54. Memorandum From Secretary of State Haig to President Reagan 1


  • Message from Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko on the Lebanon Crisis

Ambassador Dobrynin has just delivered to me Gromyko’s reply to my Friday message to the Foreign Minister on Lebanon2 (Soviet-provided English translation attached).

The first page and a half is devoted to a rather restrained diatribe against Israel and those who support her, and need not concern you. The final two paragraphs, however, are of interest. Gromyko says:

—The Soviets have taken note of our intention not to become involved militarily in the event of an armed conflict, but believe the real task is to prevent a conflict.

—The Soviet Union is working to avoid a confrontation including during “recent days.”

—The U.S. should restrain Israeli leaders.

—The United States and the Soviet Union should be able to reach “mutual understanding” that would prevent the outbreak of war in the Middle East.

During my talk with Dobrynin after I had read the letter, the Soviet Ambassador described it as “constructive,” meaning that Moscow is “restraining” Assad. Dobrynin said, in a clear reference to his Friday night remark about the possibility of a moratorium on Israeli reconnaissance flights over the Bekaa Valley, that he had expected that we would already have put forward such a compromise formula. He was, he said, surprised that we had not yet done so. “After all, what would be in it for Assad?”, he asked, pointing out that the Israelis would not be losing much by detouring their reconnaissance flights some 20 or 30 kilometers off their normal route.

Thus, despite the polemics in the letter, the last two paragraphs of the Gromyko letter, plus Dobrynin’s comments, seem to indicate that the Soviets remain in contact with Assad, and that hope remains that a compromise formula acceptable to Syria and Israel can yet be found. We can anticipate that the proposal that the Israelis forego [Page 138] reconnaissance flights over the Bekaa Valley in return for Syrian withdrawal will surface at some point in the not too distant future.

Tab A

Letter From Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko to Secretary of State Haig 3

Dear Mr. Secretary,

I have carefully studied your letter of May 15, 1981 and must regretfully state that the interpretation given there to what is going in and around Lebanon is one-sided and non-reflective of the real state of affairs. As a result Israel—the true source of the dangerous exacerbation of the situation—is being whitewashed whereas totally unsubstantiated charges and demands are being addressed to Syria.

However, you have no smaller knowledge than ourselves of the actual sequence of the events. You, of course, know, for instance, that the Syrian anti-aircraft missile weapons did not emerge in Lebanon until Israeli fighters had shot down two unarmed Syrian transport helicopters used to carry supplies to the Syrian contingent lawfully deployed in Lebanon as part of the Arab peace keeping force in that country. On the part of Israel this was an act of aggression.

So, why is the question raised of having Syria withdraw from Lebanon those weapons as a “sine qua non for any settlement” when, at the same time, there is complete silence on the question of having Israel cease the aggressive actions which made it necessary for Syria to take counter-measures in self-defence?

If not for elementary fairness, is this a realistic way to pose the question and how, then, can one be surprised at Syria rejecting such an approach? After all, what right has Israel to carry out air strikes or other military actions in Lebanon? To follow this kind of logic, it turns out that Israel may continue its brigandage in Lebanon and interfere in the internal affairs of that country while defensive steps against those Israeli actions are barred.

If what you call the US efforts to “restrain” Israel in fact amounts to such an approach to this matter, then there is no wonder that Israel goes on with putting forward its demands.

[Page 139]

This is the reason why the responsibility for further serious exacerbation of the situation around Lebanon and in the entire Middle East as well as, possibly, beyond that area, and the danger thereof is mentioned in your letter, will rest not only on Israel but also on those who could exert influence on Israel and do not wish to do so.

We, of course, take note of the fact that in case of an armed conflict the USA does not intend to be involved in it militarily. We are deeply convinced, however, that the task is to actually prevent the current situation from growing into an armed conflict.

A new military confrontation in that area would serve nobody’s interests and it can and must be prevented. It is in this direction that the Soviet Union is applying its efforts, including in the most recent days. We would like to count on the US side also acting with broader interests of peace in mind and on its exerting really restraining influence on the Israeli leaders. No reasonable man will believe that the United States of America and the Soviet Union, being the kind of powers they are, cannot reach an elementary mutual understanding in order to prevent the outbreak of military conflict in the Middle East.


A. Gromyko 4

Tab B

Letter From Secretary of State Haig to Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko 5

Dear Mr. Minister:

As you know, for the past week Mr. Philip Habib has at the request of President Reagan, been conducting urgent consultations in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel with the aim of promoting a peaceful solution to the current dangerous situation in Lebanon. We have recently received a report from Mr. Habib concerning his latest conversation with President Assad. That report indicates that the Syrians are not prepared to accept any compromise on removal of Syrian Surface to Air Missiles in the Bikka Valley, a sine qua non for any settlement. They were also less than forthcoming with respect to reasonable proposals approved by the Government of Lebanon to replace the Syrian forces on the Sannine [Page 140] Ridge and in Zahle. In sum, the Syrians are unwilling to return to the status quo ante in Lebanon. These developments, in the view of the United States Government, indicate that events in and around Lebanon have reached an extremely dangerous impasse.

Mr. Habib was instructed to inform Prime Minister Begin of the outcome of his latest discussion with President Assad. We have also told him to proceed from Jerusalem to Saudi Arabia for further consultations, and to go, thereafter, to Damascus for a further conversation with President Assad. If the Syrian President indicates at that time that there has been no change in his position, it will be difficult for us to avoid concluding that we have done all we can to assist the parties to find a compromise solution.

It should be clear to all that the United States has effectively restrained Israel from a resort to military action throughout the past difficult weeks. Further, the Israelis have shown considerable flexibility in the search for an acceptable compromise. Unfortunately, Syria has demonstrated neither restraint nor flexibility. Thus, should Mr. Habib’s mission end without positive results, despite our best efforts, our ability effectively to influence the Israelis further will be greatly diminished.

As we have for some weeks been indicating to your government, we consider the situation in and around Lebanon extremely dangerous—one which certainly contains the seeds of war in the Middle East, and possibly beyond. It is to avert that danger that we have taken every possible step to urge restraint on Israel, while seeking to assist the other parties to the dispute toward a mutually acceptable solution. Unfortunately, we have seen no evidence that others who might be in a position to influence events have worked with equal diligence to do so.

The situation is now at a critical stage. Should the current crisis escalate into armed conflict, it will be our intention to remain militarily uninvolved; we will insist upon the same restraint from others.

Mr. Foreign Minister, it now remains for those nations which have influence in Damascus, such as the Soviet Union, to make one last effort to avert what could become a human tragedy for Lebanese, Syrians, and Israelis alike.


Alexander M. Haig 6
  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S–I Records, Lot 96D262, Super Sensitive—May 1981. Secret; Sensitive.
  2. Haig’s May 15 message is Tab B.
  3. Secret; Sensitive. Printed from the unofficial translation Dobrynin handed to Haig.
  4. Printed from a copy bearing this typed signature.
  5. No classification marking.
  6. Printed from a copy bearing this typed signature.