Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters on the United States Airstrike in Lebanon

December 4, 1983

The President. Good afternoon.

For some time now, we have been flying regular and routine reconnaissance flights with unarmed planes in Lebanon as a part of the protection and defense of our forces there. We notified the Syrians of this some time ago, assuring them that the planes were unarmed, that this was purely for reconnaissance. There have been some instances of firing at those planes now and then from unknown sources. But early yesterday, two such reconnaissance missions were fired upon by literally hundreds of antiaircraft and a combination of surface-to-air missiles, which were coordinated from several sites by the Syrians. Early today, we responded to this unprovoked attack by striking back at those sites from whence had come the attack.

We don't seek hostilities there. Our mission remains what it was: to help stabilize the situation in Beirut until all the foreign forces can be withdrawn and until the Government of Lebanon can take over the authority of its own territory. But we are going to defend our forces there. And this was the reason -- or the purpose of the mission earlier today.

Q. Are you going to negotiate to get the pilots back? Aren't there two lost or unaccounted for?

The President. Yes. We've had this report that two of the pilots, or the crew of one plane -- two planes were shot down of ours. The pilot, as you know, was rescued that landed outside of that area. Two inside. I don't have any further word except that we are attempting to negotiate their release.

There have been rumors or reports of some kind of the loss of one, but we have no substantiation of that.

Q. What do the Syrians say?

Q. Is there a danger of -- --

Q. What do the Syrians say about it? Have they said anything?

The President. I am going to find all that out, because we're just -- our Embassy has been notified, and they're making contact.

Q. Mr. President, are they escalating the war, sir?

Q. Mr. President, if they shoot at us again, will we shoot back?

Q. Are we at war with Syria?

The President. Wait a minute. What?

Q. Do you fear a military confrontation with Syria at this point?

The President. Do we fear a military confrontation with Syria? Well, I think that's the wrong word. I think the question is wrong. We don't want such a thing; we don't desire it. But -- and I think this'll answer your question over here at the same time about if it happens again, will we fire back -- we haven't fired at anyone unless it has been to return fire against attacks made upon our forces.

Yes, if our forces are attacked, we will respond. We're going to defend our personnel that is there.

Q. Is this coordinated with the Israelis, Mr. President?

The President. What's that?

Q. Is this coordinated with the Israelis, sir?

The President. No. I heard some rumors to that effect. And I suppose the situation of President Gemayel and Prime Minister Shamir both being here and the fact that they have responded with fire to some areas led people to suppose that. No, we knew nothing of their operations, and there was no contact with them regarding ours. And the Prime Minister has responded to that question and said that they were only aware of it after it happened.

Q. Do we think President Assad is still running Syria? Do we think President Assad is in good shape to run Syria?

The President. Well, that's -- your guess is as good as mine. We don't know. The conflicting stories that are coming out of there, the attempt now to portray him as being active and on the scene -- we really have no assurance one way or the other.

Q. Do we think that's had an effect on this firing at our aircraft?

The President. I wouldn't know. All I know is that this was coordinated by the Syrians.

Q. Are the two pilots POW's now?

Q. Does this complicate American efforts to negotiate the Syrians out of Lebanon?

The President. What?

Q. How seriously does this retaliatory attack complicate hopes to negotiate a Syrian exit from Lebanon?

The President. Well, I hope that it doesn't make it any more difficult. I hope that the reaction would be the other way. But we're going to continue with the mission that we embarked upon some time ago, and that is to bring peace to that area.

So, now, that's about all. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 1:39 p.m. at the South Portico of the White House. He was returning to the White House from Camp David, Md.