The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous three instalments of this series we dealt with the initial Israeli invasion of Syria during the Eleven- Day War; the Soviet decision to intervene on the Syrians’ behalf less than a month after that war ended; the first battles of the subsequent July War; and the Johnson Administration’s reluctant decision to deploy troops to the Middle East in spite of the already massive military commitments the US had made in Vietnam at the time. In this segment we’ll review the final pullout of Israeli troops from Damascus; the battle for the Golan Heights; and the joint US-Iranian effort to cut the Soviet supply line to Iraq.
July 13th, 1967 will be long remembered as one of the darkest days in the history of the Israeli armed forces. That afternoon, Soviet armor and infantry detachments backed up by Syrian infantry troops inflicted a severe defeat on IDF units in Damascus, forcing them to retreat from Syria’s ancient capital and setting the stage for what would eventually become the July War’s bloodiest battle— the Soviet-Syrian attempt to eject Israel from the Golan Heights. When word of the IDF pullout reached Tel Aviv, the shock was so intense that Levi Eshkol went into cardiac arrest and had to be rushed to a local hospital to be treated by his personal physician.
The Israeli people were horrified by the news of the pullout; with Damascus back in Syrian hands, they feared it was just a matter of time before Syria also retook the Golan Heights. Moshe Dayan, however, wasn’t about to let that happen. He took it on himself to beg, borrow, or steal every reserve unit he could spare to shore up IDF defensive positions in the Golan area; he also sent a flood of telegrams to the Pentagon urging US forces in the Persian Gulf to step up their campaign against Iraq.
In the meantime, the Assad government packed up and left Aleppo in anticipation of a triumphant return to Damascus; on his return to the war-torn ancient city, he was greeted with cheers and applause from a huge, raucous crowd of supporters, many of whom were sporting battle injuries from guerrilla actions against the Israeli troops who had recently occupied their capital. The C-in-C of the Soviet expeditionary force in Syria, for his part, took a more cautious view of the ground situation-- as far as he was concerned, the July War had not been won until the last Israeli soldier had been sent packing back to Tel Aviv.
Along the Iran-Iraq border, meanwhile, the Iranian army, backed up by US air and naval strikes against key Soviet supply positions in Iraq, was making good headway against the Iraqis-- though not quite as good as they might have wished. The Iranian ground campaign, supplemented where possible by elements of the US Marines and the US Army’s 3rd Air Cavalry Regiment, tied up Soviet resources that might otherwise have come into play in the battle for the Golan Heights; it also forestalled an offensive the Iraqis had been planning to launch themselves to seize the oil fields at Abadan.
To counter the numerical advantage the Iranian regular army held over its Iraqi counterpart, Baghdad deployed a paramilitary group known as the Republican Guard to act as an unofficial reserve force; originally established as an elite bodyguard for the Iraqi president, the Guard soon redefined its mission to fit the needs of their comrades-in-arms on the Iranian front. They might have been better off, however, sticking to their original purpose-- underequipped and better trained for static security roles than the fluid thrust-and-parry of modern warfare, they were cut to ribbons by Iranian and US troops.
On July 15th, the eve of the battle for the Golan Heights, Iranian infantry and armor units began driving to cut what was left of the supply line between the Soviet Union and Iraq. This move couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Soviets or their Syrian allies; with the line completely severed, Soviet and Syrian forces would be put at a serious disadvantage when the fight for Golan began in earnest-- for that matter, the Soviet position throughout the entire Middle East was now in jeopardy.
Acting on the principle of "carpe diem"1, the IDF was quick to assail Soviet and Syrian positions near the Golan Heights; no sooner had word of the Iranian offensive reached Tel Aviv than Israeli defense minister Dayan authorized air and ground attacks against the main Soviet front along the edge of the Golan. At 8:00 AM Tel Aviv time on the morning of July 16th Israeli armor and helicopters tore into the Soviet lines with everything they had, backed up by the fiercest tactical bombing raids the Israeli air force had mounted since the capture of Damascus in the final hours of the Eleven-Day War.
The Syrians immediately counterattacked only to be confronted by three IDF infantry divisions and two artillery divisions; the rumble from the explosions caused by the two sides’ shellfire could be heard from the rooftops of homes in Haifa. Soviet forward observers in the Golan battlezone complained to their superiors back in Damascus that the smoke from burning vehicles was so thick it was obscuring their view of Israeli troop movements...
To Be Continued
1 Latin for "seize the day".