London: The October War of 1973 changed the Middle East and the world when two presidents joined forces and shifted the balance of power.
The victory for Egypt’s President Mohammed Anwar Sadat and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad is well known, as is their close coordination. They also had differences in setting priorities and reaching agreements and objectives after the breakthrough, not least over Sinai and the Golan Heights.
But the ceasefire and peace agreements between Syria and Israel that followed remain crucial milestones in the history of the region. They defined the path global diplomats took over the Middle East for decades, and resonate today.
Al Majalla can now reveal crucial details on how this landmark agreement was reached, going behind the diplomatic scenes into a moment of history. This fresh insight comes from the archive of the late Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.
His trove of documents includes official minutes and secret messages which show exactly what was going on when global statesmen – including US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – seized the chance to change the world in what became known as “shuttle diplomacy”.
It was already underway after al-Assad agreed to the Golan ceasefire with Israel, and Sadat chose his next steps after the war. It went on to lead up to the Camp David agreement.
The complete journey included entry into Lebanon in 1976, an approach to Iraq and then a rupture after Saddam Hussein came to power, followed by alignment with Iran after the Revolution in 1979 and standing with it against Iraq in the war.
It covered al-Assad's internal conflicts in Syria and participation in the Gulf War of 1991.
Negotiations with the Israelis resulted in agreements that addressed security arrangements in the Golan, all while establishing normalisation and diplomatic relations between Tel Aviv and Damascus. However, at the last minute, these agreements were not finalised.
All these developments were in some way shaped by the Golan ceasefire.
New insight into how that was drawn up comes from papers Khaddam carried with him from Damascus to Paris in 2005 before he defected at the end of the year.
Al Majalla’s look at them starts with negotiations Kissinger led between Damascus and Tel Aviv in May 1974, which followed the ceasefire on 25 October 1973.
They reveal that the US secretary of state was “astonished and surprised” by al-Assad's approval of the separation agreement to such an extent he “asked his advisers to step aside for a few minutes. It was surprising that when he headed to the edge of the room, he stumbled and almost fell.'”
This is the full story of a stunning moment in history.
Doubts and caution before negotiation
Talks over a Forces Separation agreement for the Syrian front began on 3 May 1974. They were among the most challenging and complex negotiations, not least because of the intermediary: Kissinger.
Khaddam says: “While (Kissinger) represented the interests of America and global Zionism, he had to play the role of the mediator, or at least we had to accept that he had this role ...
“We had to be very cautious and sceptical. Therefore, every word he uttered or every idea he discussed, was met with questions and examined from various angles regarding the policies of the secretary of state and his aspirations to achieve peace under the American umbrella."
“All of this was enough to arouse concern and hesitation in our minds, as it contradicted our goals completely. It was not easy for us to negotiate with a man who had aided Israel during the October War and provided it with all the necessities for resilience, playing a significant role in directing events during the war and its aftermath, with these perceptions.'”
Al-Assad and Kissinger: Navigating the Soviet influence
Kissinger arrived in the morning in Damascus on Friday, 3 May 1974. Shortly after his arrival, discussions began in President al-Assad's office.
Khaddam recounts: “Kissinger attempted to be friendly and create an atmosphere of familiarity and humour at the start of the talks, using many friendly expressions, despite facing sharp criticism from Israel.”
The conversation began with a question about the then-upcoming visit of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to Damascus and whether he would actually make it. President al-Assad replied, “Yes, indeed.”
He then returned to talking about Gromyko and his style in negotiations, saying: “He (Gromyko) wants to meet with me in Damascus, and (Kissinger) has rejected that, and they have agreed to meet in Cyprus.”
Kissinger stated: “The Soviet Union wants to play a role, but we do not agree to that. What can the Soviet Union do when all the cards are in our hands? I will not accept a meeting with him in any Arab country because that would mean we have agreed to a Soviet role in the region.”
According to the minutes of the al-Assad-Kissinger meeting, the following discussion took place:
Al-Assad: “You cannot ignore this role (of the Soviet Union in the region), and I have agreed with the Soviets that everything should be done in Geneva, and they should participate in the Geneva Conference and the political settlement in the region.
“We do not agree to exclude or sidelining the Soviets, especially since the United States' connection to Israel does not reassure us about eliminating the Soviet role in the political settlement.”
Kissinger: “The Israelis are wary of the Soviets and reject Soviet involvement in the efforts. It is possible to proceed with signing the agreement in the absence of both Americans and Soviets, with the presence of the United Nations.”
Al-Assad: “The Israeli stance does not concern us, and we do not accept this logic. If we were to accept it, then we must reject American efforts. In any case, during my visit to Moscow, I assured them that the separation agreement would be in Geneva, and that they would participate. Do not forget that you agreed to this during your last visit (to Syria).”
Kissinger: “Yes, that is correct.”