British documents reveal a bold assessment by Ambassador James Craig to his Foreign Minister regarding the Syrian situation and the ambiguity of Syrian policy in Lebanon.

publisher: الشرق الأوسط

Publishing date: 2007-08-23

In a enlightening meeting of the Syrian Foreign Ministry staff, it was discussed that Syria supports the oppression and suppression of Palestinians in Lebanon in order to prevent the country’s division.

Document No.: 26 Date:

22 September 1976

From: James Craig, Ambassador, Damascus

To: Foreign Affairs, Safir, Sri

Subject: Syria – Lebanon

  1. In a conversation held after lunch on September 21 with Everett and one of our embassy staff members, Juwejati expressed doubt about the possibility of a settlement in Lebanon, stating that the next two or possibly three days would be crucial. The Syrians blamed Arafat for the breakdown of the Shtura talks. According to Juwejati, Arafat is attempting to create a sense of crisis by playing the Syrians and Egyptians against each other.
  2. Juwejati also mentioned that Syrians are deeply concerned about the continuation of the crisis in Lebanon, fearing its spread and the domino effect it could have on Syria and the Arab world. Abdel Halim Khaddam, during a policy enlightenment session at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the week of September 11 to 17, stated that if the choice is between conquering the Palestinians or dividing Lebanon, the Syrians would do everything in their power to prevent division. If the Palestinians suffer as a result, it is of little concern to them as they believe the Palestinians can rise again in the future.
  3. Juwejati’s comments support the notion that the Syrians are disappointed with the failure of the Shtaura talks. It also suggests that Syrians may be preparing for a punitive and decisive military action in Lebanon. The Syrian government is now emphasizing rewards while keeping their coercive measures in reserve.

Signed by Craig Ambassador

Document No.: 31

Date: 11 December 1976

From: James Craig, Ambassador, Damascus

To: His Excellency Anthony Crosland, Foreign Ministry,

Top Secret Subject: Syrian Policy in Lebanon

  1. In paragraph 27 of his letter dated 3 July on Syrian Foreign Policy, Mr. Morris mentioned that the shift of Syrian alliances in Lebanon remains incomprehensible. From my observations, the Syrian policy in Lebanon appears highly ambiguous. We are witnessing a strict socialist leftist government that is changing and suppressing Islamic forces while closely cooperating with a radical right-wing Christian faction. Some of its leaders adopt or express an unacceptable approach towards banditry and contemporary capitalism. We are dealing with a government that is committed to supporting the Palestinian struggle, yet it bombards freedom fighters with tanks and encourages other Palestinians to do the same. While previously accused of having territorial ambitions, it now vehemently announces its determination to fight and maintain Lebanon’s integrity to prevent its division. These observations are filled with contradictions. As the Lebanese drama approaches its end, or at least its climax, it may be possible to gain something from it.

    2/ I believe that the key to understanding this matter lies in the character of President Hafez Al-Assad. Based on my brief personal knowledge of the nature of his work and one meeting with him, he appears to possess qualities of intelligence, stability, foresight, self-control, and determination. My years spent with the Arabs have taught me to expect these qualities and characteristics in their leaders. However, I do not hold absolute hope that Syrians will fully explain themselves and their behavior. Therefore, I present my thoughts here without final conviction. Nonetheless, it seems that the President made several decisions early this year.

    Firstly, he recognized the need to bring an end to the Lebanese war. Failing to do so would result in chaos at Syria’s borders, threatening both the country’s security and well-being, as well as impeding progress in the wider Arab cause.

    Secondly, the war must come to a resolution without a clear victor or vanquished, as suggested by a Christian leader. This understanding ensures that the oppressed or defeated parties will not resume hostilities later.

    Thirdly, the war must conclude while preserving Lebanese sovereignty and identity. Any form of division could lead to Israeli occupation of the south and encourage similar tendencies among minorities in Syria.

    Fourthly, Syrian leadership must not allow Palestinian organizations to gain control in Lebanon or dictate military or political operations against Israel. Failing to prevent this would risk Syria being drawn into a war with Israel, resulting in a highly probable devastating defeat.

    Fifthly, Palestinian organizations must not divert their efforts, as some signs indicate, from their true goal of reclaiming Palestine to an easier objective of exporting revolution to other Arab lands. Despite the revolutionary origins of the Syrian regime, its current perspective is that the revolution has made significant progress, and any attempt to export it would come at a cost to its main supporter, Saudi Arabia.

    The conclusion from the above is clear: Peace must be pursued through negotiations. An attempt at negotiation was made by Syrian mediators in January, resulting in the new Lebanese National Charter on February 14, 1976. (The reference to peace seems to pertain to peace among the Lebanese themselves, rather than peace with Israel.)

    3/ When it became evident that the attempt had failed, one alternative was to impose peace by force. However, due to the unfolding events, the process of imposing peace would have to begin by imposing it on the party that was then victorious and unwilling to cease fighting. This situation presents an irony. Syria naturally sympathizes with the Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims, which is why its early interventions supported them. However, after President Assad grew impatient with maneuvering and evasive negotiations, it was the two sides that held the upper hand, particularly the faction eager to push for a decisive victory. Kamal Jumblatt publicly declared his goal of crushing the Christians. Under these circumstances, Assad desired a strong uprising but was careful not to deviate from the principles and structure of his policy. He must have anticipated strong criticism from the majority of the Arab world and the families of Syrian soldiers who would lose their lives in battle. His policy may seem mysterious and foolish to many Syrians at its worst, but he proceeded, bracing for the impending storm, which included a warning from the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of economic aid from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (the latter position was confirmed to me by the Syrian Prime Minister).

    4/ Here I return to Mr. Morris’s letter, or rather his latest memorandum received from his consulate on Egyptian foreign policy since the Second Sinai Agreement. I largely agree with Cairo’s analysis of the reasons behind Sadat’s opposition to Syrian policy in Lebanon. However, I do believe that Egypt’s policy is flawed, as stated in paragraph 13 of the memorandum. I would appreciate it if more emphasis were placed on Cairo’s desire to restore its respect among the Arabs, as mentioned in paragraph 14. It is undeniable that the interests of the current Egyptian regime align closely with those of Syria regarding a settlement. If Sadat can adopt a statesman-like perspective, he should accept (and he may have already accepted) the five principles outlined in the second paragraph of the memorandum, particularly the fourth and fifth principles. However, as explained in the Cairo Memorandum, Sadat’s thinking is influenced by two considerations: Egypt’s historical competition with Syria for leadership in the Levant region and his own apprehension that Syrian control and dominance in Lebanon could lead to unwanted entanglements with Israel. Although this may seem like an academic point, I personally believe that a broader assessment of the matter should prioritize long-term general Arab interests over the significance of these considerations when contemplating a final settlement in Lebanon.

    5- In fact, Sadat alluded to these points during his visits to Riyadh and Cairo in response to what appeared to be a minor concession from Assad. Assad has not changed his stance on the Second Sinai Agreement but has only agreed not to publicly criticize it. If this is all that Sadat desires, the problem he is willing to create in order to obtain such a position from Syria seems significant.

    6/ Understanding the stance of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is also challenging. As conservative regimes that fear conspiracies, one would expect them to support Assad’s attempt to exert control over Palestinian organizations (although not necessarily publicly). The question arises as to why they have deviated from their position of cutting off economic aid to Syria, including the aid approved at the Rabat Summit. In this regard, I concur with the Cairo Memorandum regarding their presence in Egyptian thinking. I assume that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s actions are driven by their desire to align with Egypt, considering that the new alliance between Saudi Arabia and Egypt (aside from the October War and oil prices) represents the most significant change in the Middle East over the past decade. The Saudis are now highly committed to maintaining this alliance to avoid disrupting Egypt.

    7/ Amidst all these challenges, Assad’s handling of the Soviet Union issue has been skillful. He has publicly expressed his sensitivity to the Russian pressure on Syrian intervention in Lebanon. Based on his independent thinking and in order to appease Saudi criticism, he likely intended to signal to the Russians that they have limited influence. It should be noted that there are many within the Baath Party who oppose a major disagreement with Moscow, and the entire Arab world, not just Syria, will continue to require Russian weapons for many years to come in the absence of a peaceful settlement in the Middle East. Assad has thus maintained a moderate stance, while the Russians find themselves more vulnerable in Syria today than they have been in many years. Their pressure tactics have lost their popularity. The Euphrates Dam has been completed, and there are no vital projects that Syrians cannot manage on their own. The number of Russian experts is limited. At present, the Syrians are well-versed in operating SAM missile systems and MiG-23 aircraft. Assad has received selective Soviet support without yielding to their desires.

    8/ Now, returning to the perspectives at hand, it would be remarkable if Assad’s motives for intervening in Lebanon were entirely selfless, as I previously suggested in the second paragraph. It is reasonable to assume that, like most political leaders, he occasionally considers the power and influence of his country and would not be displeased if he could enhance them. The historical competition between Egypt and Syria is not one-sided. While Sadat may have outmaneuvered Assad in the context of the Second Sinai Agreement, as per your viewpoint, Assad possesses personal and political reasons to demonstrate that he still holds some strategic cards. Furthermore, his growing ability to influence events in Lebanon, which significantly impacts the country’s overall character and strengthens its Arab identity, aligns with the strategic and traditional aspirations of Syrian politics, despite his promises to withdraw from Lebanon if requested. However, in reality, a fragmented Lebanon would facilitate Assad’s policy objectives (even though they were initiated prior to the Lebanese war), particularly in terms of opening up the Syrian economy and seizing some of the commercial and economic transit benefits that the Lebanese have historically enjoyed.

    Ultimately, doubts remain as to whether Assad pursued closer ties with Lebanese Christians to gain their support within Syria. Such support would be crucial for his minority regime to balance the Sunni majority. However, the perspective from Damascus suggests that he now occupies a new and esteemed position. He enjoys widespread acceptance, although not universally, as a peacemaker who defeated a conspirator, a leader who steadfastly pursued his goals despite blatant opposition, and a statesman who demonstrated that Arabs can protect their differences. Some even credit him with French intervention and view him as a general who skillfully minimized casualties and deaths while using force. Nevertheless, he now faces new challenges. Attempting to ride the wave of popular sentiment and aligning with Syrian emotions may be both tempting and demanding. The task he faces in Lebanon may not be desirable, but thus far, he has performed commendably, and I believe his performance merits our recognition. There was a time not long ago when Western governments staunchly refused to acknowledge the Palestine Liberation Organization. They made every effort to avoid apprehending Fatah terrorists and released them promptly if compelled to arrest them. However, Assad took decisive action against them. There was a time when an Arab government would not position itself to confront Fatah attacks, even against school children, but Assad deployed his tanks against Fatah. The Israelis have indicated that his approach to renewing the mandate of UNDOF would serve as a key indicator of his intentions, and he has volunteered to renew it unconditionally. Has he not demonstrated that his government is responsible and that he expects the same level of responsibility from his Arab allies? Could this not be an opportune moment to extend a gesture towards him?

    9/ I apologize for venturing into Mr. Morris’s territory and jurisdiction. I have sent him a copy of this letter, along with copies to the ambassadors of Her Majesty’s Government in Amman, Beirut, Jeddah, Kuwait, Washington, Moscow, and Tel Aviv.

    It is my great honor to remain your obedient servant, sir.

    Signed by James Craig, British


    Document No.: 17

    Date: 14 September 1976

    From: Elbeck, Beirut

    To: Foreign Ministry (Very urgent and confidential) Subject: Assad’s next step in Lebanon

    1/ A member of the American Embassy has informed a member of our embassy that Ambassador Murphy has reported to Washington about the possibility, along with the seriousness, of President Assad implementing a military solution in Lebanon during the first half of September. According to the report, President Assad has been under heavy pressure from his military experts to take decisive action in West Beirut to pave the way for Sarkis to assume office on September 23. The Russian military advisors in Syria have shown dissatisfaction with the prolonged nature of their involvement in Lebanon. However, President Assad has not yet made up his mind, particularly regarding the advantages of a military solution. A successful military operation would enable Sarkis to benefit from a partial Syrian withdrawal, thereby reducing some ties with the Syrian army and isolating Jumblatt while diminishing Palestinian influence. Political options will be pursued alongside a calculated course of action involving the sustained commitment of the Syrian army and covert operations leading up to an Arab summit.

    2/ The American embassy representative also mentioned that any measure that diminishes the authority and influence of the Palestinians would be welcomed in Washington. Moreover, the American Embassy in Damascus has finally recognized the need for political balance in light of the potential consequences of Assad’s decision. Furthermore, the joint military exercises conducted in the mountainous region of Syria on August 24 and 25 have led the Italians to believe that a military solution is imminent. However, we believe that this movement is intended as a form of deterrence, but Assad’s decision will depend on maintaining a delicate balance between the party and the army in Syria. The army, with its Sunni majority, will support Assad on the condition that he secures a favorable outcome in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the army would be discontented with incurring further losses in a failed operation.

    3/ Additionally, the military option may prove viable if its success compels other Arab countries to accept the prevailing situation. However, an attack on West Beirut, in particular, could result in a situation similar to Tel Zaatar, which would leave the Syrians highly exposed. Therefore, Assad must also consider the potential strong reaction from Russia. However, given Assad’s astuteness, we consider it unlikely for him to initiate a full-scale battle, as doing so would convey a perception of the army’s weakness or strength and could lead to changes within Syria.

    Signed by Elbeck – Beirut

    Note: Syria desires the Arab summit to be held in a neutral country and has identified the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

    Document No.: 14

    Date: 31 August

    From: Moberly, Amman

    To: Foreign Ministry (Urgent and confidential)

    1/ During my meeting with King Hussein yesterday, he informed me that he is now in contact with Assad following the latter’s return from Colombo. President Assad stated that he had received a memorandum, along with other threatening tones, from the Soviets regarding Syrian intervention in Lebanon. King Hussein mentioned that the Syrian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister are scheduled to visit Amman today. The King hopes that after their meeting, he will gain a better understanding of the Syrian perspective.

    2/ Discussing the proposed Arab summit conference, the King expressed that the preparations are progressing slowly. He mentioned that Jordan does not have a preference regarding the location of the summit, but for Syrians, it should be held in a neutral environment like Saudi Arabia. However, the Saudis have not yet agreed to this proposal.

    3/ Referring to Arab-Arab differences, the King emphasized that the summit should address several issues, including those related to the motives behind the Rabat summit.

    Signed by Moberly -Amman

    Moscow denies providing military assistance to the Palestinians


    Document No. 9 Date: July 29, 1976 From: Wakefield, Beirut To: Embassy (Top secret)

    1/ We find the references to the father of Gemayel and the trips of the children perplexing. We have reason to believe that neither of them has left the country. It is possible that the Soviet press has republished inaccurate reports originating from the local left-wing sources.

    2/ As Ms. Dimond stated, the Russians are still maintaining their position. An official from the Soviet Embassy here informed a Reuters reporter yesterday that the Soviet government has only utilized political and diplomatic pressure on Syria to urge the withdrawal of its forces from Lebanon. This statement aims to refute the reports circulating here regarding alleged Soviet threats to cease military supplies to Syria. Another denial was issued in relation to the assistance of Russian experts to the Palestinians and the National Movement in establishing two airstrips in the mountains south of Beirut, as well as the alleged shipment of Russian arms to the Palestinians by sea.

    Signed by Wakefield, Beirut