The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
On June 5th, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive air and ground strikeagainst Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria; this attack marked the start of the Eleven-Day War, a conflict which would cement Israel’s status as the dominant political and military power in the Mideast for the next three and a half decades. By the sixth day of the war, Israeli forces held the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Sinai Peninsula.
It was the next four days of the conflict, however, that would leave the most lasting impression on the world. During those 96 hours, the Israeli Defense Forces would pull off one of the most stunning military triumphs of the Cold War era— one that would leave Israel in possession of one of its enemies’ capital cities and make more than a few larger nations envious...
The seeds for what would later be designated Operation Maccabee wereplanted on June 10th, when Syria abruptly pulled out of UN-sponsored cease-fire negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbors following the assassination of prime minister Nureddin al-Atassi. Nearly forty years later, it still remains unclear who killed al-Atassi; however, it made little difference to his self-appointed successor, Hafez el-Assad. Assad, who organized a military junta to maintain law and order in Syria in the wake of the assassination, was convinced Israel’s intelligence agency MOSSAD was responsible and ordered his armies to fight Israel to the bitter end.
Repeated attempts by UN Secretary General U Thant, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and Assad’s fellow Arab leaders to convince him to re-enter the cease-fire talks failed dismally. Even if they had managed to persuade him to resume negotiations, though, Tel Aviv wasn’t in much of a talking mood after the Syrian military dictator made a vitriolic speech before his country’s national parliament the next day in which he called for Israel’s total destruction. Within minutes after the speech was concluded, Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan went to meet with prime minister Levi Eshkol and seek his consent to have IDF ground troops cross the Golan Heights and make a push for Damascus. Yitzhak Rabin, then chief of staff for the Israeli Defense Forces, accompanied Dayan to that meeting. Their conference only lasted fifteen minutes, but its results would resonate for decades.
The plan for Operation Maccabee was deceptively simple: three IDF infantry brigades and two armored brigades would fan out from the Golan Heights towards Damascus in a blitzkrieg offensive aimed at capturing the Syrian capital’s main command/control and defense facilities. Once seized, those facilities would be demolished and the invasion forces would pull back to the Golan Heights to firm up Israeli gains in that sector. Where possible, high-ranking Syrian military and intelligence officials would be arrested to stand trial for war crimes against Israel. Major General Avraham Yoffe, who had already distinguished himself in the Sinai campaign at the beginning of the Eleven-Day War, would lead the invasion force into Syria and direct its subsequent pullback to the Golan Heights; Israeli air force chief of staff General Mordechai Hod would direct tactical bombing raids in support of the offensive. The start of the attack was set for 5:00 AM Tel Aviv time on the morning of June 11th.
Troops along Israel’s borders with Egypt and Jordan were put on alert should either country decided to intervene on Syria’s behalf. However, this would prove to be unnecessary; neither country had the stomach for war any longer, and besides that relations between Syria and her Arab neighbors— Jordan in particular —had sharply deteriorated in the face of repeated military defeats by the Israelis.
Assad would be facing Operation Maccabee alone.
One of Napoleon Bonaparte’s most famous maxims was "No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy", and seldom has that been more true than in the case of Operation Maccabee. At 4:27 AM on June 11th, less than forty minutes before Israeli ground forces were scheduled to begin their thrust on Damascus, two Israeli Air Force Mirage IIIs on routine patrol spotted a flight of Syrian MiG-21s approaching the Golan Heights. Correctly deducing that these MiGs posed a genuine if minor threat to the invasion force, the Mirages opened fire on them; the MiGs quickly returned fire and a dogfight ensued that ended with the entire Syrian flight being wiped out.
Fearing that the Syrians had gotten wind of his plans and were launching a pre-emptive assault, Defense Minister Dayan ordered that Operation Maccabee be activated immediately. He would later turn out to be mistaken, but that error ironically worked to the Israelis’ advantage; the earlier attack time permitted them to exploit the cover of pre-dawn darkness, knocking Syrian ground forces for a loop. With little available in the way of air cover and most of their armored forces wiped out by the previous six days’ fighting, the Syrian armies were hammered mercilessly by the Israeli invasion force.
By June 12th the IDF was less than five miles from the outskirts of Damascus and the invasion forces had set up a perimeter ranging from the mountain town of Salkhad to Az Zabdani on the Lebanese border. IDF airborne troops were placed on alert in anticipation of a scheduled drop on the Syrian defense ministry’s headquarters the next day. As Israeli air force fighter jets flew round-the-clock raids on Syrian defensive positions in the heart of Damascus, Assad sent frantic messages to his embassies in Baghdad, Moscow, and Beirut in hopes of obtaining help in turning back the Israeli invasion.
He was bitterly disappointed on all three scores. Lebanon, whose relations with Syria had long been tense at best, turned him down flat; Baghdad could only muster half-hearted rhetorical support for his government; and innate Kremlin bureaucratic difficulties kept the Soviets from making a decision until June 13th, by which time the IDF had seized the Syrian defense ministry offices and were making a determined bid for the rest of Damascus.
The remnants of the Syrian air force did the best they could to stave off Israeli air attacks on their capital. But the Israeli pilots were more than a match for the defenders; those who were already aces added to their legends that day, and those weren’t aces became so, as they knocked off one Syrian MiG after another. "It seemed like the end of the world." one Syrian air force lieutenant would recall a decade later in a documentary interview for French TV.
CPSU General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was reluctant to commit Soviet forces directly to the fight for Damascus, given the massive American presence in the Mediterranean. However, he had no qualms about shipping massive quantities of Soviet weapons to the Assad government and gave his defense minister Andrei Grechko the green light to begin a massive airlift of guns, tanks, planes, missiles, and munitions to the city of Aleppo, where the Syrian defense ministry had hastily relocated its headquarters shortly after Operation Maccabee got underway.
The first military aid shipments arrived in Aleppo at about 2:45 AM local time on the morning of June 13th. The beleaguered defenders of Damascus prayed they hadn’t come too late.
For the White House, Operation Maccabee represented a political and diplomatic headache; President Lyndon Johnson already had a brutal war on his hands in Vietnam and wasn’t particularly eager to get drawn into yet another military showdown between Israel and her Arab neighbors. He and his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, felt that in launching its attack on Damascus the IDF had made a huge mistake that could come back to bite both Israel and the United States.
It wasn’t the remote prospect of Arab retaliation that disturbed the President; his CIA sources had assured him Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq would stay out of the fight and Syria’s armed forces were on the verge of collapse. What truly worried him was the possibility that Moscow might change its mind about directly intervening in the fighting in Syria; already the CIA’s Middle Eastern and European station chiefs had picked up vague hints that Brezhnev’s military advisors were encouraging him to send a combat brigade to Syria to deal with the Israeli forces besieging Damascus.
He ordered Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to gather every scrap of information he could find on what the Soviets were doing in response to Operation Maccabee. He also sent Rusk to Beirut to meet with Lebanese diplomatic and military officials, who were understandably nervous that the fighting in Damascus might escalate and spill over their frontiers. While this was going on, the Israelis began tightening their grip on the Syrian capital.
Around noon local time on June 13th, IDF infantry and tank columns encircled the headquarters of Syria’s secret police and foreign intelligence service. At both points they met with ferocious opposition from the Syrians, taking unexpectedly heavy casualties; word of this setback to the IDF raised Assad’s flagging spirits, and for the first time he dared to hope that his troops might actually win the struggle for control of his country’s most important city…
To Be Continued