267. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Israel1

Tosec 60064/165809. Exdis for Ambassador Lewis; Tel Aviv for action only. Subject: Syrian-Israeli Air Battle Over Lebanon.

(S) Entire text.

1. You should get in immediate touch with Begin to deliver2 the following as an oral message from the Secretary:3

—Today’s engagement4 between Syrian and Israeli air forces over South Lebanon is a matter of most serious concern.

—At this time, when both the U.S. and Israel have committed themselves to a new and vital phase of negotiations in the peace process, and on the eve of the departure of Ambassador Strauss on his first mission in connection with these negotiations, this incident is particularly troubling in the potential it holds for damaging the atmosphere surrounding our effort to make steady progress toward a wider peace.

[Page 875]

—We are fully aware of the threat posed to the Israeli people by terrorist attacks planned and launched from locations in Lebanon. We know as well the problems which the Syrian presence and role in Lebanon raise for Israel. At the present time, however, the internal political situation in Syria is tense and uncertain in the wake of the recent massacre of Alawite cadets.5 Any outside action that appears challenging or humilitating to Syria is likely to lead to countermeasures.

For this reason we now face the possibility that incidents such as today’s air clash may seriously impair the negotiating effort. It could as well destabilize the situation in Syria and lead to wider hostilities which, whatever the outcome, could be detrimental to both our nations’ interests.

—The Israeli Government’s policy concerning retaliatory and preemptive attacks has long been a source of concern to the United States in terms of our interest in a stable Lebanon and a wider peace and we have discussed this with Israel on a number of occasions. Most recently, on June 13 we raised with Minister Weizman6 the pattern of Israeli military actions in and over Lebanon over the past two months. We were assured that it was not Israel’s desire or intention to engage Syrian aircraft in hostilities. Because of the likelihood of Syrian reaction, we asked that Israel change its practice of significantly increasing the number of overflights of Lebanon. We also approached Syria at that time.7

—Against this background we are again urging Syria to exercise maximum prudence and restraint. We must ask Israel to do likewise. Specifically, we urge strongly that Israel refrain from further bombing attacks in Lebanon. Such actions cannot but be seen as carrying the conflict to a higher and more dangerous level. It is only fair to alert Israel to the fact that actions such as these by Israel will make more intense questions already raised in the Congress about whether the American equipment used by Israeli forces in these actions is being properly and legally employed.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 89, Syria: 6/79–7/80. Secret; Flash; Exdis. Sent Niact Immediate to Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut, Cairo, Jidda, and to the Secretary’s Delegation; sent Immediate to Amman. Vance was in Tokyo, accompanying Carter at the Economic Summit Meeting. Printed from a copy that indicates the original was received in the White House Situation Room. Drafted by Draper; cleared by Saunders, Tarnoff, Strauss, and Hunter; approved by Christopher. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790290–1221)
  2. Lewis delivered Vance’s message in a June 27 meeting with Begin. Upon reading the message, Lewis reported, Begin “reacted with maximum emotion and zero responsiveness.” He continued, “Angry and defiant, Begin said that no one had right to ask Israelis to sit passively by to await PLO terror attacks on their civilians. So long as ‘all-out PLO war’ continued, IDF would continue to hit their bases, staging areas, and headquarters.” (Telegram 13877 from Tel Aviv, June 27; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790291–0605) The following day, Begin telephoned Lewis, requesting that he inform Vance that Begin “had additional evidence of Syria’s aggressive intentions.” (Telegram 13955 from Tel Aviv, June 28; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790293–0216)
  3. On June 27, Christopher also sent instructions to the Embassy to inform the Syrians of the message to Begin and to explain that “we have urged strongly that Israel refrain from all further bombing attacks.” (Tosec 60070/165836 to Damascus, June 27; Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 89, Syria: 6/79–7/80)
  4. On June 27, while attacking Palestinian positions in southern Lebanon, Israeli aircraft clashed with Syrian fighters. In the ensuing engagement, Israeli officials announced, five Syrian aircraft were shot down with no loss to themselves; Syrian officials acknowledged four losses and claimed two Israeli planes destroyed by Syrian pilots. The engagement marked the first combat use by Israel of U.S.-built F–15 jets, a matter described by the Department of State as a “serious concern to us and members of Congress.” (“Syrians and Israelis Clash in Air Battle,” The New York Times, June 28, 1979, p. A1)
  5. On June 16, a group of soldiers led by a Sunni army officer fired upon Syrian Alawite military cadets at an artillery school near Aleppo. The Embassy reported that the incident, resulting in an estimated death-toll of up to 27 cadets, represented a “quantum jump in security incidents that have occurred over past two and a half months. For the first time, to the best of our knowledge, there has been serious communal violence within the army which has obvious ramifications to stability of regime.” (Telegram 4075 from Damascus, June 19; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790277–0410)
  6. The Embassy reported on the June 13 meeting between Lewis and Weizman in telegram 12714 from Tel Aviv, June 13; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790268–0009.
  7. The Department ordered the approach of informing the Syrians that the U.S. Government had raised the issue of overflights with the Israelis in telegram 153428 to Damascus, June 15; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790269–0893.