This day in history: Nixon becomes first US president to visit Syria

In the midst of the Watergate scandal back home, Nixon needed a distraction. After years of isolation, his trip to Damascus on 15 June 1974 paved the way for future visits by US presidents.

American President Richard Nixon made an official visit to Damascus on June 15, 1974, and was welcomed by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
American President Richard Nixon made an official visit to Damascus on June 15, 1974, and was welcomed by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

This day in history: Nixon becomes first US president to visit Syria

When Air Force One landed at Damascus International Airport on 15 June 1974, the famous aircraft was carrying US President Richard Nixon, First Lady Pat Nixon, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

American presidents do not usually visit a country without a full embassy operating in their capital. Damascus did not have one then, but these were unusual and significant times, with much at stake for the Middle East and the world. Nixon was not making the visit to enhance bilateral relations but to restart them after a diplomatic break that had lasted since the 1967 war.

On the 50th anniversary of Nixon's visit, the current state of US-Syria relations is at its lowest ebb in history, plagued with American troops occupying oil-rich territory in Syria’s northeast and the crippling US sanctions imposed since 2011. Nixon’s Damascus visit was part of a broader Middle Eastern tour, which included talks with King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan, and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt.

After Damascus, Nixon had planned to visit Israel to meet its newly appointed prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. The official reason for the trip was to push for Arab-Israeli peace, but Nixon had another objective in mind: to divert attention from the Watergate scandal back home after his administration had been caught spying on the Democrats at the Watergate Office Building in Washington DC, two years earlier. He was certain that the Arabs would not raise the Watergate affair, expecting instead lavish, red-carpet treatment and an opportunity for a breakthrough in the Middle East that would somehow overshadow the scandal at home.

'The first American tourist'

Four Syrian military aircraft flew to accompany Air Force One, which landed at Damascus Airport from Saudi Arabia. President Hafez al-Assad and his entire cabinet, minus two communist ministers, were waiting on the tarmac, purposely left out to avoid embarrassing the US president.

As al-Assad introduced his cabinet members to the US president, Nixon asked Tourism Minister Abdullah al-Khani, “Do you get plenty of American tourists in Syria?” Al-Khani replied that very few had arrived since bilateral relations were suspended in 1967, to which Nixon smiled and said: “Consider me then, the first American tourist, and I am going to be sending you many more.”

The two leaders were then driven to the presidential guesthouse in central Damascus as thousands waved on the airport road carrying Syrian and American flags. The Damascus municipality had painted the walls of the city white and decorated its main roundabouts with flowers, tearing down illegal housing that ruined the scenery and asking residents to avoid hanging their laundry to dry on balconies. In his memoirs, Khani wrote: “It made me wish for a weekly presidential visit so that Damascus would always remain clean.”

Richard Nixon became the first US President to visit Damascus when he met with the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, in 1974.

Nixon was the first US president to visit Syria since bilateral relations were established back in 1944, although his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt had come in 1872 on a bird hunting trip, 30 years before entering the White House.

Nixon's visit paved the way for future US presidential visits, and a series of them followed. Jimmy Carter came in 1977, and George H.W. Bush arrived in 1990. Bill Clinton’s landmark visit to Damascus in October 1994 preceded another meeting with al-Assad in Geneva in March 2000, months before the Syrian statesman died.

A week before Nixon’s arrival, al-Assad gave a rare interview to Newsweek with US-Belgian journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave. The Syrian president praised Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in the aftermath of the October 1973 war. The White House was pleased with the interview since it made no reference to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and invited the US to manage the Middle East peace process single-handedly.

Packed itinerary

Nixon was accommodated at the al-Diyafa Palace on the tip of the palm-lined Abu Rummaneh Street in central Damascus. A small presidential guesthouse, it had housed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who used the guesthouse's balcony to announce the establishment of the short-lived Syrian-Egyptian union in 1958.

In the evening, al-Assad held a state dinner in Nixon’s honour at Nadi al-Sharq—the finest restaurant in all of Damascus. Instead of Oriental music that had entertained him in Cairo, where the famed belly-dancer Najwa Fouad swayed before the US president, the Syrians treated him with their world-famous cuisine.

Al-Assad served Nixon personally, repeating a popular phrase in Syria: “We say that one eats according to how much he loves his hosts.” Nixon smiled and pointed to Henry Kissinger’s belly: “That explains why every time Dr. Kissinger comes here, he returns to the States, gaining seven pounds!”

The next morning, Pat Nixon was taken on a tour of the Old City, where she visited the Umayyad Mosque, the old Al-Hamidiyeh Souq, and Al-Azm Palace. She purchased a tray of red copper from the old bazaars and was gifted Damascene silk in a handmade mosaic-inlaid box.

American President Richard Nixon made an official visit to Damascus on June 15, 1974, and was welcomed by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

On the other side of the city, Nixon began his talks with al-Assad at the presidential palace, carefully positioned facing an oil painting of the Hitten Battle of 1187, in which the Muslim Sultan Saladin had famously defeated the Crusades. It was al-Assad’s reminder of the glorious history of Muslims and their victories against foreign aggression.

The two men decided to resume diplomatic relations before delving into critical matters pertaining to a United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR), number 242, which rejected the occupation of land and called for a just peace in the Middle East. They also discussed UNSCR 338, which called on all regional players to enter into direct peace talks under international auspices.

Al-Assad asked for a written pledge from the US recognising Syria’s full claim to the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. Kissinger had avoided giving such a pledge during an earlier visit to Damascus in May. Nixon replied in vague terms. In his memoirs, the Secretary of State wrote: “Al-Assad was far too Syrian to accept bromides and far too intelligent not to understand aversions.”

'Our time is up, Mr. President'

In the afternoon, the two presidents spoke to an army of reporters, with Nixon saying that although he did not bring any “instant solution” to the region, “I can tell you that the United States is committed irrevocably to working for a just and equitable solution.”

They returned to al-Assad’s study, where the Syrian leader began pressing for direct answers to his many questions: To what extent would the Nixon White House push for a full implementation of UNSCR 338? Will that lead to an unconditional return of the Golan? Will the Syrian peace track remain separate, or will it be linked to the Egyptian one? What about the written pledge that Syria had asked for, and what will become of the Palestinians?

Kissinger had based his entire Middle East diplomacy on evading these questions, and when he realised that his boss was inching dangerously close to a commitment, he interrupted him, saying: “Mr. President, we have to leave. Our time is up. The plane is waiting.”

Al-Assad pressed one last time, and Kissinger interrupted yet again, prompting Nixon to snap: “Henry, don’t you want me to speak?” The president was right: Kissinger did not want him to say anything further. At 2:30 p.m., Nixon and Kissinger left Damascus for Tel Aviv. Just two months later, Richard Nixon would resign before being impeached over Watergate.

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