The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first four installments of this series we examined the Israeli invasion of Syria, Operation Maccabee; the joint Soviet-Syrian response, Operation Scirocco; and the forced IDF retreat from Damascus. In this chapter we’ll delve further into the battle for the Golan Heights and the US-Iranian offensive against Soviet supply lines in Iraq.
The commanding general of the Soviet expeditionary force to Syria was alarmed by the latest intel he was receiving from his aides. Not only were the Israelis giving his units at the Golan Heights a hard time, but now the Iranians and their US allies were on the verge of severing the last remnants of the Red Army’s Iraq-Syria pipeline; if they succeeded in cutting that critical supply route, his troops would be left high and dry at exactly the moment when they most needed fresh stocks of fuel, munitions, and other essential material.
He wasn’t the only one in a quandary over this news; back at the Kremlin, his superiors were faced with two equally stark and highly unpalatable choices-- either pull out of Syria and Iraq, in effect handing the Israeli side a decisive military and political victory, or start tapping further into their reserves and risk starting a cycle of escalation that might very well end in a catastrophic nuclear confrontation with the United States.
That prospect did not sit well either with Leonid Brezhnev or his cabinet. The memory of the Cuban missile crisis was still fresh in their minds, and they knew that any nuclear moves they made were likely to be met with stern responses by the White House-- indeed, President Johnson had already given vague hints in his last three speeches that he might not be averse to deploying nuclear weapons as a last resort for evicting Soviet troops from Iraq and Syria.
From the moment the first Red Army advance units deployed to the Syrian desert, Strategic Air Command had kept at least a dozen or more B-52 bombers on the periphery of Soviet air space, ready to go in at a moment’s should Johnson give the word; now those bombers were pointed at Soviet installations in the Middle East like a bank robber’s gun.
Furthermore, the latest word from the Soviet embassy in Washington indicated that at least a quarter of the United States’ ICBMs had been armed and were poised to be fired at targets inside the Soviet Union if the Red Army showed any signs of moving into Iran or Israel. This as Iraqi army commanders were clamoring for Soviet help against the Iranians and the Americans and Iraq’s second-largest city, Basra, was coming under Iranian artillery fire. And last but not least, the White House had persuaded its NATO allies to support a possible armed showdown in Europe with the Warsaw Pact as a means of diverting Red Army men and equipment from the Middle Eastern battlefront.
Still, as Soviet defense minister Sergei Gretchko was quick to point out, there had not yet been any official ultimatum from President Johnson. If the Red Army moved quickly enough to insert reserve units into the Golan and Iraqi battlefronts, the Soviet position in the Middle East might yet be saved. And, Gretchko added, there was the matter of the nation’s honor to consider-- the Rodina could not afford to be humiliated again so soon after being forced to pull its missiles out of Cuba.
Brezhnev finally made his decision just before 5:30 AM Moscow time on the morning of July 16th, ordering the Red Army to transfer a third of its first echelon divisions to the Middle East to aid Syria and Iraq and deploying 17 reserve divisions to eastern Europe to maintain a solid defensive line against the NATO and US divisions poised on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Also sent into the fray were three airborne divisions who it was hoped could disrupt the Israeli rear echelon long enough for Soviet and Syrian infantry to break through the IDF lines along the Golan Heights.
The division transfer couldn’t have happened at a worse time for US and Iranian forces in Iraq; the ground forces were short on supplies and many of the US air forces which had been providing tactical support for the campaign in Iraq were needed back in Vietnam. The Iranian air force, while well-equipped and stocked to the gills with highly trained combat pilots, had its hands full simply trying to guard Iran’s cities against Iraqi bombing raids, never mind providing tactical support for US-Iranian ground offensives.
The Iraqi army wasted little time exploiting this unfortunate conundrum, mounting a series of daring tank and artillery assaults all along the battlefront, with the hardest blows being aimed at US and Iranian troops near Basra. All too soon, the US-Iranian coalition found itself on the defensive; within 36 hours after the assaults began, a few elements of the Iraqi army had even managed to penetrate into Iranian territory.
On July 17th Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi declared martial law in Tehran and ordered all anti-aircraft units defending the Iranian capital put on full alert. His military advisors had warned him that with Iraqi ground troops on Iranian soil air strikes were likely to follow, and he was intent on safeguarding Tehran’s residents against such strikes. US air defense squadrons still stationed in Iran were also put on alert to take of the burden of intercepting enemy aircraft off the shoulders of the Iranian air force.
At the same time, Soviet airborne troops were making ready to hit the IDF rear flank along the Golan Heights. Though most of the men in the three Red Army paratroop divisions committed to the attack had never seen combat before, they were highly trained in parachutejumping and desert warfare, and the intelligence sections of these units were staffed with fluent Hebrew speakers to facilitate the interrogation of captured Israeli soldiers. Expectations were high for a quick Soviet victory and IDF expulsion from the Golan.
But as the Arabs had learned the hard way, the Israelis were no slouches at airborne operations either-- or at counterintelligence. A particularly clever and observant MOSSAD agent had succeeded in infiltrating the Damascus headquarters of the Soviet expeditionary force in Syria and obtaining illicit copies of the charts for the drop zones the Soviet airborne troops would be using. At great risk to himself he hastened back across the Syrian-Israeli border to get these copies to Defense Minister Dayan, who immediately met with his top paratroop generals to plan the IDF’s next move1...
To Be Continued
1 The (partly censored)transcript of that meeting was printed in a three-part series in the Jerusalem Post commemorating the 30th anniversary of the July War in 1997.