The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first seven 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; the Soviet-Syrian defeat in the second battle for the Golan Heights; and the eventual Soviet pullout from Syria. In this installment we’ll recall the outbreak of hostilities between US and Soviet forces in the Persian Gulf.
It took at least a month for the National Guard and reserve units called up by President Johnson to deploy to their assigned bases in Iran. During that time, the Soviet expeditionary forces across the border in Iraq had been using hit-and-run tactical assaults to keep the existing US contingent off balance. Late on the evening of September 13th, 1967, just over a month after reserve units began shipping out to Iran, a joint Soviet-Iraqi large scale offensive breached US-Iranian border defenses near the oil production hub of Abadan, catching the new arrivals off-guard pushing the already staggering American causalty toll in the Middle East that much higher.
Anti-Johnson demonstrations, which had been steadily growing in both size and frequency as the fighting in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, now became almost hourly events; some of the president's harsher critics now even began asserting that he should resign and let his Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, open cease-fire negotiations with Moscow and Baghdad.
Furthermore, conventional wisdom in Congress and among potential voters in the 1968 presidential elections held for the most part that the time had come-- might even be overdue --for the United States to start calling its troops home from the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of the Persian Gulf. The fact that Soviet and Iraqi troops had been able to push deep into Iranian territory in a relatively short time and inflict so many losses on American troops in the process was regarded by most of Johnson’s critics, and even some of his supporters, as a sign that the price of victory in the Gulf would be higher than it was worth.
The demands for Johnson to leave office grew louder when, two weeks after the Soviet-Iraqi invasion began, a battalion of US Army mechanized infantry was wiped out while defending a key overland approach to the Iranian capital, Tehran. Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, until then a staunch ally of the Johnson Administration, took to the Senate floor to denounce the commander-in-chief as "a stubborn lunatic"1 and introduce a resolution which called for the President to resign no later than October 2nd.
But LBJ would have none of it. He had little patience with Moscow’s schemes for a permanent presence in the Gulf and even less with those who advocated a "cut and run" policy either in the Middle East or in Vietnam. Indeed, as the 1968 New Hampshire primary loomed he made it clear that maintaining-- and strengthening --American military forces in Asia would be a primary goal of his bid for a second full term as President.
Convinced that Johnson was pushing the United States to the brink of disaster, his former attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, announced in early October that he was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination on a platform of ending the American military presence in Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf. With a quarter of Iranian territory already occupied by the Red Army and Tehran threatened by assault from the south and west, RFK's decision struck Johnson as a personal betrayal at a critical time in American history, and in a fit of outrage during an interview with NBC's David Brinkley he labeled Kennedy "a modern-day Quisling"2.
But LBJ's outrage fell largely on deaf ears; to those who'd become disillusioned with the wars in Vietnam and the Gulf, and those who'd never wanted anything to do with them in the first place, RFK was a godsend. Within a week of his formal announcement Kennedy had secured endorsements from the Congress of Racial Equality(CORE) and the United Auto Workers.
Ironically, at the very moment the tide of battle seemed to be turning in the Kremlin's favor once more, CPSU First Secretary Brezhnev was being faced with a minor political crisis of his own. For the third time in five years, and the second time since Moscow's intervention in the July War, nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was a distinct possibility, and many of Brezhnev's fellow Russians weren't happy about it. They wanted peace, and they wanted more economic security as well, and the chances of attaining either of those were slim as long as the Kremlin insisted on propping up the Baathist oligarchy in Baghdad.
Underground newspapers and magazines collectively known as samizdat began circulating in some of the USSR’s larger cities. Their editorial content-- usually printed anonymously so as to minimize the risk of its authors getting arrested by the KGB --called for a diplomatic solution instead of a military one to the US-Soviet conflict in the Middle East; there were also calls for political reform, particularly for an end to the ban on opposition parties which the CPSU had imposed shortly after the 1917 October revolution.
As one can imagine, such notions did not sit well with the CPSU elite. Brezhnev was quick to unleash the full force of the KGB on would-be reform movement leaders. Printing presses were smashed; the samizdats they printed were swept off the streets and burned; the editorial staffs who operated them were arrested and sent to jail3. But that didn’t stop the dissidents from continuing to issue their calls for change; in some ways, in fact, it tended to make those cries louder, since it gave the dissident leaders a rallying point for recruiting new converts to their movement.
As happened with the anti-Vietnam war movement in America, the reformist cause in Russia attracted battle-scarred soldiers to its ranks. These were usually NCOs, though a number of junior officers also participated in the movement; whatever their rank, they all shared one common trait-- the brutal fighting they’d experienced had soured them on the purported joys of Marxism.
Their participation in the movement included a risk their American brethren never had to deal with: the possibility of being arrested and even put to death on treason charges. This was especially true of men who, drafted for second(in some cases third) tours of duty in the Persian Gulf, simply refused to comply with their draft orders; dubbed "refuseniks" by the Western press, they were marked men in the eyes of the KGB and often went underground to evade arrest or execution.
Occasionally, however, a few brave souls would defy the odds-- and the Kremlin --to make their identities publicly known in order that others who shared their beliefs might rally around them. Once such incident transpired in Leningrad(now St. Petersburg) in late October of 1967, a week before the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Communist revolution...
To Be Continued
1Quoted from the Congressional Record for the week of September 26th-October 3rd, 1967.
2Excerpt from the NBC evening news for October 5th, 1967.
3Or worse, the gulag.