The Israeli Invasion of Syria, 1967
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first eight chapters of this series we chronicled the Israeli invasion of Syria and occupation of Damascus during the Eleven-Day War; Israel’s subsequent July War with Syria and the Soviet Union; and the outbreak of hostilities between the USSR and the United States in the Persian Gulf. In this segment we’ll discuss the rise of the Soviet Iraq war vets’ dissident movement and the battlefield setback which finally started to turn the tide of the Persian Gulf conflict against the Red Army for keeps.
It started very small and spontaneously for the most part, so much so that even some of the protestors themselves didn’t know what was happening when they arrived in Moscow’s Red Square on the morning of October 24th, 1967. But when it was all over, the whole world would be aware of what they’d done. The men gathering in the Kremlin’s shadow were all veterans of the Red Army’s hard-fought campaigns in Syria and Iraq; many of them had been maimed either physically or mentally (or both in some cases) by these wars, and they wanted to keep their fellow countrymen from meeting a similar fate.
By noon at least a hundred ex-soldiers were in the square, telling their stories to passersby and waving placards calling for Brezhnev to bring Soviet troops home from the Middle East. An enraged Brezhnev, seeing the demonstration as an act of treason, ordered the KGB to quell it by any means necessary.
Quell it they did, using tear gas, clubs, and in some instances volleys of machine gun fire to break up the rally; any protest signs they could get their hands on were either torn to shreds or burned, and those men who couldn’t get away were swiftly arrested by KGB troops. The lucky ones merely got lengthy jail terms; most of those demonstrators who fell into KGB hands saw their defiance end on the wrong side of a firing squad’s rifles.
In the short term at least, Moscow won this particular round of its battle with the dissident movement; however, as previous Kremlin rulers had learned before him and subsequent ones would find out after him, First Secretary Brezhnev would discover that people are easier to kill than ideas...
In early November of 1967, in an operation timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Communist revolution, Soviet armor and infantry elements, backed by three Iraqi battalions, began a two-pronged thrust towards Bakhtaran, a city north of the vital Iranian oil hub of Abadan. Some of the ordinary Red Army soldiers participating in this new offensive were unsure of the wisdom of such a move, but they quite wisely kept their thoughts to themselves. They’d heard the stories about what had happened to the dissidents in Red Square, and they did not want to meet a similar fate. Their Iraqi comrades-in-arms had almost as much incentive for keeping quiet about whatever reservations they had; Iraq’s army, like its government, was notorious for its use of torture as a way of punishment for dissenters. The ordinary Iraqi soldier could be shot or hanged for the slightest reasons-- and sometimes for no reason at all.
As US and Iranian forces were trying to mount a defense against the Bakhtaran offensive, additional Soviet and Iraqi troops struck northward towards Tabriz and mounted a combined airborne/amphibious attack on the Persian Gulf port of Rasht. Before long the invaders had pushed so far into Iranian territory that General Earle Wheeler, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, complained to his Iranian counterpart that their efforts at a counterattack were amounting to little more than "changing the positions of the deck chairs on the Titanic".
But just as it seemed that Tehran was ripe for the plucking by Soviet and Iraqi forces, an Iraqi battalion commander at the northern town of Tajrish made a mistake that would come back to haunt the general staffs in both Baghdad and Moscow. With the Iranian capital practically in his grasp, and US-Iranian ground forces in a state of confusion, he decided that his men should halt temporarily while he radioed his division HQ for instructions; the forward columns for the battalion behind him were forced to halt as well, since his unit’s vehicles were directly in the other battalion's main line of advance.
The delay lasted almost 20 minutes, a timespan which, while brief, gave US and Iranian ground commanders breathing space in which to begin getting their second wind. They took full advantage of that unforeseen respite to re-organize their defenses; when the Soviet and Iraqi armies finally resumed their advance, they were met with a stern counterattack by US-Iranian coalition forces.
By the third day of the offensive the invaders, who had originally hoped at that point to be occupying Tehran, found themselves no closer than thirty-five miles from the city. Worse, pre-battle KGB intelligence estimates that the invasion would shatter the Iranian people’s will to fight had turned out to be seriously off-base-- civilian volunteers were forming militias to act as a kind of guerrilla force to harass the Soviets and Iraqis, while young men flocked to join the regular Iranian army. On November 12th, the fifth day of the battle for Tehran, the Shah himself made a nationally televised speech to his fellow countrymen that he would if necessary pick up a rifle himself and kill the first Soviet or Iraqi soldier who dared set foot in Tehran’s streets.
Statements like this, and US-Iranian coalition success in holding the line against the invasion forces, had a telling effect on Iranian morale as the days wore on. On November 25th, eighteen days after the Soviet- Iraqi drive on Tehran commenced, the commander of the main Soviet advance column reluctantly ordered his surviving troops to retire to a battle line about fifty miles outside the city; the main Iraqi assault force would do so twelve hours after this order was issued.
The Soviets and their Iraqi allies had gambled heavily on the November 7th offensive-- and lost. But the US and Iranian forces had taken serious losses of their own in victory; for the next few weeks after the offensive was over, the situation on the Iranian front would remain static as both sides licked their respective wounds. It was just a matter of time, however, before the shooting started again, and when it did US and Iranian forces would have a distinct (if slight) advantage in the field...
To Be Continued