reasoned that, if these conclusions proved correct, Israel’s ultimate nightmare of a Syrian puppet state on its northern border would become an accomplished fact.
(S/NOFORN) Israel has consistently opposed such a development and has worked to avoid it. Additionally, termination of Syria’s presence would remove a direct threat to Israel’s northern border and leave the Christians in a dominant military-political position. Ultimately of course, such a policy would lead to the Balkanization of Lebanon. This, however, has already occurred to a degree, and Israel might find such a situation quite comfortable.
(S/NOFORN) Israeli actions since early July suggest that it has made and is implementing a decision to force a Syrian withdrawal. Tel Aviv provided an unprecedented level of support to the Christians following Syrian shelling of east Beirut in early July, and allegedly encouraged the Christians to harass Syrian forces. The Israelis have made increasing references to the need for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and have alleged Syrian intentions to massacre the Christians.
(S/NOFORN) Pursuit of such a policy is not without risks, for dealing with the mercurial Christian leadership is at best a delicate pro[Page 42]cedure. Israel is quite experienced in this and is certainly aware of the problems involved. Nevertheless, the Christian militias are an available tool with which to bring pressure to bear on the Syrians, and Israel may believe that if this leads to a showdown with Damascus, the Syrians will back down in the face of Israeli threats.
(S/NOFORN) There is a real possibility of a miscalculation by one side or the other in this situation. While not seeking a confrontation with Syria, Israel’s actions risk it. The future status of Lebanon is, however, a strategic problem for Israel and not merely a sideshow in the security and foreign affairs arena. Hence, Israel is probably willing to run even major risks. For its part, Syria appears more likely than ever before to probe Israel’s will in Lebanon. The implication of these respective policies is that both powers are seemingly embarked on courses of action that risk a major confrontation in the Middle East, perhaps not in the immediate, but almost certainly within the foreseeable future.
- Source: Defense Intelligence Agency, DIA Historical Collection, Box MEA–1 (5 of 12), 1977–1979. Secret; Noforn.↩