The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first five installments of this series we examined the Israeli invasion of Syria, Operation Maccabee; the joint Soviet-Syrian response, Operation Scirocco; the forced IDF retreat from Damascus; and the expansion of the July War into Iraq. In this segment we’ll deal with the end of the battle for the Golan Heights and the tensions which nearly touched off an armed NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in central Europe.
The first sign Soviet commanders had that their airborne assault on the IDF rear flank in the Golan Heights might not go off as planned came when anti-aircraft batteries on the Israeli side of the battle line opened fire on the planes carrying the advance troops for the initial wave of the assault. One plane crashed and burned while the other, its wings seriously damaged, turned back for the relative safety of Damascus. The remaining airborne troops continued on with the mission, but in reduced numbers and against an opposing Israeli force that knew their intended attack strategy down to the smallest detail.
Backed by IDF reserve tank units, Israeli infantry and airborne troops struck at the flanks and rear of the Soviet battlefront, throwing the Red Army’s meticulously choregraphed campaign plans utterly off-balance. In what turned into one of the worst routs endured by a Russian land force since the opening days of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the Red Army airborne units were cut to pieces by their IDF foes.1
A visibly distressed Hafez al-Assad phoned the Soviet embassy in Damascus and demanded to know what had gone wrong with the Red Army’s battle plan. Back in Moscow First Secretary Brezhnev was insisting that the men responsible for the security leak which had tipped the Israelis off to the Soviet airborne assault be court-martialled and imprisoned for their incompetence. There were strong(and not wholly unwarranted) fears that the IDF might occupy Damascus again if the situation along the Golan battlefront deteriorated much further.
In Israel, emotions ranged from cautious optimism to outright euphoria as word filtered back of the stinging defeat being inflicted on the Soviets in the Golan. Prime Minister Eshkol made a nationally televised speech appealing for calm to his fellow countrymen: "The battle is not won," he said, "until the enemy’s last gun has fallen silent."
The news coming out of the Golan Heights did not go unnoticed at NATO headquarters in Brussels. With their original battle plan in tatters, the Soviets were being forced to divert at least some of their troops from Europe to stem the hemorrhaging of manpower and equipment on their Golan battlefront; things were also looking a bit bleak in the Persian Gulf, where US and Iranian forces had recovered from their previous setbacks and were now preparing to take the fight directly to the heart of the Iraqi homeland. Some in NATO’s upper echelons worried that a desperate Warsaw Pact might try to turn the tide with an invasion of western Europe that would force the United States to recall some of its forces from the Middle East.
Ironically, Warsaw Pact commanders were equally worried that NATO would use the latest turn of events in the Golan as a jumping-off point for an invasion of East Germany or Poland. Of course, neither invasion scenario was likely to come off given the massive troop commitments Washington and Moscow had made elsewhere, but that didn’t stop intel officers on both sides from experiencing a lot of sleepless nights wondering how long it would be before the fragile truce that had existed between East and West since 1945 would vanish in the fiery limbo of a mushroom cloud...
On the Iran-Iraq border, regular Iraqi army troops and Republican Guard units found themselves back on the defensive as US and Iranian forces, buoyed by the success of the IDF airborne assault on the Soviet rear flank in the Golan, hammered away relentlessly at weak points along the Iraqi front lines. Saddam Hussein, who had once seen Operation Scirocco as a stepping stone on the road to greater glory and rank, now feared that instead it might consign him to an early grave. He kept that fear to himself, however, not wanting to give his perceived enemies within the Iraqi military any opportunity or reason to move against him.
Basra finally fell to US-Iranian coalition forces on July 19th after B-52s out of Diego Garcia blasted most of the city’s remaining defenses into dust, allowing an east-west pincer movement on the ground to overwhelm Republican Guard outposts along its edge. With Iraq’s second- largest urban area and chief port now securely in coalition hands, the Iranian high command began making preparations to attain a still greater prize: Baghdad.
The Shah was eager to get on with such an offensive right away, but his American allies counseled caution; the coalition needed time to consolidate its position on other sectors of the Iraqi battlefront before a move against Baghdad could be seriously considered. They were particularly concerned about Kirkuk, site of a major petroleum production facility and a stronghold of Kurdish opposition to the Baathist regime-- Iraqi regular forces were massing for an attempt to retake it, waiting for cracks to show in the Iranian defensive cordon around its outer rim. And to be sure, morale had suffered a bit of a decline in that sector as Iranian regular troops and Kurdish guerrillas occupying Kirkuk waited tensely for the inevitable Iraqi counterthrust against their positions.
By dawn Tel Aviv time on the morning of July 20th it was clear to both sides in the July War that the battle for the Golan Heights was almost over. What wasn’t clear was whether the battle’s end would just be a prelude to another IDF push on Damascus or would mark the end of the Israeli-Soviet war as a whole. Many of the IDF soldiers still alive by then were more than willing to march back towards the Syrian capital the moment their officers gave the word; others, by contrast, just wanted the fighting to end so they could go home to their families and their kibbutzes.
Levi Eshkol was in the unique position of being able to understand both sentiments. Reconquering Damascus would be a shot in the arm for Israeli morale, true enough....just the same, he was tired of the seemingly endless warfare with Syria, and he was concerned that if the war dragged on much longer the Soviets might yet decide to play their nuclear trump. At midday on July 20th, as the remaining Soviet and Syrian units in the Golan dug in for a do-or-die last stand, the Israeli prime minister convened a special meeting of his cabinet to solicit their opinion about whether or not to move on Damascus a second time. The meeting lasted over four hours, during which time Eshkol was kept abreast of developments on the Golan front by means of telephone reports and telegraph dispatches from the headquarters of the Israeli defense ministry.
Finally, just before 5:30 that evening, Eshkol received word that the Soviet-Syrian defensive lines had been breached and while some Red Army units were still resisting the IDF, the Syrians had cut and run, hot-footing it back towards Damascus as fast their legs(or APCs) could carry them. In effect, the Israelis had won the second battle for the Golan Heights.
However, any notion of retaking Damascus was out of the question; at least half of the IDF ground units committed to the Golan battle had taken heavy casualties during the fighting, and all Israeli forces in that region reported that their supply lines were stretched to the limit. Accordingly, Eshkol ordered all IDF ground units along the Golan to hold their positions until further notice...
To Be Continued
1 Syrian forces didn’t too well either; at least two Syrian infantry divisions were wiped out during the IDF assault.