Khaddam: Lebanon and Syria are two sister Arab countries, connected by historical and cultural ties, as well as shared interests.

publisher: King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Information Database


Interview with the Guest Abdel Halim Khaddam (Former Vice President of the Syrian Arab Republic)

Syrian-Lebanese Relations

Lebanon and Syria are two sister Arab countries, connected by historical, cultural, and shared interests. In a previous stage, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan were part of what was known as the Levant under the Ottoman Empire, and before that, during the era of the Arab or Islamic state in the region. However, after the independence of Lebanon and Syria in 1943, independence was declared and elections were held in both countries. An agreement was reached within the Arab League… When the Arab League Charter was established and Syria recognized Lebanon as a state, the two countries established state-to-state relations, and a number of cooperation agreements (a significant number) were signed between the Lebanese Republic and the Syrian Republic. Of course, there are significant mutual interests between the two countries.

At different stages, relations reached a state of tension, and in other stages, they reached a state of friendliness, keenness, and mutual interests.

Naturally, in some stages, there were conflicts in policy between Syria and Lebanon. For instance, during the presidency of Camille Chamoun, he was leaning towards Iraq and the Baghdad Pact, while Syria was against this orientation. Then came the era of the United Arab Republic, and Chamoun’s presidency ended. President Chehab took office, and there was a meeting between him and President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and matters returned to their normal state.

It is difficult for any Syrian or any Lebanese to imagine that the relations between the two countries could be completely severed and consistently tense. Firstly, due to the population extension (the demographics); this means that there are many Lebanese families that are now part of the national fabric in Syria, and there are many Syrian relationships that are part of the national fabric in Lebanon.

Of course, there were periods where there were political conflicts as I mentioned, but these conflicts remained within their framework. After 1970 (the period during which President Hafez al-Assad came to power, and President Suleiman Frangieh was the president of Lebanon, there were friendly relations between us and President Frangieh) the heat of Syrian-Lebanese relations returned to their previous state.

Then tensions arose due to disagreements within Lebanon’s alignment between our allies, in this case, Prime Minister Saeb Salam, whose relations with President Hafez al-Assad were less than friendly. This led to the tension of relations and the closure of the Syrian border. This situation lasted for a period, and Arab interventions and communications took place, meetings between the Syrian and Lebanese sides occurred, and an agreement was reached to return matters to their normal state. Relations remained good.

When the October 1973 War occurred, Syria asked Lebanon to allow Soviet ships to transport weapons through the port of Tripoli. When this matter was presented to President Suleiman Frangieh, his response was that the port of Tripoli was under the jurisdiction of Syria. Everything that exists in Lebanon is divided according to the population ratio (and what is meant by goods: food, for example) between the two countries. Of course, this stance left a deep impression with us, and as a result, we became extremely keen on supporting President Suleiman Frangieh.

You know, after tensions in Jordan between the Palestinians and the Jordanian government, a large part of the Palestinians came to Lebanon, I mean from the resistance; from Palestinian factions. They were stationed in southern Lebanon and also in some camps in Beirut. Palestinian-Lebanese tensions arose. Of course, the Palestinians used to pass through Syria with Syrian facilitation, because we believed that this resistance would be against Israel, and not for getting entangled in the Lebanese quagmire. These tensions led to a meeting in Cairo between the Lebanese Army Commander and Mr. Yasser Arafat, and the two parties reached the Cairo Agreement. Unfortunately, the organization did not commit to that agreement, and the disagreements widened, and the Palestinian presence expanded even in the heart of Beirut. Syria also attempted to end this tension through mediation and an agreement was reached between the two sides. We were pressing to end this tension because Syria and Egypt were preparing for the war of liberation. Things moved on.

After that, Palestinian presence expanded, and there was an overlap between the Lebanese and Palestinian organizations.

Security Linkage between Syria and Lebanon

This is a fact… this is a fact that both the Lebanese and Syrians say; the security of the two countries is linked to each other. Whatever happens in Syria reflects on Lebanon, and whatever happens in Lebanon reflects on Syria. Therefore, the Taif Agreement explicitly states that the security of Lebanon is the security of Syria, and the security of Syria is the security of Lebanon. This is a fact.

Syrian-Saudi Relations

Of course, during the era of the late King Faisal in the early 1970s, relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia were severed since the 1960s. We, along with Saudi Arabia, worked on restoring the relations, and they became good and developed well. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia played a positive and constructive role in supporting us, whether in preparing for the liberation battle or for development. They stood by Syria and Egypt for the liberation of their lands.

After the passing of the late King Faisal, King Khalid came, and the line continued; meaning, the relations between the two countries continued positively, and there were no disputes over fundamental or bilateral issues. Consultations were always taking place between the leaderships of the two countries.

Exchange of Views

Communications have always been about exchanging views. Sometimes, I would go to the Kingdom, and sometimes officials from the Kingdom would come, and we would exchange views. Both sides were keen to stop the deterioration in Lebanon and end the civil war. The Kingdom played a positive role in this matter.

Qualities of King Khalid

King Khalid – may God rest his soul – I met him many times. First of all, he was a believer, straightforward, and clear; meaning, if he had an opinion, he would express it… he would express it clearly. He was also a good listener, meaning you could present an idea to him, he would discuss it, and in the end, he would form his conviction and proceed with it.

So, the man – in reality – was characterized by extreme sensitivity towards Arab relations. He played a major role in Syrian-Egyptian relations, a major role in Syrian-Lebanese relations, and in Syrian-Palestinian relations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had a positive and constructive role in all those cases.

“King Khalid and King Faisal”

  • Each of them has a unique nature, meaning each one has their own nature, traditions, and approach, but both of them were honest with themselves and with the other party they were conversing with.

The Arab Political Role of King Khalid

  • Of course, his role was significant. Firstly, the issue of Lebanon… The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia directly intervened to resolve the Lebanese crisis in the 1970s. Several meetings were held in the Kingdom between Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian parties. 2 – During tensions between Syria and Egypt in 1975 and 1976, the Kingdom played a major role in mediating reconciliation between Syria and Egypt. A summit conference was held, attended by President Hafez al-Assad, President Anwar Sadat, Lebanese President Elias Sarkis, in addition to the Emir of Kuwait and King Khalid and Prince Fahd. This conference led to a Syrian-Egyptian agreement, resolving Syrian-Egyptian disputes, as well as an agreement on the situation in Lebanon and a call for an Arab summit conference and the formation of Arab deterrent forces.

His Authentic Traits

  • The king – in fact – was a kind-hearted man, someone you could feel a special connection with, because he was open-minded. He listens to what you want to say regardless of whether he agrees or not. Let me recount an incident: I went – I believe in ’76 – to visit the Kingdom and meet with King Khalid and his brothers. Tensions were high in Lebanon between us, the Palestinians, and the national movement, between the Lebanese Front and the other side. There was a major campaign against Syria in the media, from Egypt (before reconciliation), Iraq, Libya, and the Palestinian media.

I asked for an audience with the king and was received in the desert. Prince Sultan was present. I was going to explain the situation to him because we noticed that this campaign had intensified a lot, and it became necessary for us to explain to the Arab countries what was happening in Lebanon. I saw the king, we sat down, and after I greeted him, he spoke harshly to me: “You are killing Muslims… You are killing Palestinians… You…” I was embarrassed. First, I was hearing very harsh words, two or three times I wanted to leave, but I held myself. Prince Sultan looked at me and said, “Be patient.” (He didn’t say those exact words, but he said something like that.) I understood Prince Sultan’s message. After he finished, I said to him, “Your Majesty, if I were in your place and someone came to me with harsher words than what you just heard from me, I would appreciate everything you said, and I would accept it with goodwill. But you need to listen to me. I’ve come to explain to you.”

And I began to explain the whole problem, how it had developed. The atmosphere changed, the atmosphere turned into goodwill. There was a lot of clarity and sincerity that I knew in that atmosphere. We had dinner with him, and indeed the meeting was very productive in terms of the outcome.

Saudi Interest in the Lebanese Problem

  • The Lebanese problem is a very significant issue. The situation in Lebanon has a negative impact not only on Lebanon but on the entire region. Additionally, the Lebanese-Palestinian conflict was dangerous for both the Palestinians and the Lebanese, and for the region as a whole. Therefore, it was natural for Saudi Arabia – due to its position, location, and responsibilities – to take action to find solutions and search for resolutions.

Stages of the Lebanese Problem and the Taif Agreement

  • The problem in Lebanon erupted in multiple stages. The first time was in 1973 when there was intense fighting between Palestinians and Lebanese. We reached an agreement, but both sides didn’t adhere to it, especially the Lebanese army at that time. The fighting resumed, so we intervened. I spoke on the phone with the Lebanese Foreign Minister and told him, “You are leading the country into a civil war, and we know that we are already dealing with another war. We don’t have time for this situation. You need to help us and help yourselves to manage the situation.” The situation did stabilize, a new government was formed, and things progressed.

The second time, after the explosion in April 1975, there was an attempt by us, the Syrian delegation, to work on a ceasefire. Unfortunately, the sentiments were different, trying to convince one side, then convince the other side. When one side started to back down, I made numerous visits to Lebanon. In the end, we reached a solution through the Taif Agreement.

The Constitutional Document and Attempt to Form the Lebanese Government

  • After negotiations between the Syrian side, President Suleiman Franjieh, and other Lebanese parties, we reached a document called the “Constitutional Document.” This document included important reforms, firstly: reducing the power of the president, who had held all the authority, strengthening the role of the government, equalizing the powers of the government and the parliament, and equalizing the essential positions. Under those circumstances, the Constitutional Document was considered a significant development in Lebanese political life. Unfortunately, both Lebanese and Palestinian hands played a role in obstructing it. At that time, an agreement was reached to form a national unity government under the leadership of the late Rashid Karami. The government was formed, but it required the president’s signature. The commander of the Lebanese army issued a statement criticizing the president. President Franjieh, who was known for his impulsive temperament, refused to sign the decree unless the prime minister signed a decree dismissing the army commander. The prime minister also refused to sign the dismissal decree, for his own reasons, as the army was divided and he was pushing for a resolution. Therefore, Prime Minister Karami refused to sign. This is where the process of forming the government was hindered.

A Lebanese officer (Aziz Al-Ahdab) was taken by the Palestinians on television, and a coup statement was broadcast. Of course, it was a coup statement… appealing to the president… it was a theatrical performance. We left Beirut and returned.”

Entry of the Syrian Army into Lebanon

  • The intervention came as a result of developments. This means that we had agreed with the parties to amend the Lebanese constitution and elect a new president before the end of President Franjieh’s term. The idea was to have President Sarkis and a new president who wouldn’t have problems with anyone, to solve the problem.

Elections were held, and the situation escalated. There was a siege on Zahle and some Christian villages in Akkar. A delegation from Zahle, including deputies and the bishop (Bishop Haddad), came to us. They presented the situation, and President Hafez al-Assad saw them. From a humanitarian and national perspective, such a siege was unacceptable and intolerable. The rhetoric they used was along the lines of, “Are we supposed to go to Israel if we can’t get help while being besieged on the Syrian border?”

This meeting was the main reason for expediting the entry into Lebanon. President Hafez al-Assad formed a committee, and we discussed the issue and agreed. We decided to move the army and enter Lebanon. The entry happened, the siege on Zahle was lifted, and the Christian villages in Akkar were also freed from the siege.

Resisting the Division of Lebanon

  • Syria did not align with either the Palestinian and Islamic side or the Christian side. Syria’s policy was to maintain Lebanon’s unity and resist division. We believed that the continuation of the civil war would lead to Lebanon’s division, and Israel might intervene to support the Christian side. This was a dangerous scenario for us because if some Christians sought assistance from Israel, it would signify a significant problem. So, we didn’t ally with anyone. Sometimes, it might seem like we were supporting the national movement or the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) when there was pressure on West Beirut and the areas with the national movement and Muslims. This would increase Palestinian pressure on the Christian side, and we would press the Palestinians because we didn’t want the situation to escalate further. We believed that if the conflict in Lebanon was resolved by one side prevailing, it would lead to Lebanon’s disintegration and Israeli intervention.

So, the issue wasn’t about forming alliances; it was about pressuring to reach national solutions for the Lebanese problem.

Syrian Position on the PLO

  • We need to differentiate between the Palestinian issue and the PLO. The Palestinian issue is a national issue for Syria. The PLO is a political movement. We agree with the movement on some matters and disagree on others. We support the PLO for the sake of Palestine, but we cannot align with it against an Arab country like Lebanon. We helped them when they were in Jordan and during the events of ’70, but we didn’t want the PLO – which had become a symbol for the Palestinian people – to collapse. This is why we applied pressure when the organization intervened in matters it should have stayed away from.

Beirut’s Situation during the Civil War

  • A city with warring factions and militias. How could the situation be? First, Beirut’s residents, whether in the eastern or western areas, were crushed by the militias. There was no security, no sense of a state. Who controlled security? The militias. What could these militias achieve? They carried out heinous acts in both East and West Beirut. The worst phase in Beirut’s history was during the civil war.

Suffering of Beirut’s Residents during the Civil War

  • Crushed. The lives of the residents were shattered. A militiaman with four or five armed men could enter a person’s house, take everything, and leave. Or they could expel the homeowner, claiming that they were from a certain faction – if it was West Beirut, they might say they were from the Kataeb; if it was East Beirut, they might say they were from the Palestinians. Atrocious acts became the norm.

Security Discipline in Lebanon

  • Firstly, we were not initially in Beirut. We entered… The first time we entered, we stopped the attack on West Beirut when the Kataeb forces attacked Islamic areas and Palestinian camps in the eastern region. We halted the attack on West Beirut. When we entered Lebanon on June 1, 1976, by the time we reached Beirut, those clashes had mostly ended. While we were in Beirut, security was relatively under control. Of course, we couldn’t control everything because an army cannot be present in every neighborhood and alley. However, the presence of the army and its authority played a role in mitigating these problems.

The Saudi Role in Resolving Arab Disputes

  • Of course, the meeting was primarily focused on Syrian-Egyptian relations. There was a confrontation between President Sadat and President Assad. Our brothers in the Kingdom (King Khalid and King Fahd) intervened to mitigate the negatives, pushing both sides towards reconciliation. An agreement was indeed reached to resolve the Syrian-Egyptian disputes. The Lebanese issue was also discussed. The first meeting was a Syrian-Egyptian-Saudi one, followed by a Syrian-Egyptian-Palestinian-Lebanese meeting. Extensive discussions took place regarding the Lebanese issue, and there was pressure, truth be told, from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt on both sides to achieve Palestinian and Lebanese agreements. Multiple formulations were crafted, and the agreement was signed by the presidents. An agreement was also reached regarding a summit conference, which was endorsed at the Arab Summit in Riyadh.

King Khalid’s Role in Achieving Syrian-Egyptian Reconciliation

  • He acted as a mediator, encouraging both sides towards reconciliation. He emphasized the danger of persisting disputes between Egypt and Syria and stressed the importance of reconciliation for the benefit of the Arab world and both countries.

Meeting with President Carter

  • There were two meetings at that time: a closed-door meeting between him and me, and a meeting between the Syrian and American delegations. During the closed-door meeting, we discussed the issue of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and agreed on its representation in the Geneva Conference. However, it didn’t involve Yasser Arafat at a high level. We also agreed on implementing UN Security Council resolutions regarding withdrawal. From my perspective, the atmosphere was positive.

During the public meeting, there was talk about Syrian-American relations and the importance of achieving peace through the Geneva Conference.

Impression of President Carter

  • My personal impression of him is that he is more of a preacher than a politician. He couldn’t hold onto decisions. What we agreed upon during the closed-door meeting was contradicted by a statement from the White House the next day. When we met in public, both delegations spoke differently from what we had discussed privately. He has convictions, but he couldn’t impose them practically.

Impression of King Khalid

  • The impression I got from him is that he’s a sincere, faithful man, sensitive to Arab issues, against Arab disputes, and particularly sensitive about the Palestinian cause. This cause occupies his thoughts significantly.

King Khalid’s Relationship with President Hafez al-Assad

  • It was good. The meetings between them were limited. President Assad met him after the death of King Faisal. There was a meeting with a number of princes, then visits. Some visits included a meeting with him, and there was King Khalid’s visit to Syria.

General Arab Impression of King Khalid

  • The general impression among all Arabs is that he is a sincere man, with strong religious beliefs, keen on avoiding Arab disputes – a significant emphasis. The issue of peace, he wasn’t in favor of Camp David. He met with the American Treasury Secretary, trying to convince him about Camp David. Afterward, an official stance of the Kingdom rejecting Camp David was taken.

He had remarkable qualities.