2. Special National Intelligence Estimate Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1

SNIE 36.4–1–78



The intense Syrian-Christian fighting that broke out in Beirut on 1 July 1978 and that has continued intermittently since has set the stage for a major confrontation between Syria and the principal Lebanese Christian militias. Israel’s aim in the current situation is to prevent Lebanon from becoming a confrontation state responsive to Syria—support of the Christian militias is part of Israel’s preventative measures. We believe that the Israelis would intervene if the fighting intensified and they perceived that the Christian militias were being defeated by the Syrians.2 We do not believe that it would matter to the Israelis who initiated the fighting. A new and more serious round of fighting could occur at any time.

Syria’s overall objective in Lebanon is to maintain a unified Lebanese state, relatively stable and responsive to Damascus’ influence. [Page 3]President Assad’s current aim is to neutralize the political and military power of the Christians sufficiently to force them to acquiesce to Syria’s directions. Assad probably will attempt to avoid an all-out assault on the Christian heartland. Concern over possible Israeli intervention has been the principal constraint on the Syrians in dealing with the challenge posed by the Christian militias. Thus far, Assad has moved cautiously, seeking to avoid confrontation with Israel while reinforcing the Syrian military presence around the principal Christian areas and attempting to isolate the militia leaders politically. Assad has demonstrated to date an intuitive sense of how far he can go in provoking Israel, but there is always the risk of miscalculation on his part.

The aim of most militia leaders is to force the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, and to reinforce further the dominance of the principal Christian militias throughout Lebanon. We believe that the Christian militias will continue attempts at provoking the Syrians into renewed large-scale fighting that would draw the Israelis directly into the Lebanese conflict on the side of the Christians.3 If necessary, Christians leaders are quite prepared to see the collapse of the government of Lebanese President Sarkis and the establishment of a truncated Christian state in Lebanon, which they believe would be backed by Israel.4

[Omitted here is the Discussion portion of the estimate.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, History Staff Files, SNIE 36.4–1–78 Lebanon: Prospects for Expanded Conflict. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. A note on the first page reads: “The Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the NSA, along with the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Department of the Army; the Director of Naval Intelligence, Department of the Navy; and the Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, Department of the Air Force, participated in the preparation of this estimate. The DCI submitted this estimate with the concurrence of the National Foreign Intelligence Board except where noted in the text.”
  2. On August 7, Vance wrote in a letter to Boutros that the “Israeli government feels it has an obligation to the inhabitants” of South Lebanon “and to Major Haddad in particular to see to it that their sense of security is maintained.” However, Vance pointed out, following his discussions with the Israelis during his recent visit, the Begin government “has no objection” to the deployment of Lebanese army forces to South Lebanon, hitherto opposed by Christian militias, an “immediate task” that “should be seriously considered.” (Secto 9023 to Beirut, August 7; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780332–0106)
  3. The Department of State disagrees with the thrust of this sentence because it implies that the Christian leadership has determined to escalate the fighting in order to draw in the Israelis. [text not declassified] most Christian leaders suspect that the Israelis may not intercede even if the level of fighting increases. However, action by the militias ensures continued high level Israeli support and interest. Moreover, there are clearly provocations on both sides. [Footnote is in the original.]
  4. In an August 9 memorandum to Brzezinski, Sick reported Ambassador Samuel Lewis’s assessment of the “very ominous” mood among the Israeli leadership over Lebanon: “Israeli TV is showing emotional pictures of Lebanese refugees talking about the killing and destruction, and Begin keeps saying ‘Christians are being killed and no one is doing anything.’ It is very clear that Israel is considering ‘doing something.’” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 57, Lebanon: 8/78)