Hafez al-Assad "shocked" Kissinger by agreeing to separation line

Al Majalla reveals what went on in the room between the Syrian president and the US secretary of state to produce a historic peace agreement at a vital moment

After the October War came shuttle diplomacy. Al Majalla reveals what went on in the room when two statesmen met and managed to draw up a historic peace agreement.
Eduardo Ramon
After the October War came shuttle diplomacy. Al Majalla reveals what went on in the room when two statesmen met and managed to draw up a historic peace agreement.

Hafez al-Assad "shocked" Kissinger by agreeing to separation line

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.”

While (Kissinger) represented the interests of America and global Zionism, he had to play the role of the mediator.  It was difficult for us to negotiate with a man who aided Israel during the October War.

Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam

The discussion then shifted to the topic of the ceasefire. Kissinger asked for a ceasefire "because it would help him in the negotiations."

Al-Assad rejected this request, saying: "The matter of a ceasefire is linked to the separation agreement because we have deployed our forces. Ceasefire would lead to a state of relaxation, and it is not easy to re-mobilise before a reasonable period of time has passed."

After discussing this point, an agreement was reached to halt air raids and maintain regular military operations. Kissinger then raised the issue of releasing wounded prisoners for humanitarian reasons. Al-Assad responded that this matter was linked to the ability to reach a final agreement.

Kissinger then presented a separation plan, but before explaining it, he said: "I fear that if you look at it, you will drop 8,000 bombs instead of 4,000 because I already know in advance that you won't find it acceptable."

Al-Assad replied: "If you already know it is unacceptable, then why present it in the first place?".  

Kissinger said: "This is what is currently on the table," and proceeded to outline the proposal:

1 – Separation would occur within the boundaries of the 'occupied pocket' (the territory under Israeli occupation) in the October War.

2 – This territory would be divided into three sections: one under Syrian control, one under United Nations control, and one under Israeli control.

3 – A demilitarised zone would be established on both sides of the border, along the ceasefire line, 25 kilometres deep on each side.

Khaddam said: "The president rejected this proposal and refused to discuss it because it meant giving the Israelis everything and depriving us of all leverage. He told Kissinger that seeking peace under these conditions was like looking for a needle in a haystack, and the conflict between us and the Israelis would continue; either we crush them, or they crush us."

Kissinger seemed to agree, replying: "This proposal does not convince me, and I will return to Israel to come up with another plan."

Kissinger's second visit: The Golan Heights and Israel's defence strategy

On 7 May, Kissinger returned to Damascus, where discussions turned to the Israelis and their stance on the Soviet role.

He said: "They (the Israelis) do not accept a Soviet role, and I agree that the separation agreement be signed in Geneva."

The Syrian president responded: "We insist on the involvement of the Soviet Union in this process, and that is not contingent upon Israel's preferences or wishes."

Kissinger then discussed the international situation, the European Security Conference, and the policy of strategic arms limitation – topics he had previously discussed with Gromyko in Cyprus.

He said: "The Soviets are interested in European security, but the latter holds no value in our view. As for the issue of weapons, we have a five-to-one advantage over the Soviets. He then shifted to talk about the internal situation in Israel, the disagreements, elections, the new government, and the protests that were taking place."

Khaddam explains that Kissinger wanted "to give the impression that the Israeli government is incapable of taking a serious step toward the withdrawal issue."

Then he discussed the internal situation in the US and the weakness of President Richard Nixon – especially since Kissinger enjoyed the support of Congress and the Jewish lobby in the US – adding that Kissinger "wanted to give the impression that he is the decision-maker in America and that either you accept what is proposed or you get nothing."

"Do not rely on Nixon if there are contacts between you and him or promises from him to the Arabs – which is the message he intended to convey."

Kissinger moved on to the topic of the separation project and said: "I know in advance that you will reject this project, and nevertheless, I have to present it to you."

He then outlined the proposals, which were based on the following points:

1 – Israel retains a portion of the occupied territories from the October War.

2 – Israelis retain the positions they occupied on Mount Hermon.

3 – The town of Quneitra is abandoned, and forces are positioned only a few meters from its outskirts.

After presenting the proposal, Kissinger said:  "The Israelis consider the Golan Heights part of their defence strategy. In addition, your situation is different from Egypt's. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal, and the Egyptian pocket was surrounded by Israeli forces, whose situation was bad."

I fear that if you look at it, you will drop 8,000 bombs instead of 4,000 because I already know in advance that you won't find it acceptable.

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

Al-Assad suggests a direct line and a withdrawal from Mount Hermon

Al-Assad rejected the project because it "does not differ in any way from the previous project and reflects the true aspirations of the Israelis."

He then presented his own proposal:

1 – Withdrawal of significance and a straight separation line along the front, keeping the forces (Syrian and Israeli) from intersecting.

2 – Undoubtedly, the return of civilians under Kissinger's proposal is impossible. The population cannot be placed within meters of the Israeli forces' firepower.

3 – Israeli withdrawal from all positions on Mount Hermon, especially since they were not in these positions on 22 October 1973.

President al-Assad stated: "Israel's inflexibility and insistence on considering the Golan or any Arab land as part of its defence strategy reveal Israeli expansionist intentions. Moreover, this project surrounds the city of Quneitra by the enemy (Israel) on three sides. How can we possibly accept that?"

Kissinger said he would return to try to convince the Israelis once more.

Israel's inflexibility and insistence on considering the Golan or any Arab land as part of its defence strategy reveal Israeli expansionist intentions.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad

Kissinger's third visit: a startling blueprint

On 12 May, Kissinger was back in Damascus, but with nothing fresh to offer.

He discussed the domestic landscape of Israel, discussing issues such as the government's precarious position and the dynamics between the minority and majority factions.

According to a Syrian transcript, Kissinger issued a stark warning: "If you do not comply, I will have to cease my efforts, and then you will lose the progress you have made in your relations with us. The situation will escalate, leading to increased Soviet presence. Israel wants to portray you as a tool in the hands of the Soviets, and the ensuing turmoil will aid them in achieving that."

In response, al-Assad began a lengthy discourse, questioning why Kissinger expected him to factor in Israeli public opinion.

He asked: "Why should the Israeli government expect us to consider and respect Israeli public opinion in our own country?"

Kissinger then presented a new proposal that, in his words, "was not fundamentally different from previous ones." When asked about the Israeli insistence on retaining the northern sector of the Golan Heights, Kissinger attributed it to "the presence of highlands."

When pressed on why there was no concession in the central and southern sectors, he replied, "There is a trench."

Subsequently, the secretary of state unveiled a plan outlining the separation proposals. It encompassed the following key elements:

1 – Israeli retention of the old observatory on Mount Hermon.

2 – Minor adjustments in the southern sector.

Kissinger said: "This is the final achievable outcome", but al-Assad rejected the proposal.

The president had other requirements: "The occupied villages must be returned: Majdal Shams, Mas'ada, Muqaydat, in addition to the line of villages in the central and southern sectors," he said.

Al-Assad then insisted on the imperative of reclaiming the hills surrounding Quneitra and emphasized that the separation line should be a straight one.

Kissinger replied that "the modification would require fresh discussions with the Israelis."

Kissinger's fourth visit: Egypt has regressed, Syria has advanced

On 13 May, Kissinger was back in Damascus. This is the official Syrian transcript:

Kissinger: Yesterday, after lengthy discussions, I presented your viewpoint to the Israelis. I believe the issue should not be viewed solely from a geographical perspective, but rather in terms of its impact on Israel.

Anti-US demonstrations have erupted, and they accuse Nixon of "antisemitism," even though his foreign minister and minister of health and social affairs are Jewish.

What we have reached is the utmost we could achieve. We must consider its importance in the second phase because what is happening now is not the final stage but the initial one. The significance lies in that the United States and Syria have collaborated to reach the first step, and we will work towards the second step.

It is crucial to contemplate the implications of this step in Israel. Through discussions, we have persuaded them to expand the buffer zone around Quneitra. In the south, however, they have not agreed (to do the same), citing the presence of hills and a trench in the north. They flatly rejected the return of inhabited villages and were presented with a map illustrating an expanded buffer zone around Quneitra.

Al-Assad: I see nothing new. Regarding Quneitra, how can we subject people to Israeli authority? How can these people live under Israeli control, on their own lands? What can we tell our people? Can we claim that we have achieved something? We do not want to deceive our people.

If there are difficulties in Israel, we also have our own difficulties because people expect something, given the war context. However, after the separation, they will ask us, 'What have you accomplished?'

This is the situation. I want to emphasise a simple point: we do not want to link the development of our relations with the United States to the situation with Israel. Put differently, we disagree if the US seeks to enhance its ties with us solely contingent upon the situation with Israel. Israelis are our enemies, and they are occupying our land.

We disagree if the US seeks to enhance its ties with us solely contingent upon the situation with Israel. Israelis are our enemies, and they are occupying our land.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad

Kissinger: I hope you consider the matter carefully. Egypt and your situation differ because the agreement with Egypt pushed Egyptian forces backwards, while your troops will advance.

Approximately 6,000 citizens will return, and as we move on to the second phase, you will be merely 30 kilometres away from your current position. But what is the alternative if an agreement is not reached? The alternative is war and Soviet intervention.

The Israelis will claim that the Arabs and Soviets are working together as enemies of the United States. Consequently, they will push us to align with them. I assure you that in times of war, you won't be able to achieve what you have achieved in negotiations.

Al-Assad: They reject peace. I assure you we will win in the end. We may incur significant losses, but we will defeat them. All Arabs will stand with us, and any Arab ruler who does not stand with us will be crushed by the people. This is natural, and the region will explode. The repercussions of war won't solely impact us; Israel and your side will also be affected.

Kissinger: That is true. I will return to Israel and convey your viewpoint, although I am certain there will be no new developments there. Abba Eban told me in the car that they could give up some hills around Quneitra, but now they have sent me a message saying that the Prime Minister does not agree. The important thing is that you have pushed the Israelis backward and broken the purple belt.

Al-Assad: I don't see anything new, so let this situation go on.

Kissinger: How should we conclude the talks? Should we announce their suspension, or should I return tomorrow and leave you the opportunity to consult with your advisors?

After explaining the Israeli position and our rejection of the project, al-Assad outlined where he could immediately take decisions:

1 – We do not accept Quneitra as a gift.

2 – We believe that the separation line should be a straight line passing through the hills, with international monitors stationed there.

Kissinger said: "That sounds reasonable".

Fifth visit: Al-Assad seeks Security Council guarantees after Israeli air raids

When Kissinger returned to Damascus on 16 May, it was around the time of Israeli airstrikes on Lebanon.

They became the topic of discussion, prompting al-Assad to elaborate on the nature of Israel and the misdeeds of Israelis. He said:

 "In every aggression, new fedayeen (self-sacrificers) are created, and as long as they are dying in camps, why should they not die on their own land? I have told the Lebanese that I am ready to help, but Lebanon is an independent state, and even though we are brothers, the request for assistance came from the Lebanese themselves."

Kissinger replied: "I support your viewpoint."

Khaddam's report on the meeting said Kissinger "criticised the Israelis and mentioned Ma'alot (Ma'alot-Tarshiha), an Israeli settlement that had been attacked by fedayeen, resulting in the deaths of several Israelis."

Al-Assad countered with an explanation of Israeli actions and how they had led to the killing of their own citizens.

The discussion then shifted to the topic of the separation, with Kissinger again addressing the Israeli government's situation. He pointed out that there were "some forces trying to obstruct reaching an agreement, namely the Iraqis, Soviets, and Palestinians."

Al-Assad argued that "those who are trying to hinder reaching an agreement are the Israelis, not the Soviets, Iraqis, or Palestinians."

Kissinger replied: "We are engaging in dialogue with the Palestinians, and we have sent the Deputy Director of Intelligence to Morocco, where he met twice with representatives from the Palestine Liberation Organisation."

Kissinger then presented some modifications regarding the land surrounding Quneitra. Al-Assad insisted that the separation line must pass through the hills.

Kissinger requested to return to Israel for further discussion, saying if no agreement was reached, he would return to Egypt and the US. He also raised the issue of US guarantees, to which al-Assad responded: "The guarantees we accept are the guarantees of the Security Council."

The sixth visit: al-Assad astonishes Kissinger

Kissinger was back in Damascus on 19 May, having announced his decision to return without an agreement from Syria.

He again discussed the separation line with al-Assad again, with two hours of talks ending in a deadlock.

But then came  the words from al-Assad that astonished his fellow statesman: "I do not want to hinder the agreement, and I agree to the separation line."

Khaddam was there and said: "Kissinger was surprised and taken aback by that. He requested a few minutes to confer with his advisors, and it was a surprise that when he headed to the side of the room, he stumbled and almost fell."

Kissinger was surprised (that al-Assad) agreed to the separation line) and taken aback by that. He requested a few minutes to confer with his advisors, and it was a surprise that when he headed to the side of the room, he stumbled and almost fell.

Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam

Discussions continued over the demilitarised zone, with al-Assad insisting that it should not exceed a few kilometres. They agreed that Kissinger would return for a more detailed discussion.

The separation agreement was discussed between 20 and 28 May. During these discussions, the talks stopped several times and were on the verge of failure —one of the important issues that put them on the brink concerned paramilitary activity.

There was the following exchange:

Kissinger: I propose that both parties refrain from engaging in military and quasi-military activities.

Al-Assad: By quasi-military, you mean the Palestinians, and we refuse to prevent them or to commit on their behalf. I do not accept that the agreement includes any similar text.

Kissinger: It has been nearly a month since I, the US  Secretary of State, have been coming and going. If you disagree, then I am forced to leave.

Al-Assad: If I were in your place, I would go.

Khaddam's account said: "Indeed, the US Secretary of State should not stay out of his country for a month."

Kissinger left, bidding farewell to al-Assad. But shortly afterwards, he contacted the president's office to request a meeting before his departure – which the President granted – and Kissinger eventually agreed with our viewpoint."

The second point of dispute was the issue of United Nations observers. Kissinger insisted it should be an international emergency force, while al-Assad insisted it should be US observers. There was also a disagreement about their number, but in the end, Kissinger agreed with Damascus's viewpoint.

The third point was about the demilitarized area and the size of the forces there – with Kissinger insisting it should be 25 kilometres, an idea al-Assad categorically rejected.

Khaddam recounts:  "I remember that after the discussions in one of the sessions, I, along with Major General Mustafa Tlass, the Minister of Defense, Major General Naji Jameel, the Deputy Minister of Defense and the Chief of the Air Force, Brigadier General Awad Baq, Brigadier General Youssef Shakour, and Colonel Hikmat Al-Shihabi, the Head of the Military Intelligence, remained. We discussed this point, and Maj. Gen. Tlass said, 'There is no objection to us agreeing, and I can regain this ground.'"

According to the minutes of the meeting, Khaddam looked at Tlass and said: "Although I have not served in the army beyond the rank of lieutenant, it is within my knowledge that you are incapable of that. Do not forget that for the sake of three kilometres in the Golan, you lost 1,200 tanks."

"I believe that for 25 kilometres, we will lose all our forces. We should not discuss matters with such levity and simplicity. Regardless of the situation, we should not accept this idea because it grants Israel everything it aspires to achieve. It effectively distances our forces and fires from all Israeli settlements."

In response, al-Assad said, "That is not acceptable."

But a Forces Separation Agreement was reached, on 28 May, although some details were left for discussion in Geneva, where it was signed on 31 May 1974. Under the agreement, the occupied Golan Heights was partially restored after the October War, along with the city of Quneitra and a small area.

Here is Khaddam's verdict:

Undoubtedly, this agreement had significant military benefits:

1 – It relieved the pressure on Damascus, with the enemy now at a distance of no more than fifty kilometres.

2 – Occupied land was reclaimed.

3 – Having our forces near the June 5th lines is much better than having them only about thirty kilometres from Damascus. When the opportunity arose for us to conduct military operations to liberate the land, we could not achieve greater gains because we were negotiating, and we had no cards in our hands except the forces that participated in the attrition war with the enemy.

He concluded:  "As for the Arab armies and the Egyptian front, they were now outside the political, military, and economic confrontation. Undoubtedly, the significance of signing this separation agreement during the clashes was profound.

"The signing of the separation agreement marked the end of a phase in political work, characterised by its numerous complexities and interventions—a phase testing our resilience and ability to bear burdens. We manoeuvred as much as we could in a narrow field to reach the best possible outcome, and undoubtedly, signing the Forces Separation Agreement marked the end of a phase."

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