In the summer of 1981, Israel shot down two Syrian helicopters over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which were on a combat mission against the Lebanese Forces in Zahle and Sannine. Syria responded by introducing SAM anti-aircraft missiles into the area.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin reacted by threatening to hit these missiles with “special means” unless Damascus removed them. The military situation became tense and reached the brink of war, as Syria refused to comply with the Israeli request.
The situation was compared to the Cuban missile crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, which ended with Nikita Khrushchev withdrawing his missiles.
In parallel, Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor further complicated the matters. Many believe that this crisis has paved the way for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the following year.
In this ninth episode of the memoirs published by Asharq Al-Awsat, former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam narrates some of the aspects of this diplomatic battle that came in parallel to the field escalation.
“The missile crisis came at a time in which the Arab situation was witnessing serious divisions, a state of decline and apathy, and a distraction from the main dangers that threaten the nation…Here, I cannot help but point out that this Arab stance, despite the bad conditions, played a positive role in exerting pressure on the United States. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, and others, carried out combat activities’ with the US administration…King Khalid bin Abdulaziz sent several letters to then-President Ronald Reagan, warning him of the consequences of supporting Israel in its attack against Syria, noting that Saudi Arabia and all Arabs would stand side by side with Damascus.”
Khaddam recalls Saudi Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz commenting in a press interview on the missile crisis, saying: “There is no doubt that the sad situation of the current Arab position is the main reason that encouraged Israel to escalate its military operations against the Palestinians and the Lebanese. The Arab nation lost the minimum level of solidarity that was achieved at the Baghdad Summit in 1978, and this is very dangerous. For some time now, while we in the Kingdom have been alerting to the seriousness of the situation, we have demanded and been pressing for the necessity of rearranging the Arab house. The more the Arab position deteriorated, the more Israel became aggressive and arrogant…We, in the Kingdom, praise the heroic steadfastness of the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples in the face of the Israeli war machine, and support sisterly Syria in its unwavering and courageous stance against Israel. The huge responsibility Damascus bears at this stage, under the leadership of Brother President Hafez Al-Assad, requires our support. The Syrian position today expresses the determination of the Arab nation not to allow Israel to dictate its will, despite the absence of Arab solidarity.”
The Syrian vice-president says that Prince Fahd gave this conversation in mid-May 1981 to the Saudi Press Agency, adding that Saudi Arabia has actively engaged to resolve the missile crisis and a number of messages were exchanged between President Hafez Al-Assad and King Khalid.
The following are excerpts from a letter sent by Assad to King Khalid on May 20, 1981, conveyed by the Syrian president’s brother Rifaat al-Assad.
“…From this point of view, Your Majesty… learned about the conversations between President Al-Assad and (US Envoy) Philip Habib in the previous two meetings. Mr. Habib visited us for the third time on May 19, 1981, and we assured him in a friendly tone that we were keen on the success of his mission and that we would spare no effort in helping him. Habib’s requests on his last visit were the following: Halting all military escalation; reducing verbal statements because they increase psychological tension; returning to the previous situation (that is, the removal of rockets and the withdrawal of the deterrent forces from Sannine and Zahle)…; resuming work to revive the national accord in Lebanon… and, reducing the Palestinians’ actions across the Lebanese borders.”
As per the Syrian side’s response to Habib, Assad detailed them in the letter, saying:
“With regard to stopping the military escalation, we agree to that, bearing in mind that the measures we took were only a response to Isrthe aeli action (…) As per the national reconciliation, we agree on the need to reach it and strive to achieve it, but we have to realize that Israel’s interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs complicates the situation (…) With regard to Palestinian activity, the summit in Tunis, at the request of Lebanon, took a decision in this regard, and the Palestinians are bound by it; yet the constant bombing of their camps forces them to take action (…)”
Assad continued: “Concerning all this, we are consistent in our position. We do not want war and are not working for it, but we categorically refuse anything that humiliates the Arabs. Hence, we underline the importance of joint Arab action, which Your Majesty has always called for, especially in such critical and delicate circumstances (…) Your support is a decisive factor in developing the position in favor of the rights of the sacred Arab nation, and the pressure you exercise on the United States is very necessary so that these rights are not detracted.”
Khaddam says that an emergency session of the Arab League Council at the level of foreign ministers convened in Tunisia on May 22, 1981, during which all sides expressed support for the Syrian position.
At the end of the discussions, the Council approved a resolution that stipulated the following: “The Council discussed, in a high spirit of national responsibility, the explosive situation in the region, following the escalation of Israel’s aggression against the Arab nation, its interference in the internal affairs of brotherly Lebanon, the brutal bombing of Lebanese cities and villages and Palestinian camps… its attacks on the Arab deterrent forces and its threats to Syria.”
According to Khaddam’s narration, the Council decided to face the “Israeli security theory” with all available means and support Syria in opposing Israel’s practices.
“The Council affirms that it stands with Syria in its response to Israel’s aggression and provocations (…) In light of the current information… Arab countries will provide Syria with the necessary support to repel the aggression, and will put all their capabilities at the disposal of the battle, including the participation of their military forces, in accordance with the Charter of the League of Arab States and the Joint Arab Defense Treaty.”
The Council also called for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon and urged the Lebanese parties to achieve national reconciliation.
“The Council affirms its support for the efforts made by President (Elias) Sarkis and the Lebanese government, in cooperation with the Syrian government, to achieve national reconciliation in accordance with the principles announced by the President of the Republic and approved by the Lebanese government, and it warns any Lebanese team against hindering national reconciliation, and against using the Israeli card to obstruct the march towards a settlement,” the final statement said.
Commenting on the Arab League decision, Khaddam says: “Undoubtedly, the decision is politically good and contains strong texts….We were keen on such a policy paper for several considerations, including those related to mobilizing Arab public opinion…However, in this crisis, we clearly demonstrated, without leaving room for doubt or controversy, the danger of peace with Israel.”
The Syrian vice-president continues: “We have made the best use of the Arab relationship in this crisis and we turned it into a tool of pressure on the United States...We also used the Soviet card well, and put America in a difficult situation...”