khaddam memories…Tensions mount between Arafat and al-Assad

publisher: المجلة AL Majalla

AUTHOR: ابراهيم حميدي

Publishing date: 2024-05-22


US envoy Phillip Habib proposes a plan to facilitate the PLO’s exit from Beirut. Meanwhile, the Phalange party vows to end Lebanon’s ‘three occupations’.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad on September 1, 1989 in Tripoli, Libya.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad on September 1, 1989 in Tripoli, Libya.

In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon for a second time after the attempted assassination of its ambassador in London. Following a three-pronged attack, Israel’s forces reached the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in a matter of days before laying siege to the city. Palestinian fighters had built a strong base there, operating autonomously, like a state-within-a-state.

Al Majalla has obtained access to what has become known as the Khaddam Files, which shed light on this turbulent period in Lebanon. Abdul Halim Khaddam was Syrian’s foreign minister at the time.

Later, he became Syria’s vice president and served under Hafez al-Assad and then under his son Bashar until he became disillusioned with the Syrian regime, abandoned his post and fled to France in 2005, taking with him secret documents detailing regional events during his time in office.

Syrian Foreign Minister and Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam details the onset of hostilities with Syria and Arafat’s armed forces, describing the latter as pursuing “unjust campaigns”. For her part, Arafat accused the Syrians stationed in Lebanon of not fighting, of abandoning the Palestinians, and of deserting their posts in the face of an Israeli army laying siege to the Lebanese capital.

An infuriated Khaddam called it “lies and slander against Syria at a time when the bodies of Syrian soldiers lay strewn across Beirut, Mount Lebanon, and the Bekaa, while Arafat’s group sought an escape from the battle”.

Upset, Khaddam felt his boss was being personally targeted by Arafat aides, such as when the PLO representative in China, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, told Agence France-Presse that “Hafez al-Assad receives his orders from (Israeli Prime Minister Menachem) Begin”.

Khaddam summoned Muhammad Ghoneim, Fatah’s representative in Syria, to “express our dissatisfaction with the offensive language used by Arafat and his supporters, while Syria alone shoulders the burden of combat amidst a pervasive Arab silence”. Ghoneim urged Arafat “to curb this defamation,” but Arafat “ignored the pleas”.

Later, Khaddam wrote: “We were unsurprised by this campaign and by Arafat’s cessation of all communication with us during the war, despite our forces defending him. We only learned of his dealings with the Lebanese, Americans, and Israelis through updates from President Sarkis or from our security apparatus in Beirut.”

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Allegiances and allegations

Khaddam frequently met Palestinian resistance factions in Damascus. Their primary concern was lifting the siege of Beirut or ending the ceasefire in the Bekaa Valley to alleviate the pressure on Beirut, despite knowing the severe challenges faced by the Syrian forces following the destruction of their air defence capabilities.

Some Palestinian factions stayed close to Damascus, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), led by Ahmed Jibril.

Syrian and Palestinian officials met to “enhance the military operations of the Syrian forces in Lebanon and strengthen the bond with the joint Palestinian-Lebanese forces, which had demonstrated their resilience against the enemy”.

A meeting was held in Damascus between Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese leaders to coordinate efforts across the political, military, media, and public sectors, according to documents from Khaddam, who shared his perspective with senior PFLP-GC man Omar Al-Shihabi on 24 June 1982.

He said the false claims of Syrian forces not fighting in Lebanon “reflects the narrow-mindedness of the (Palestinian) leadership in Beirut”, adding that he was “surprised to hear talk of Syrian-Palestinian-Lebanese cohesion at a time when Abu Ammar’s (Arafat’s) agents continue to undermine the Syrian army and Syria itself.

“Inform the leadership in Beirut that we will not hesitate to provide any support or assistance within our capabilities and are ready for coordination and joint action. They are aware that our forces in Beirut are combatting the Israeli siege with significant effectiveness, and these forces are at their disposal.

“We will exert all possible pressure on the Lebanese state to avoid crossing the red line concerning the Palestinian revolution on the one hand and the Israeli enemy on the other.”

Two perspectives

A Syrian intelligence report dated 26 June 1982 informed Damascus that meetings of the new Lebanon Salvation Authority were characterised by two clashing perspectives.

One was called “the national perspective”, represented by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri, leader of the Shiite Amal Movement. Its adherents “prioritise the removal of the Israeli occupation” with pressure at the Arab and international levels.



From left: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, head of the Shiite Amal Movement Nabih Berri, and head of the Communist Action Organisation Mohsen Ibrahim during a meeting in Beirut, August 30, 1982.


It sees the Palestinian presence “as a secondary issue to be addressed later” and considers Syria’s presence in Lebanon “a matter governed by an official agreement between the Lebanese state and a decision from the Arab Summit”.

The other perspective was referred to as ‘the official Lebanese and Phalange’ perspective, represented by three senior Christian leaders: President Elias Sarkis (a Maronite), Foreign Minister Fouad Boutros (Greek Orthodox), and Bachir Gemayel, a paramilitary commander in the right-wing Kataeb Party, known as the Phalange.

They saw Lebanon as occupied by three external parties—Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians—and felt all three should be driven out, especially the Palestinians, whose exit, they thought, would unlock a resolution.

The Syrian intelligence report added: “This stance is openly supported by Philip Habib. (Prime Minister Shafik) Al-Wazzan, on the other hand, holds a centrist position, albeit leaning towards the national perspective.

“Despite several attempts to reach a consensus, a proposal was eventually made for the entire Salvation Authority to convene (excluding Sarkis for security reasons) with Abu Ammar (Arafat).”

Bachir Gemayel, who had been liaising with the Israelis, was unexpectedly absent at the last moment. It was later revealed that Ariel Sharon had told him not to attend the meeting with Arafat. To the others, the PLO chairman laid out his argument.

Two sets of demands

Arafat said there first needed to be a ceasefire, with both sides withdrawing (the Israelis to 5km outside Beirut, the PLO to the camps), before negotiations could begin. He said the Lebanese Army, bolstered by an international force, could act as an intermediary, enter West Beirut, and oversee the ceasefire and force separation.

Arafat then said talks could define the future role of the resistance in Lebanon, suggesting that his PLO may remain but that its full range of activities might be curtailed by mutual agreement. Habib, Israel, the Phalangists, and those who supported the Official Lebanese perspective dismissed this idea.

Instead, they demanded the PLO’s complete disarmament, its forfeiture of special status, and an end to Palestinian civil protections. In exchange, they offered to guarantee the personal safety of the Palestinian and resistance leaders upon their departure from Lebanon—a longstanding US insistence.

It was evident that Sarkis and Boutros were hindering all efforts to effect a ceasefire, separate the opposing forces, and initiate negotiations between the Lebanese and the PLO. Their obstruction coincided with an uptick in Israeli military action.

The situation became untenable. Jumblatt announced his departure from the Salvation Authority, Berri suspended his membership, and six other ministers called for Al-Wazzan’s resignation. As prime minister, he felt pressed to endorse something tantamount to Palestinian capitulation, so he submitted his resignation to President Sarkis.

Fight to save a city

According to the intelligence report, these developments “caused significant upheaval in the nation’s political scene, making it clear to Sarkis, Boutros, Philip Habib, Bachir, and the Israelis that no Muslim politician would consent to sign the instrument of surrender.



US envoy Philip Habib.


“The resignations precipitated a brutal bombardment of Beirut’s western neighbourhoods on Friday afternoon. That evening, Habib notified former Prime Minister Saeb Salam of a determined resolution for a genuine and comprehensive ceasefire, set to commence at 9 pm that Friday.

“Attempts were made the following day, Saturday, 26 June 1982, to convene an Islamic national conference to endorse the resignations and consolidate a unified stance, but these efforts had yet to succeed.”

Describing Jumblatt’s stance as “commendable”, it said the Druze leader neither relayed the US/Official Lebanese demands for a Palestinian surrender nor connived to deceive Lebanon’s Palestinians. Instead, he reaffirmed his support for the Palestinian perspective that Arafat presented to the National Salvation Authority.

France, a former colonial power, sought to save Beirut by encouraging it to adopt a neutral stance. It urged a separation of forces, underpinned by an international force alongside the Lebanese army, followed by negotiations between the Lebanese and the PLO “to forge a new agreement within the ambit of full Lebanese sovereignty”.

Al-Wazzan all alone

Another Syrian intelligence report from Beirut on 27 June said Al-Wazzan “had made significant efforts” to break the impasse but was hindered “due to the political and military blackmail he and the other members of the Salvation Authority faced”.

It added that “the well-known Israeli-American conditions remained unchanged, and the hostilities not only continued but escalated in a reckless and unbearable manner, compelling him to offer his resignation to the President”.

According to this document, Al-Wazzan told the report’s author that he did not want to accuse Sarkis of treason, saying: “He represents one viewpoint of the Lebanese; I represent another. Each of us has his own style.”

On the issue of Syrian forces in Beirut, Al-Wazzan said this was not discussed, “but to save the city, we proposed that the Deterrence (Syrian) Forces present in the city be withdrawn and replaced by the Lebanese army… If this could not prevent the Israelis from entering Beirut, we could at least use it politically”.

Berri told the Syrians that the Israelis bombed a nearby area during the meeting of the Salvation Authority, “which forced me personally—considering that this bombing was a means of putting pressure on the Authority—to request to leave”.

Sarkis called Habib to the palace, called for a ceasefire, and presented the Palestinian argument. Habib insisted that the resistance be told that their armed presence was no longer acceptable and that they must disarm and become a political-only organisation.

The two men wondered if the Palestinians would agree to remain in Lebanon under Lebanese control, accept the dissolution of an independent Palestinian armed force, or acknowledge Lebanese sovereignty over Lebanese lands without exception. Habib wondered if the PLO leadership and its military units would stay in Lebanon or leave.

Berri said: “When we spoke with Abu Ammar (Arafat), we made it clear that we were not opposing him nor demanding concessions. We simply wanted to understand what he believed was in the best interest of his people and their cause.”

Berri further described how “the bombardment of our areas intensified, reducing the presence of fighters, leaving the fighters from the Amal Movement in Al-Sullam, the Faculty of Science, and Al-Layliki (south of Beirut) primarily”.

National Salvation Authority dissolves

He added that in a private meeting with Jumblatt, Al-Wazzan, and the Palestinians, he proposed that he and Jumblatt “step back from our roles in the National Salvation Authority, as we could not merely act as messengers between Philip Habib and the Palestinians under such pressure”.

Both men suspended their membership in the Authority, and then Jumblatt withdrew completely from the authority. “Around the same time, the French proposal was presented,” Berri said.

“We encouraged Shafiq Al-Wazzan to support it, though we knew the Lebanese government was unlikely to approve. The next day, I added some comments to the proposal, and the government accepted it. Nonetheless, it failed to pass due to an American veto and because the Salvation Authority had been frozen.”

Berri said Arafat saw the situation deteriorating daily, so they offered to disengage, remove all heavy weapons from Lebanon (leaving only light weapons in the camps), and focus on political and media activities as per a United Nations proposal.

Yet that left the Palestinian factions riven because George Habash, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), maintained that “the fight must continue until the end”.

Berri thought Israel would never accept Arafat’s proposals, nor would Habash. He then learned from the French ambassador that Habib had said, “All Palestinian weapons must be transferred to Lebanese authorities, resistance leaders can leave Lebanon, and the issue of Beirut is guaranteed to be resolved”.

According to the intelligence communiqué, former Lebanese prime minister Saeb Salam discussed the proposals with Arafat.

Coordination between the Palestinian resistance, Berri’s Amal, and Jumblatt’s Lebanese National Movement was at its peak. Parties set aside their differences to combat a common enemy. Even the Iraqi Baathists joined forces with Amal.

The situation in Beirut was worsening. The city’s infrastructure had been badly bombed, resulting in power and water outages. The siege was intimidating, with the deployment of battleships and aircraft, as well as the forced displacement of families. It led to a partial state of collapse.

Morale was low, the number of resistance fighters was rapidly dwindling, and the essential military infrastructure of the Syrian Deterrence forces, the Palestinians, and the National Movement had been severely weakened by Israel’s relentless bombing from land, sea, and air. In short, they had no means to retaliate effectively.



Israeli bombing of areas in western Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, July 30, 1982.

There was a vast gap in combat effectiveness, while pressure on every resistance fighter “has escalated to extreme levels”, the authors recorded.

“The prevailing sentiment is, ‘We must continue to fight with whatever manpower and weapons remain, aiming for victory or martyrdom.’ This approach is expected to inflict significant losses on the enemy should they attempt to advance into Beirut, which could prove strategically advantageous in the future.”

Habib’s six points

According to a Syrian intelligence document dated 30 June, Habib outlined several points as the framework for a political resolution in Beirut, emphasising the urgency of the situation.

1. The leadership and fighters of the Palestinian resistance would exit Beirut with their personal weapons, choosing their own route and destination.

2. All non-Lebanese militants would withdraw from Beirut, including the expulsion of Arab deterrence forces from the area.

3. Disarmament of Lebanese citizens in the western region.

4. Deployment of the Lebanese army in West Beirut and the southern suburbs to take over security responsibilities.

5. Initiation of discussions regarding the future political and military presence of Palestinians in Lebanon with the Lebanese authorities.

6. The resistance to set a specific date for their departure.

Among the Palestinians, the intelligence suggested that Fatah “seems to have tacitly approved it, but discussions among other factions continue”. They included Arafat, Fatah leader Hani Al-Hassan, and Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).

On the second point, Prime Minister Al-Wazzan said any decision on removing Syrian forces required an Arab consensus, but Habib said this pertains only to Beirut. It does not imply a total withdrawal from Lebanon.

Al-Wazzan felt that the disarming of Lebanese citizens was a domestic matter, but there was agreement on the fourth point. He suggested that international observers accompany the army, a proposal supported by the National Movement.

On the continued Palestinian presence, Syrian intelligence noted that “discussions have occurred between Abu Al-Walid (Saad Sayel, a military commander in Fatah) and Abu Al-Zaim (Hazem Atallah, a Palestinian military leader and politician) representing the resistance, and Johnny Abdo (director of Lebanese Military Intelligence) along with other Lebanese military leaders.

“Initial agreements have been made for establishing a PLO office with a symbolic military presence, the specifics of which are still being determined. Discussion continues, particularly concerning Palestinian civilian gatherings. The authorities have requested that the PLO office be outside Beirut, which the resistance rejects.”

Regarding the sixth point, about setting a departure date, it said, “The resistance has not yet responded.”