The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first two parts of this series we reviewed Operation Maccabee, the Soviet Union’s decision to deploy an expeditionary force in Syria in response to the Israeli offensive, and the chain of events that led to the outbreak of the July War between Israel and the USSR. In this segment we’ll look at how the fighting between Moscow and Tel Aviv exacerbated US-Soviet tensions around the world and brought the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war for the second time in five years.
The mood inside the Kremlin walls on July 8th, 1967 was grim to the point of melancholy. Operation Scirocco, the Soviet battle plan for driving the Israelis out of Syria, was in danger of falling apart before it had even started-- Soviet air units had their hands full coping with the wave of Israeli air strikes being mounted against Soviet staging areas in northern Syria, while on the ground IDF armor and infantry elements were moving hell-for-leather towards Hama. There was even an unconfirmed rumor that Israeli missile boats had sunk a Soviet Golf-class1 submarine in the Mediterranean.
Defense Minister Gretchko was determined not to let the IDF’s sudden pre-emptive assault derail Moscow’s strategy for reclaiming Damascus from the Israeli occupation forces. Within minutes after being told of the first wave of bombing strikes, he picked up a secure phone in his office and ordered the commander-in-chief of the Soviet expeditionary force in Syria to confront the advancing IDF divisions head on.
Early on the morning of July 9th, Israeli ground troops engaged Soviet airborne battalions west of the town of Duma in the first major land battle of the July War. Despite the fact that most of the Soviet troops had never fired a shot in anger until then, the airborne soldiers gave a magnificent account of themselves in that clash, inflicted heavier- than-expected casualties on their IDF foes and slowing the march toward Hama down to a crawl. Meanwhile, new MiG and Sukhoi combat aircraft began arriving to replace the planes lost in the previous day’s bombing raids; at sea, Soviet submarines sank an Israeli frigate and seriously damaged a patrol boat. Radio Moscow hailed these events as "a glorious victory for the workers and peace-loving peoples of the world against the bloodthirsty monsters of the Zionist bloc"2.
Initially, Tel Aviv regarded the Soviet attack at Duma as nothing more than a minor setback that would be easily overcome en route to the final crushing of its Syrian socialist enemies. However, there was one small yet important detail that Defense Minister Dayan and his inner circle had neglected to factor into their calculations-- the Israeli armed forces, particularly the IAF’s fighter squadron, were suffering from exhaustion after the combined strain of the Eleven-Day War and its aftermath plus the outbreak of new armed conflict with the Soviets.
By contrast, the men of the Soviet expeditionary force were fresh and eager to test their combat abilities in the Syrian desert. And unless the United States could tighten its naval blockade of the Black Sea, that force would soon begin receiving additional supplies in enough quantity to allow it to stay on the ground in the Middle East for months, maybe years...
CIA field operatives in the Middle East flashed confirmation of the Israeli defeat at Duma to the White House at noon Eastern Daylight Time on July 10th, putting President Johnson and his cabinet on the horns of a dilemma. They were now faced with two equally obvious and equally unpleasant choices: either pull of the Middle East to avoid a confrontation with the Soviets and risk losing an important ally, or oppose Operation Scirocco and risk provoking World War III.
The question took on added urgency less than 24 hours later when Syrian ground forces, re-equipped with the latest Soviet weapons and backed up by fresh reserve divisions from the north, began a series of flank attacks aimed at disrupting the Israeli defensive perimeter around Damascus and the Golan Heights. The IDF was able to throw back the assaults on its perimeter at Az Zabdani and Shabba, but its lines at Damascus began to weaken in the face of a combined Soviet-Syrian armored thrust.
The lights in the White House war room burned late into the night of July 11th as Johnson's cabinet argued over what action to take next. It was clear by then that sitting on the sidelines was no longer an option, but there was still some disagreement as to where the United States' main blow should be directed. The debate was finally settled when the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, lead ship for the task force guarding the Dardanelles against passage by Soviet naval vessels, was hit and seriously damaged by torpedoes from a November-class submarine just after 11:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time.
No one knew for sure whether the torpedoes had been fired intentionally on orders from Moscow or accidentally due to a technical mishap, but Johnson wasn’t taking any chances. At 1:05 AM on the morning of July 12th, he authorized all US combat forces in the Middle East to initiate offensive action against the Soviets and their Arab allies. Three hours later, US troops in Iran began crossing the Iraqi border in a move aimed at cutting the Soviets’ overland supply route.
The Iraqi army did not hesitate to counterattack, and within a matter of hours the skies over Baghdad were lit up with anti-aircraft fire as US warplanes struck at the Iraqi capital’s main defense and communications facilities. Radio Cairo stridently denounced what it called "America’s Zionist barbarity" and called for the entire Arab world to rise up to confront the United States.
News of the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf reached the Kremlin within minutes after the first US troops crossed the Iran-Iraq border. Brezhnev was, to say the least, concerned by this development; American involvement in the July War would seriously complicate the timetable for Operation Scirocco to say the least. Initially, Soviet strategic planners had estimated that Israeli forces would be pushed out of Syria within two weeks after the campaign began-- but with American forces on the ground in Iraq it was now open to question whether that deadline could still be met.
Nonetheless, Soviet and Syrian troops had done quite well under the circumstances. At least a third of Damascus was now back in Syrian hands, and the Israeli forces occupying the rest of the city found themselves on the defensive in the face of continuing Soviet pressure...
To Be Continued
1 The type’s NATO designation; the Soviet navy referred to the class as Project 629.
2 From the transcript of Radio Moscow’s nightly English-language news broadcast, July 9th, 1967.