The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous twelve episodes of this series we reviewed the Israeli invasion of Syria during the Eleven-Day War; the July War between Israel and the Soviet Union; the outbreak of hostilities in the Persian Gulf between the Soviet Union and the United States; the escalation of the Gulf conflict into regional nuclear war; and the NVA invasion of South Vietnam. In this installment we’ll examine the political crisis that split the CPSU in the final days of the Gulf war and recall the end of the battle for Rasht.
The tension inside the Central Committee chamber on the afternoon of January 27th, 1968 was so thick it was almost unbearable. Alexei Kosygin knew that he was risking his political career, possibly even his life, by the action he was about to take. But he saw no alternative-- every minute his country, and the world, were edging closer to global nuclear war and if something weren’t done soon it might be too late to prevent nuclear holocaust from wiping out the human race. So with a trembling heart he made his way to the podium and introduced a resolution calling for Leonid Brezhnev to resign as CPSU First Secretary.
The heated debate which had been underway in the committee galleries before the motion was brought to the floor came to a dead stop, replaced by a deathly silence. It would have been shocking enough for any Soviet politician to call for the First Secretary’s resignation; coming from the man who’d been Brezhnev’s chief political ally for most of the past four years, it nearly amounted to a sign of the Apocalypse. Brezhnev stared at Kosygin in mute disbelief, wondering if his premier had gone insane.
But Kosygin was perfectly sober; not pausing to wait for the audience to react to his motion, he laid out a concise and unflinching case for why Brezhnev should step down as CPSU leader. He said that Brezhnev had placed the USSR in severe if not mortal jeopardy by underestimating the Americans’ willingness to support Israel in the July War and Iran in the current fighting in the Persian Gulf. He was particularly critical of the CPSU First Secretary’s decision to authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy the USS Coral Sea; that, he argued, had put both sides on the perilous course which had taken them to the brink of global nuclear holocaust and was now threatening to push them over it. For the sake of national survival and of world peace, Brezhnev had to go and make way for a new leader could persuade the Americans to accept a negotiated cease-fire. Otherwise, it was only a matter of time before the ICBMs started flying.
On that grim note, Kosygin left the podium and the stunned silence that had greeted his radical proposal quickly gave way to vehement debates between those who supported the premier’s call for Brezhnev to resign and those who advocated that he remain as CPSU First Secretary. The pro-Brezhnev faction in the committee, backed by Andrei Grechko and KGB chief Yuri Andropov, won the day and the resolution was voted down-- but this was only the opening salvo in the civil war unfolding within the CPSU elite. The argument over whether Brezhnev should stay or go would continue for weeks after the vote; indeed, it would intensify once the Gulf nuclear crisis had ended.
The resolution’s defeat did little to calm Brezhnev’s fears about his political future. Even during the darkest hours of the July War, no one in the upper echelons of the party had given the slightest hint that the First Secretary should quit; now Alexei Kosygin had not only hinted at it, he’d openly called for it in Brezhnev’s presence. Shortly after the meeting ended, Brezhnev retired to his Kremlin apartment, where he would spend the entire night and much of the next day pondering his next move.
President Hubert Humphrey was in a reflective mood too, albeit for different reasons. The day that Kosygin called for Leonid Brezhnev’s resignation also happened to be the one-year anniversary of what was then considered the worst catastrophe in the history of the American space program, the Apollo 1 fire of January 1967. Even now, with NVA regiments continuing to advance towards Saigon and NATO and Warsaw Pact divisions glaring at each other across the Iron Curtain, Humphrey and millions of his fellow Americans still grieved the astronauts’ deaths.
Humphrey was also concerned about LBJ’s medical condition. The latest prognosis from Bethesda Naval Hospital was discouraging to say the least-- doctors there warned that the 36th President of the United States might never recover from the heart failure he’d suffered two days earlier. There was even a change he could be stricken with a second and fatal heart attack; given Johnson’s advanced age, doctors were uncertain whether they could successfully perform open heart surgery on him and so had not yet tried it; nonetheless, Bethesda’s cardiology staff worked around the clock to keep LBJ alive in hopes he might regain his strength and return to the Oval Office.
Last but not least, Humphrey was on the horns of a political dilemma: political pundits were starting to mention him as a possible contender for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination if Johnson didn’t run for a second term. On one hand, he didn’t want to be accused of using LBJ’s medical troubles as a stepping stone to advance his own aspirations, but on the other hand he was loath to waste what might be the best chance he’d ever have at winning a full four-year term in the White House.
At his daily press briefings in the East Room, Humphrey responded to all questions about a possible ’68 campaign with comments to the effect that his main priorities in the short term were defusing the Persian Gulf nuclear crisis and holding the line in South Vietnam against the NVA and that everything else-- his own long-term political ambitions included --was subordinate to those goals. While that answer might not have satisfied everybody, it was good enough for Humphrey until he finally found a solution to his quandary.
48 hours after the Kosygin resolution had been voted down, the final phase of the battle for Rasht begain. By then, the little Iranian town had become what the Los Angeles Times called "the Stalingrad of the Gulf war"1, with the Soviets ironically playing the role of the doomed German Sixth Army. The senior Iraqi ground commander in the area, Brigadier General Rashid Abdel Salam al-Naajafi, was urging his Soviet comrades- in-arms to pull back to more defensible positions outside the town while they still could, but the Soviets were having none of it-- to a man, the Red Army soldiers in Rasht were intent on fighting to their last bullet to avenge the Soviet seamen who’d been killed in the American nuclear strikes that followed the sinking of the USS Coral Sea.
The American and Iranian troops trying to eject them from the city were every bit as intent on pushing them back to the Iran-Iraq border-- particularly given that CIA intelligence sources were picking up hints Soviet ground commanders intended to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the vicinity of the town in order to strike at the US-Iranian battle lines in a last-ditch attempt to stop the American-led counteroffensive in its tracks.
As if the nukes weren’t enough of a headache for US and Iranian field commanders to worry about, elements of the Red Army’s notorious Spetsnaz special operations unit were reported to be on the ground inside Iran, covertly planning the assassination of key senior members of the Iranian defense and political hierarchies. There were even rumors that the Shah himself was on the Spetsnaz commandos’ hit list, a fact which disturbed his security forces no end. The Spetsnaz had been dispatched to Iran on the recommendation of Yuri Andropov, who felt that asymmetrical warfare represented the Soviet-Iraqi alliance’s best chance for victory in the Persian Gulf without resorting to further nuclear strikes.
Of course, the US-Iranian coalition wasn’t shy about resorting to unconventional tactics in its own right. CIA station chiefs in the Persian Gulf, borrowing a page from the playbooks of their colleagues in the agency’s Latin American and Southeast Asian departments, sent "black ops" squads across the Iraqi border to sabotage military and industrial facilities and frame Iraqi government officials for all manner of crimes; leaflets urging Iraqi and Soviet troops to throw down their rifles and go home were airdropped daily from F-4 Phantoms. The Voice of America’s Arabic-language service, in a campaign meant to undermine the Baathist regime in Baghdad, broadcast a steady stream of horror stories by Iraqi exiles who’d fled the country rather than endure one more day of repression by their own government.
The Iranians waged some intensive psychological warfare themselves; knowing that Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds resented Sunni domination of the Iraqi government, Tehran broadcast daily radio and TV appeals to both ethnic groups to rise up against the Baathist regime while the Iranian counterintelligence service covertly went about recruiting fighters for a Viet Cong-style insurgency aimed at throwing a wrench into the Baghdad government’s war machine.
The Spetsnaz teams on the ground in Iran never got the opportunity to take out the Shah or any of his senior generals, but they did manage to kill three battalion commanders and the C-in-C of an Iranian air force wing providing tactical support for the drive to take Rasht back from the Soviet-Iraqi alliance. Unfortunately for Baghdad and Moscow, these assassinations didn’t disrupt US-Iranian combat operations as much as they would have liked-- just after dawn Tehran time on January 31st, the Red Army’s Persian Gulf expeditionary force field headquarters in Iraq received word that American advance units had entered Rasht.
Concurrent with the entry of US ground troops into Rasht, American warplanes struck at a number of Soviet missile launch sites on the other side of the Iranian battlefront. In spite of the loss of the USS Coral Sea, the US Navy still had a highly effective carrier force within bombing range of Soviet and Iraqi forces along the front lines in Iran. There were also land-based fighter jets operating out of US-Iranian coalition airbases inside Iran and FB-111 bombers stationed in Turkey; with a little assistance from KC-135 tankers, it was even possible for B-52s out of Thailand to fly air support for US and Iranian troops in the Gulf.
Theoretically the Soviets could have halted the US-Iranian thrust on Rasht with submarine-launched nuclear missiles or bombers delivering nuclear warheads to the US-Iranian front. But with much of the Soviet submarine fleet being hunted by Western anti-sub patrols and most of the Soviet air force’s bomber fleet already committed to attacking strategic targets inside the United States and western Europe if the war escalated into global conflict, co-ordinating an effective strike was easier said than done.
There was also the fear that a technical error might cause a nuclear warhead to hit a city inside Iran, and the Soviet high command in Moscow knew all too well such an incident would provoke an American retaliatory strike on cities inside the USSR-- something which even the most hawkish Red Army generals conceded would be a disaster for the Rodina. So it was up to Soviet conventional forces to do the best they could to push the Americans and Iranians out of Rasht.
That would turn out not to be enough.
On February 3rd, 1968 two bulletins were sent out over the wire from the Associated Press. The first was transmitted from Tehran:
FLASH--SOVIET TROOPS IN RASHT SURRENDER TO US FORCES
The second originated from the agency’s Dallas bureau:FLASH--LYNDON JOHNSON DEAD AT AGE OF 59
Both would change the course of the Gulf war-- and complete
Hubert Humphrey’s transition from Oval Office caretaker to full-
fledged 37th President of the United States...
To Be Continued
1Quoted from the editorial "Death In Persia" in the paper’s January 17th, 1968 edition.