The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first nine chapters of this series we chronicled the Israeli invasion of Syria and occupation of Damascus during the Eleven-Day War; Israel’s subsequent July War with Syria and the Soviet Union; the outbreak of hostilities between the USSR and the United States in the Persian Gulf; and the joint Soviet-Iraqi push to capture Tehran. In this installment we’ll look at the consequences of the failure of the Tehran offensive and how the Kremlin turned to its Warsaw Pact allies for help as it tried to salvage its position in the Persian Gulf.
Andrei Grechko was in a foul mood as he sifted through intelligence briefs and up-to-the-minute reports on the fiasco unfolding along the Tehran battlefront. This wasn’t the way that things were supposed to be turning out! By all rights Soviet and Iraqi forces should have been marching triumphantly into the heart of Tehran by now to accept the full capitulation of US-Iranian coalition troops; at the very least, Grechko thought, Soviet and Iraqi ground units ought to be far enough inside the city to make the US and Iran try to open cease-fire negotiations.
Instead, as the result of the actions of a single Iraqi battalion commander, the march into the Iranian capital had been halted and was now actually starting to go backwards. US and Iranian forces defending Tehran, having gotten a second wind they hadn’t previously expected, were taking full advantage of that break to instigate a counterattack that was putting serious strains on the Soviet-Iraqi battle lines in Iran and, if pressed hard enough, had a chance of breaking those lines altogether.
Grechko convened an emergency conference of the Soviet high command and ordered them to immediately draft a plan for stopping the US-Iranian counteroffensive. The stakes for the USSR, he said, were too high to tolerate even the briefest of delays; accordingly, the Red Army’s senior generals threw themselves into the task of trying to turn things back in favor of the Soviet-Iraqi alliance.
First Secretary Brezhnev and Foreign Minister Gromyko did their best to assure the Iraqi ambassador in Moscow that all wasn’t lost, but the ambassador was beginning to find it harder and harder to believe them. His country’s armies, after coming within an ace of seizing Tehran, now found themselves on the defensive again, and he wondered if they might not sooner or later be finding themselves fighting in downtown Baghdad.
In contrast, a feeling of confidence was taking hold among American and Iranian staff commanders in Tehran. As Soviet and Iraqi ground units began pulling back towards Rasht, and the tide of the air war turned increasingly in the US-Iranian coalition’s favor, there was a sense that the West might still win the war in the Gulf.
With practically no naval presence left to speak of in either the Gulf or the Mediterranean, the Soviets were finding an already difficult job that much harder; the flow of supplies from Soviet Central Asia to the Iranian battlefront was once again on the decline, and with the sea lanes in both the Med and the Gulf effectively closed to Soviet naval transport Moscow’s options for ferrying essential war materiel to its men on the Iranian front were very slim indeed.
Not that things were any easier for the White House-- President Johnson’s top military advisors were still warning him that trying to maintain a troop presence in Vietnam while at the same time fighting the war with the Soviets and Iraqis in the Middle East was putting a strain on Amercan resources he couldn’t keep up forever. Sooner or later, something would have to give...
That something nearly turned out to be Johnson’s political career. As the fighting in Vietnam continued to drag on with no sign of final victory or even a definite end to the war, LBJ’s increasingly vast legion of critics on both ends of the political spectrum were calling on him to resign. Some of the bolder men in Congress were pushing for impeaching proceedings to be started against the President; out in the streets, leftist antiwar marches called for the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam and the Middle East.
Some of those marches were tinged with a barely noticeable but still distinct, and therefore alarming, undercurrent of anti-Semitism. There were some who believed that the US-Soviet conflict in the Persian Gulf had been orchestrated by a so-called "Zionist conspiracy" that wanted to finish the job Israel had started in the Eleven-Day War, namely the final destruction of the Arabs. This might strike the reader as more than a bit paranoid, but it represents how deeply resentment of the government ran among the more radical fringes of the left.
No less a figure than Abbie Hoffman, the irreverent leader and founder of the Youth International Party("Yippies" for short), warned that such anti-Semitic extremism could only hurt the peace movement in the long run. He asserted-- and papers obtained from the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act suggest there may have been some truth to it --that these fringe elements were being exploited by the FBI as a propaganda method to discredit the antiwar left as a whole.
On December 1st, 1967, shortly after the battle for Tehran ended, Hoffman and other antiwar activists met in San Francisco for what became known as "a town hall meeting of the New Left".1 It was doomed to end in disaster practically from the moment it was announced; to the FBI it looked like a clumsy cover for another anti-government rally while many of the more radical sectors of the left viewed the event as bordering on a sellout to "the Establishment". The Nation of Islam was particularly incensed by this gathering and started holding protest marches outside the hotel where the four-day meeting was being held.
Fuel was added to an already raging fire when American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell and three dozen of his followers showed up on the second day of the meeting to stage a counterdemonstration; in a harangue that offended just about everyone other than his fellow neo- Nazis, Rockwell charged that the meeting, the NOI marches in San Francisco, the antiwar demonstrations, and the war itself were part of his mythical ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ conspiracy to take over the world. At least eight of Rockwell’s supporters got in a shouting match with the NOI protestors, and from there it was just a question of time before the verbal confrontation escalated into a physical one. The meeting itself and its original purpose-- to investigate anti-Semitic prejudices within the antiwar left --got lost in the shuffle.
Then came Rockwell’s now-infamous face-to-face encounter with Black Panther agitator Bobby Seale on the third(and as it turned out, final) day of the Hoffman-organized forum and all hell broke loose. Only the massive, heavily armed presence of Marin County sheriff’s deputies in the vicinity of the hotel kept the ensuing melee involving Rockwell, Seale, and their respective entourages from mushrooming into a full- blown riot; as it was, at least 200 people, Rockwell and Seale among them, would spend time in the county jail on charges ranging from disturbing the peace to assault with a deadly weapon.2 Fearing for his own safety and that of his peers, and convinced the forum had been an absolute failure, Hoffman cancelled the scheduled fourth day of the event and left San Francisco on December 5th. The experience left him so traumatized that he would eventually bail out of the antiwar movement altogether; he spent most of the next ten years in seclusion.
Back in Moscow, Defense Minister Grechko had reached a stark and inescapable conclusion: even with its vast pool of reserve troops, the Red Army could still find itself facing manpower shortages in the coming year if casualty rates among Soviet troops in the Persian Gulf remained constant or climbed any higher. How could the Soviet Union continue its fight against American and Iranian forces on the Iran- Iraq border without dangerously weakening its defense posture anywhere else?
His solution was to call for ground troops from the Soviet Union’s three most important Warsaw Pact allies: Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. On December 8th, as US and Iranian jets were pounding Iraqi defenses on the outskirts of Rasht, Grechko summoned the defense ministers of those countries to Moscow to inform them that the USSR would need at least 30,000 soldiers from each of their respective armies in order to bolster the Soviets’ own ground forces in the Persian Gulf.
The defense ministers had no objection to Grechko’s request-- or if they did, they prudently kept it to themselves. However, when they went home to begin making the necessary arrangements for the provision of these troops, they found themselves hearing distinct if muted notes of protest from their senior generals about what Grechko was expecting them to do. They barely had enough men, they said, to meet their defense requirements at home, and now they were being asked to commit personnel to a conflict thousands of miles away?
That was the case with the Polish and Czech general staffs, anyway; the East German high command, on the other hand, was all gung-ho to take part in the fighting in the Persian Gulf. It would mark the first time in over two decades that German military personnel had seen combat on foreign soil, and the Volksarmee relished the opportunity to prove to the world that the German people hadn’t lost their knack for waging war. Walter Ulbricht, head of the Communist regime in East Berlin since the GDR was founded in 1949, saw East German participation in the fighting in Iran and Iraq as a useful means of reinforcing solidarity between his own country and the Soviet Union.
In any case, the Soviets and their Iraqi allies would need all the support they could get on the battlefield. Two weeks after Grechko’s conference with his counterparts from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, US and Iranian mechanized infantry began engaging Iraqi ground forces in Rasht....
To Be Continued
1Quoted from Tom Wolfe’s article Open Mike, Closed Minds in the February 1968 issue of Esquire.
2During the fight, one of Seale’s bodyguards had tried to stab Rockwell with an 11-inch Army knife.