The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first six chapters of this series we looked at the Israeli invasion of Syria, Operation Maccabee; the joint Soviet-Syrian counteroffensive, Operation Scirocco; the IDF retreat from Damascus; the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq; and the Soviet-Syrian defeat in the second battle for the Golan Heights. In this installment we’ll look at the end of the July War in Syria and the Kremlin’s last efforts to salvage its position in the Persian Gulf.
Even after giving the order for IDF troops in the Golan Heights to hold their positions, Prime Minister Eshkol still had doubts that he was doing the right thing. While he knew that the IDF had expended a great deal of manpower and materiel in thwarting Soviet attempts to oust them from the Golan Heights, he also knew that a recapture of Damascus would do a great deal to raise his political stock. Already he’d started to receive letters and phone calls from people who said they’d vote for him again as prime minister if he took the Syrian capital a second time.
It wasn’t until he spoke with Defense Minister Dayan early on the morning of July 21st that Eshkol once and for all abandoned any notion of making another push for the ancient city. Dayan, in characteristically blunt terms, told his prime minister that it would take weeks if not months to properly assemble the necessary forces and equipment for a such an offensive, and if even such resources could be found the risk another drive on Damascus would pose to Israel’s security position in the Middle East outweighed whatever political benefits the Eshkol government might derive from it. Of particular concern was the prospect that Saudi Arabia, which up until then had limited themselves to financial and political support of the Syrians, might commit combat forces to the fighting along the Golan Heights.
With that in mind, Eshkol made a televised address to the Israeli public at 1:00 that afternoon to announce that he was ordering IDF air and ground forces to cease fire. His order was greeted with surprise and disbelief on both sides; many had expected him to mount another invasion of Syria proper. The Soviets, not entirely convinced that the cease-fire was on the level, kept the Red Army expeditionary force in Syria on the ground for another two weeks, guns at the ready in case the IDF tried to make another move on Damascus.
Eventutally, however, the truth sank in at the Kremlin and in late August the Soviet government announced that it would evacuate most of its troops from Syria by October 1st.1 With the exception of a few senior officers being sent back to Europe to debrief Warsaw Pact command staffs, nearly all of those being evacuated from the Syrian front were to be re-deployed to Iraq; the greatest concentration of these would be assigned to dislodge US-Iranian coalition forces occupying Basra...
In the meantime, the long-awaited Iraqi counterattack on Kurdish forces at Kirkuk had finally gotten underway with a series of rocket barrages against the main Kurdish defensive strongpoints in and around this strategically important city. For six days the world’s eyes were focused on Kirkuk; it was common knowledge that the outcome of this battle would considerably affect the fight for Basra-- which in turn would have major impact on the future of the Baathist regime. If the Iraqi army could retake Kirkuk and crush the Kurdish rebellion there, such a victory would prove as valuable a boost to Iraqi morale as the Red Army triumph at Stalingrad was for the Soviets during World War II. In more practical terms, recapturing Kirkuk, a hub of Iraq’s petroleum industry, would mean recovering a valuable source of fuel for Baghdad’s war machine and putting the Iraqi army in better shape for mounting an offensive to retake Basra from US-Iranian coalition forces.
The Iranians tried to counter the Iraqi assault by air-dropping guns and ammunition to the Kurdish rebels. Almost as fast as these supplies were flown in, however, the Iraqis would receive air drops of even greater munitions supplies. Around midnight of the fourth day of the engagement the tide began to turn for keeps in the Iraqis’ favor when mechanized infantry platoons managed to find and penetrate a gap in the Kurdish battle lines; by mid-afternoon on the fifth day at least half of the Kurd rebel positions had been overwhelmed by Iraqi troops and many of the rest were under siege. Outnumbered and suffering from a serious munitions shortage despite Iranian help, the Kurds made the painful but necessary decision at dawn on the sixth day to withdraw to more defensible positions in the mountains so that they could preserve their strength for another day.
When word of the retaking of Kirkuk reached Baghdad, the Baathist regime was ecstatic; with the Kurdish rebellion crushed, the tide of the war seemed to be turning back in Iraq’s favor. And with Soviet troops coming over from Syrian to buck up the Iraqi battlefront, the prevailing view within the Iraqi high command was that the United States and Iran would shortly be forced to sue for peace. Given the choice between capturing Baghdad or pulling out of Iraq to preserve their foothold in Southeast Asia, the logic went, the White House would almost certainly choose the latter.
But Johnson had no intention of quitting the war in the Persian Gulf; in the face of mounting Congressional opposition to and mass protests of both his intervention in the Gulf and the war in Vietnam, the President began utilizing National Guard troops to shore up US military strength along the Iran-Iraq battlefront. To those who dared grumble that he was putting a huge strain on domestic military resources Johnson had a ready answer: "It’d put a hell of a lot more strain on our resources to be fighting the Iraqis and the Soviets in downtown Detroit or San Francisco."2
On August 3rd, as the first Soviet logistics and support personnel were arriving in Baghdad, Johnson issued the presidential directive formally calling up Guard units from 15 states to begin preparations for overseas training and deployment with the US troop contingent along the Iran-Iraq border. He also signed an executive order calling for Air Force Reserve squadrons to make themselves ready to ship out for the Persian Gulf on a moment’s notice.
Simultaneously, both the Americans and the Soviets worked to bulk up their respective naval forces in the Gulf and the Mediterranean. This was especially true when submarines were concerned; in fact, the late summer of 1967 would see more subs active in the Mediterranean than at any other time since the end of World War II.
The Cold War was about to turn red-hot...
To Be Continued
1A small core of "advisors" would be kept in the country for several months to plug known and suspected gaps in the Syria’s frontier defenses while the Syrian army started to rebuild itself.
2Quoted from Seymour Hersh’s book Green Crescent, Red Star: The Soviet Military Presence in the Persian Gulf 1967-80, copyright 1994 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.