The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first ten 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; the joint Soviet-Iraqi push to capture Tehran; and the US-Iranian counterattacks that turned back this assault. In this installment we’ll remember the battle for Rasht and look more closely at how the fighting in the Persian Gulf affected domestic affairs on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Nobody likes to fight a war when winter is approaching. They like fighting on the losing side of that war even less. And they most especially dislike doing so in an urban or semi-urban environment. Yet the Soviet and Iraqi forces occupying the Iranian town of Rasht in late December of 1967 found themselves obliged to confront all three of these unpleasant scenarios as a US-Iranian offensive to push the Soviet-Iraq alliance out of Iran continued to build up a head of steam. The flow of supplies from the Soviet Union to the Iranian battlefront had slowed to a mere trickle, and US air commanders in the region were doing everything humanly possible to shut off that trickle.
B-52s, A-6 Intruders, and F-4 Phantoms bombed Soviet-Iraqi alliance supply lines around the clock; whenever possible, these bombings were supplemented by rocket fire from US Army attack helicopters. What was left of the Soviets’ campaign strategy for winning control of Tehran was being shredded like wet paper under the impact of these strikes, and Defense Minister Grechko was beginning to feel the cold chill of realization that only a vigorous counter-assault by Soviet air force squadrons could save the Red Army from a humiliating defeat at Rasht.
So he dispatched new Soviet interceptor squadrons to the Persian Gulf and ordered a substantial increase in aircraft for the squadrons already stationed there; the trickle of supplies to Soviet and Iraqi ground troops in Rasht went back to being a flow as the interceptors blunted the US-Iranian air strikes. The skies over the occupied city became a vivid pyrotechnic show as planes from both sides were blown out of the sky in droves. Taking advantage of their newly obtained relief supplies, Soviet and Iraqi troops reinforced their defensive strongpoints and braced themselves to meet the next US-Iranian ground attack.
For the men of the East German, Polish, and Czech expeditionary brigades being sent to shore up the Soviet battlefront in the Persian Gulf, those squadrons had come just a bit late. Almost as soon as they’d hit the ground they’d come under attack from US and Iranian forces, and consequently they’d taken casualties almost as serious as those of their Soviet allies. For most of these satellite troops this was their first taste of actual combat-- and in some cases, it was their last as well.
The state-controlled media in all three countries, and in the Soviet Union also, went out of their way to spin the deaths of these satellite troops as valiant sacrifices enhancing the glorious cause of socialism throughout the world. In truth, though, they were essentially being sacrificed for the sake of Leonid Brezhnev’s bruised ego; the CPSU first secretary couldn’t stand the thought of being viewed as the Soviet leader who lost the Middle East to the Western powers, and he was hellbent on avoiding that fate no matter what the cost. Against the advice of his own top generals, many of whom now favored withdrawing to a defensive line on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq border and holding that position until they could mount a new offensive in the spring, he authorized Grechko to call for additional contingents of East German, Polish, and Czech troops to be deployed to the Persian Gulf right away.
East Germany and Poland complied immediately with Grechko’s request, but dissension inside the Prague government hampered Czechoslovakia’s efforts to dispatch new soldiers to Iran. In fact, much to Czech head of state Antonin Novotny’s dismay some students began holding rallies agitating for the withdrawal of those Czech army units already on the ground in the Gulf. Worse, one of Novotny’s colleagues, Slovak regional legislator Alexander Dubcek, was showing disturbing signs of harboring sympathy for the demonstrators....
Things were scarcely much easier at the White House; despite the success of American forces in helping the Iranians push the Iraqis and the Soviets back towards the Iran-Iraq border, President Johnson was still taking heat over his conduct of Vietnam, which some in the press had now started calling "America’s forgotten war".1 Among those who subscribed to this view was the commander-in-chief of US military forces in South Vietnam, General William Westmoreland; though loath to criticize President Johnson in public, privately he complained often to his staff and his friends that he’d been "shoved in a dark corner"2 while LBJ obsessed over what Westmoreland viewed as essentially a Cold War sideshow.
Many of the troops under his command shared his resentment; like the "battling bozos of Bataan" a quarter-century earlier, they felt their own government had at best forgotten about them and at worst purposely abandoned them. Whatever racial tension there might be between whites and minorities in the US armed forces at that time, GIs of every ethnic stripe could relate to Westmoreland’s frustration. The editorial pages of the official US Army newspaper Stars & Stripes regularly printed stern(if somewhat bowdlerized) criticisms of President Johnson and the civilian TV news networks for not paying more attention to what was going on in southeast Asia. Ex-soldiers coming home after their South Vietnam tours of duty were over, and active duty personnel writing from the front lines, confided to their family and friends that sometimes they felt like they didn’t even exist; a Defense Department survey taken just after New Year’s Day 1968 revealed that 30% of servicemen coming back from Vietnam and 55% of those still on duty there suffered from feelings of alienation and depression.3 As the air war in the Persian Gulf escalated, those feelings of alienation and depression would be greatly exacerbated.
Antiwar demonstrators kept up their street marches(albeit without the presence of Abbie Hoffman) and stepped up their calls for a US pullout from Vietnam and Iran. The turmoil on America’s streets and the military stalemate developing in the Persian Gulf did not go unnoticed by NVA strategic planners in Hanoi, and like a big game hunter stalking lions or elephants, they patiently awaited the right moment to make their kill.
In the second week of January, 1968 the advantage in the Persian Gulf air war began to shift back in favor of the US-Iranian alliance and the spectre of nuclear conflict between East and West began to rear its ugly head once more. Both events came about due to the addition of the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea to the US naval task force in the Gulf. Up until Coral Sea’s arrival, Soviet theater commanders had resisted the temptation to use the nuclear option no matter how dire the situation on the Iranian battlefront; they feared that the use of atomic weapons against US and Iranian troops might provoke a counterstrike from US missile submarines in the Straits of Hormuz.
But Coral Sea’s fighter-interceptor complement posed a major threat to Soviet air force CAS4 squadrons in the region, and the nuclear-armed strike aircraft in its attack wings were too great of a provocation for Baghdad or Moscow to ignore. So Defense Minister Grechko ordered the carrier sunk at all costs, and on January 10th, 1968 a Soviet Victor I- class submarine detached from its normal patrol duties in the Indian Ocean to fulfill his directive. Toting nuclear-tipped SS-N-15s5, this submarine was especially well-equipped to do its job, and its captain was a diehard Communist itching to teach the Americans a lesson about the strength of the Soviet navy.
Traveling at full speed and rigged for silent running most of the way, the sub reached the Persian Gulf less than twelve hours after getting its instructions from Moscow. As soon as the Victor 1-class sub came within firing range of the Coral Sea, the sub’s captain ordered two SS-N-14s fired on the American carrier, then dived his boat to shield her from the blast wave of the missiles’ detonation and the threat of attack by American anti-submarine aircraft.
The first Soviet missile hit Coral Sea’s fantail just as its fighter-interceptor contingent was about to begin its afternoon patrols; seconds later, the second missile struck the carrier’s port bow. The missiles detonated almost simultaneously and a massive fireball bloomed into view where the carrier had been only a short time before. Coral Sea and its entire crew were lost in less time than it took for the Victor 1 to submerging and start turning to make the trip home.
When President Johnson was informed of the nuclear attack on the USS Coral Sea, he was infuriated and ordered the sub hunted down and sunk; he then authorized his own submarines in the Pacific and Indian Oceans to carry out retaliatory strikes against Soviet naval vessels. Fanning out according to battle plans which had been weeks, in some cases months, in the making, the American subs stalked the Soviet surface fleet with nuclear torpedoes at the ready. The United States had indeed learned a lesson about naval power-- and was ready to apply that lesson with a vengeance....
The Sverdlov-class cruiser Alexander Suvorov was passing through the Indian Ocean en route to a scheduled refueling stop at her home port when she ran afoul of an American Skipjack-class nuclear submarine on its normal combat patrol; in keeping with Johnson’s directive, the American sub fired three nuclear torpedoes at the Suvorov, destroying the unfortunate Soviet vessel in a matter of seconds just as the Coral Sea had been destroyed earlier that day.
The twin nuclear strikes essentially tossed more gasoline on a fire that had been burning out of control for weeks, if not months. Ground commanders on both sides started arming their own missile launchers and aircraft were outfitted with tactical nuclear bombs; the US Strategic Air Command and the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces had even started putting some of their ICBM silos on alert. The fight for Rasht, which had been priority number one up to now, suddenly found itself reduced to a side show as Moscow and Washington teetered on the brink of World War III.
CPSU First Secretary Brezhnev was spirited away to a bunker complex in the Urals, while President Johnson and his cabinet were evacuated to Mount Weather. In the words of a pop record that had been released in the United States around the time that the Eleven-Day War started, the human race found itself on "the eve of destruction"; the fabled nuclear clock had, it seemed, finally struck midnight...
To Be Continued
1Headline of a famous, highly controversial editorial in the December 27th, 1967 Chicago Tribune.
2From a letter to one of Westmoreland’s West Point classmates dated January 2nd, 1968.
3Psychological Survey Of Active And Returning Southeast Asia Personnel, copyright 1968 US Army Medical Corps.
4Close air support.
5The Soviet navy’s primary anti-ship missile at the time.