Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Assurances from Assad: Separation of Forces with Syria, 31 May 1974

The Yom Kippur War was one of the most traumatic events in Israel's history, but it was the catalyst for political and diplomatic developments which changed the face of the Middle East. 
We have already written here about the separation of forces agreement signed by Israel and Egypt in January 1974, the first in a series eventually leading to a full peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
President Sadat did not want to be isolated in the Arab world, and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger led a diplomatic effort to bring about a similar agreement with Syria. Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad (father of current President Bashir al-Assad), waged an obstinate struggle to persuade Israel to give up some of the land captured in 1967, a struggle accompanied by a war of attrition which cost many lives. At first he also refused to give a list of prisoners of war. Even after that problem was solved, the negotiations were accompanied by many crises. At several points Sadat  intervened to encourage both sides. For example, at the end of January he sent this message to Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan.


Many in the Israeli public opposed border changes which might endanger settlements in the Golan Heights, and protesters led by the settlers demonstrated outside Golda's house.
Another difficulty was Israel's demand that Assad, like Sadat, should undertake to prevent terrorist attacks across the border. At the beginning of Kissinger's "shuttle" to Jerusalem and Damascus, Palestinian terrorists from Lebanon attacked the town of Kiryat Shmona in Northern Israel and 18 people were killed. After the Israeli air force carried out a reprisal raid on Lebanon, the US voted for a UN resolution condemning Israel. The public and press reacted violently and claimed that the US had abandoned Israel. Both Nixon and Kissinger wrote to Golda. Kissinger, "writing to you, not as Secretary of State but as a friend" assured her that as long as he was responsible for US foreign policy this would not happen. "Preoccupation with the anxieties of the moment" should not be allowed to lead to the failure of diplomacy which would ensure Israel's place  in the Middle East.(Kissinger to G. Meir, 29/4/1974, MFA, File 6857/10)

The negotiations with Assad progressed slowly. Israel gave up land captured in 1973 and agreed to return the town of Kuneitra to Syrian civilian control but refused to give up three hills which commanded it. On 15th May another terrorist attack from Lebanon took place in the town of Maalot. A group of children on a trip were held hostage in a school building. IDF forces made an assault on the school, but 21 children were killed.
IDf soldiers rescuing a girl from the building, 15 May 1974
Photograph: Ya'acov Sa'ar, Government Press Office
The public was deeply shocked and became even more resistant to an agreement with Syria, which was supporting the Palestinian cause.  

On the day of the attack Sadat sent Golda a secret message through Kissinger, who phoned the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Simcha Dinitz. It is shown in these notes:
Sadat condemned the attack and promised to restrain comment in the Egyptian press. Such actions must not be allowed to disrupt the attempts to make peace. If Israel reached an agreement with Syria he promised to cooperate with it to stop acts of murder and terrorism.   

Assad refused to give the Israeli government a written promise to prevent terrorism – but he agreed to give an oral assurance to the Americans. Golda would be able to announce this arrangement in the Knesset. On 30th May Kissinger sent her this letter, which appears in the US series "Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS)", Volume XXVI:

"Dear Madame Prime Minister:
This is to inform you that the assurances with respect to guerilla action from Syria conveyed to the Israeli Government have the following characteristics:
1. They were made to the Secretary of State by President Asad on the condition that there would be no publicity whatsoever.
2. President Asad emphasized that any publicity would force him to make a public statement contradicting the assurances and perhaps make it impossible for him to maintain them.
Best wishes,
Henry A. Kissinger"
A U.S. text was provided to the Israeli Government. According to FRUS, it reads, “The position of the United States with respect to the first paragraph of the Agreement between Israel and Syria on Military Disengagement is as follows: Raids by armed groups or individuals across the demarcation line are contrary to the ceasefire. Israel in the exercise of its right of self-defense may act to prevent such actions by all available means. The United States will not consider such actions by Israel as violations of the ceasefire and will support them politically.” 

You can see a clip of Kissinger's meeting with Assad in Damascus later that year here

The agreement with Syria was signed on 31 May 1974 in Geneva. The shooting on the border came to an end, and it has generally remained quiet, despite the upheaval in Syria. Meanwhile Golda, who had resigned  in April 1974 and was heading a caretaker government, was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin. On 6 June the Israeli prisoners of war returned home. Here we see Golda, Rabin and members of the families welcoming them home at the airport in Lod..
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office

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