The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
In Part 1 we looked at the circumstances that led to Operation Maccabee and the start of the Israeli thrust towards Damascus. In this segment we’ll review the fall of Damascus, the joint Syrian-Soviet effort to push the Israelis back to the Golan Heights, and the start of Israel’s so-called July War against the USSR.
As twilight settled over Tel Aviv late on the evening of June 13th, prime minister Levi Eshkol and his cabinet met in special session to take stock of the situation on the Syrian front. For the most part, the news was positive; a substantial if temporary buffer zone had been established between Israeli forces on the Golan Heights and what was left of Syria’s army, and the IDF was making considerable progress in its battle to secure control of Damascus. Offsetting this good news, though, were reports about Soviet aid to the Assad regime and vague hints that Saudi Arabia might intervene on Syria’s behalf.
In Moscow, Soviet defense minister Andrei Grechko had been on the phone to the Assad government’s provisional headquarters in Aleppo for nine straight hours taking the measure of what was happening on the ground in Syria. At the same time he was counselling caution in regard to Assad’s plans for mounting an assault on Israeli forces occupying Damascus; Soviet aid had not yet reached the Syrian army in sufficient quantities to make a successful offensive even vaguely conceivable, let alone likely.
In Jordan, King Hussein was on the horns of a dilemma— he had no great love for the Israelis, yet simultaneously he feared becoming too closely involved in the fighting in Syria, especially given the beating the Jordanian armed forces had taken in the first few days of the Eleven-Day War. He felt trapped like a fly in amber as he waited for the latest dispatches from the temporary Jordanian embassy in Aleppo.
In Washington President Johnson was giving a televised address to the American public pledging that the United States would do everything possible to secure peace in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had landed in Beirut and was conferring with members of the Lebanese prime minister’s cabinet in an effort to calm their fears about how the Israel invasion of Syria would affect their country. On June 14th, the tenth day of the war, Rusk was scheduled to make a similar visit to Amman to assess the state of US-Jordanian relations.
In Damascus, IDF troops were still engaged in spectacular firefights with the few remaining Syrian regular soldiers still in Damascus; the casualties were enormous, but spirit de corps was high among the Israeli forces— they were convinced final victory over Syria was at hand. Elsewhere in Syria, however, Assad’s forces were biding their time, which meant that Israel would barely have time to wrap up one war before it was confronted with the beginning of another.
At 1:30 PM Tel Aviv time on the afternoon of June 15th, the Eshkol government declared victory in the Eleven-Day War. The last elements of Syrian resistance in Damascus had been either killed or captured that morning (albeit at high cost) and there had been no move by the Assad government in Aleppo to eject IDF troops from Syria’s capital. But the victory would prove to be short-lived; the Soviets had by this time made the decision to escalate from fighting a proxy war on Israel through Syria to confronting the Israelis themselves.
Even as Eshkol’s victory announcement was being broadcast, STAVKA, the Soviet armed forces general staff, was drafting strategies for a Red Army push across the Syrian desert to retake Damascus and the Golan Heights and from there occupy Israel. These plans, collectively designated "Operation Scirocco", would eventually lead to what is now remembered in history books as the July War.
Because of the gravely weakened state of their armed forces, the Syrians would play a mostly secondary role in Operation Scirocco— at least in the early stages of the campaign. Although this personally galled Assad, circumstances combined with pledges of massive Soviet economic aid prompted him to accept the arrangement. Once Assad’s co-operation had been secured, the Soviets began surreptitiously flying combat troops into Syria in anticipation of commencing their offensive no later than 30 days after Eshkol’s victory declaration.
The trick would be getting the Soviet expeditionary force into Syria; the two countries lacked a common border, and NATO naval forces were constantly patrolling potential maritime transport routes. After a week of fierce (and at times vitriolic) debate within the ranks of the CPSU Central Committee, it was finally decided that the best solution— at least in the initial stages –was to assemble the necessary men and equipment at Soviet bases in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan and covertly ship them along a very narrow land and air transport corridor on the Iran-Iraq border to Iraqi military bases south of Baghdad; from there, they could be flown or trucked across the Iraqi-Syrian frontier to the designated staging areas in northern Syria.
Despite some initial reservations, the army-backed Arab socialist regime in Baghdad was quick to sign on with the Soviet plan; prime minister Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr and his inner circle were strongly pro-Moscow, and many in the upper echelons of the Iraqi armed forces welcomed the prospect of vicariously striking back at the Israelis for the humiliations they’d endured in the Eleven-Day War. One army officer in particular, a colonel named Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, saw Operation Scirocco as a means of enhancing his standing within the Iraqi political hierarchy. Calling in as many favors as he could, he quickly manoeuvred himself into command of one of the key outposts where Soviet forces would assemble before final deployment to Syria.
The first shipment of Soviet personnel and arms arrived in Iraq on June 25th, ten days after Eshkol had declared the end of the Eleven-Day War. Within 24 hours 100,000 Soviet troops were on the ground in Syria and more were coming in a steady human stream. To supplement the land and air supply routes, the Soviets ferried additional stores by means of naval and merchant vessels traveling from Black Sea ports to Syria’s largest harbor, Lataika.
Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, cast a wary eye on the Soviet troop movements along its border-- but it was less because of the impending assault on Israeli occupation forces in Syria than because of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s fears that the Soviet buildup might actually turn out to be a prelude to an invasion of his own country. Iran’s ambassador to the UN denounced the Soviets’ actions in a July 2nd address before the General Assembly and demanded that action be taken immediately to halt the repeated Soviet air and ground incursions into Iranian territory that had been taking place on an almost daily basis since preparations began for Operation Scirocco.
The next day the Soviet ambassador made an address of his own, tossing off the Iranians’ charges as "paranoid nonsense"1 and insisting that Soviet troops would not under any circumstances occupy Iranian soil. Tehran was unconvinced, however, and put its army and air force on full alert; in the Persian Gulf Iranian naval vessels played a hazardous game of tag with Soviet submarines as tensions between the Soviet Union and Iran continued to mount.
On July 5th, NATO’s executive council held an emergency meeting in Brussels to determine what if any action could be taken to close the flow of supplies from the Black Sea to Lataika. After a lengthy and sometimes livid debate, it was decided that the United States and its European allies should institute a naval "quarantine" in the Black Sea region similar to the one the U.S. Navy had set up in the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis five years earlier. To be sure that it could respond in a timely fashion if the Soviets did try to invade Iran, the U.S. Army put a number of its divisions in western Europe on DefCon 2 and sent a Marine expeditionary force to the Persian Gulf to establish a defensive bridgehead along the Iran-Iraq border.
The Israelis, though, weren’t about to wait for outside parties — even the United States –to haul their irons out of the fire. Even as NATO’s executive council was convening in Brussels, Eshkol had decided that another pre-emptive strike was needed, this time against Soviet troop concentrations in northern Syria. The Israeli air force, having just finished getting its second wind after the exhaustive round-the-clock missions of the Eleven-Day War, was now put back on a combat footing in advance of what was expected to be its most ambitious campaign yet: a series of tactical and strategic bombing raids aimed at stopping Operation Scirocco before it started.
The Israeli navy, meanwhile, began deploying missile boats and submarines out of Haifa with the intent of imposing its own kind of quarantine on the Soviets. It wouldn’t be merely a stop-and-search kind, either; it would be one in which the subs and missile boats actively hunted, and if necessary killed, any Soviet naval or merchant craft that had the misfortune to sail within range of their sonar.
As for Israel’s ground forces, they were like a coiled spring just waiting for the go-ahead to sally forth against the Soviet troop contingent in Syria. Reserves had been activated and volunteers were pouring into Israeli recruiting offices eager for the chance to lodge a blow against the nation that was widely regarded as their homeland’s worst enemy other than the Arabs. The airborne and tank corps were particularly eager to have at it with the Red Army; any concerns they might have felt regarding the possibility of being outnumbered by their Soviet adversaries were neutralized by the thrill they felt at the prospect of winning further glory for themselves and their nation.
Three days after the NATO emergency meeting in Brussels, the Israeli air force made its move. Just before dawn, hundreds of fighters took off from bases inside Israel and Israeli-occupied territory in Syria with orders to raid every major military target they could reach. The Soviets were quick to respond, scrambling their own fighters to thwart the impending air strikes.
What happened next was the most dramatic air battle the world had seensince American and Japanese pilots clashed at Midway 25 years earlier. For three hours Soviet and Israeli fighters duelled with each other in the skies over the Syrian desert as anti-aircraft guns opened up on those planes that succeeded in penetrating Soviet air defenses to bomb their assigned targets. Though the two sides were relatively equal in numerical and technological terms, the Israelis enjoyed a decidedly serious advantage in terms of actual combat experience, and soon enough Soviet fighters began dropping like flies under Israeli guns and air-to-air missiles.
The July War was on…
To Be Continued
1 "Soviet UN Envoy Labels Iranian General Assembly Speech ‘Nonsense’", New York Times, July 3rd, 1967