A decisive role played by Saudi Arabia in resolving the missile crisis between Israel and Syria, after Riyadh’s pressure on Washington and uniting the Arabs succeeded in stopping an impending war.
This role was upheld by former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, who reveals in his memoirs the secrets of diplomacy in the region during recent decades.
The crisis, which was compared at the time to the famous “Cuban Missile Crisis,” goes back to the summer of 1981, when Israel shot down two Syrian helicopters in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and Damascus quickly responded to the move by deploying “SAM” anti-aircraft missiles in the same area.
On the brink of war
The Israeli response was by threatening then Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Damascus to remove those missiles unless Syria withdraws them, so that the military situation would explode and tension would increase, and the region would stand on the brink of war.
Here, it was necessary for an Arab country of great weight to play a role in calming the situation before the disaster strikes. In the ninth episode of his memoirs published by Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Khaddam says that the late Saudi King Khalid bin Abdulaziz sent several messages to US President Ronald Reagan, warning him of the consequences of supporting Israel in its attack against Syria.
King Khaled threatened – according to Khaddam – that Saudi Arabia and all Arabs will stand side by side with Syria.
In the same context, Asharq Al-Awsat also mentioned an interview by the Saudi Crown Prince at the time, Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz, in which he said: “If Israel attacks Syria, the Arabs will all fight with and next to Syria.”
Letters of King Khalid and Al-Assad
Khaddam points out that King Fahd’s speech was in mid-May 1981, noting that the most active Arab country during the missile crisis was Saudi Arabia, and that King Khalid exchanged several messages with President Hafez al-Assad.
Khaddam, who was then Minister of Foreign Affairs of Syria, revealed that one of those messages was on May 20, 1981 and carried by Colonel Rifaat al-Assad, brother of Hafez al-Assad, to King Khalid.
Khaddam referred to another message from King Khalid that Abdulaziz Al-Tuwaijri carried to Hafez Al-Assad, in the context of Saudi diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.
The two messages touched on Al-Assad’s talks with the US envoy, Philip Habib, King Khalid’s status on the latest developments, and appreciation of Saudi Arabia’s efforts and the statements of its officials in support of Damascus.
Assad’s letter complains of American bias towards Israel. If the requests of the Washington envoy, who visited Syria three times, include the withdrawal of missiles and the withdrawal of the deterrent forces from the Lebanese Bekaa in return for Israel not attacking Damascus.
Critical Saudi support
Al-Assad requested the support of Saudi Arabia, noting that it is a “decisive factor in developing the position in favor of the rights of the sacred Arab nation,” calling on King Khalid to the necessity of exerting pressure on the United States.
Saudi Arabia threw its weight in unifying the Arab position in support of Syria in the missile crisis, so the decisions of the Arab League Council at the level of emergency foreign ministers in Tunisia, May 22, 1981, were decisive in the Arab stand behind Damascus.
The Council issued several crucial decisions; One of them explicitly stressed Washington’s call to stop all types of support and support for Israel, because this support constitutes an assault on the Arab nation, its dignity and future, and on security and peace in the region, and therefore the continuation of support will lead to a serious confrontation between the Arab nation and the United States of America.
In the conclusion of the discussion about the crisis and the decisive role of Saudi Arabia in its stations, Khaddam says that after this decisive meeting, the missile crisis, which put the region on the edge of the war between us and Israel, began to fade and disappear.