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October 1973 War / Yom Kippur War / Ramadan War

After conquering Sinai, the Israelis constructed the Bar-Lev Line, a series of thirty-three small, heavily fortified observation posts atop sand ramparts eight to ten meters high along the east bank of the Suez Canal. They built a second sand embankment several kilometers behind the first one. Both embankments had firing ramps for roving armored patrols. In January 1969, Egypt began the War of Attrition with an intensive eighty-day bombardment along the whole canal. Israeli positions along the Bar-Lev Line survived the attack but suffered heavy damage. Egypt followed the attack with commando raids on the line itself and against Israeli patrols and rear installations.

Israel launched a severe reprisal that included bombing raids against military and strategic targets deep in the interior of Egypt. The relative ineffectiveness of Egypt's Soviet SA-2 high-altitude surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) against the Israeli raids necessitated the introduction of low-level SA-3 SAMs, manned mostly by Soviet technicians. Egypt reinforced the new missiles with more than 100 MiG-21 aircraft flown by Soviet pilots. Egypt's revitalized air defense system succeeded in destroying a considerable number of Israeli aircraft. Still, in the only major battle between Israeli and Soviet fighters, the Israeli air force quickly prevailed. In August 1970, a cease-fire negotiated by the United States with Soviet support ended the fighting between Israel and Egypt.

Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in September 1970, assumed the responsibility of managing the international and domestic pressures that were impelling Egypt and the Middle East toward another war. Although the Soviets had replaced the enormous amounts of arms and equipment lost during the June 1967 War, Sadat and other Egyptian military leaders had become wary of the Soviet military's increasing influence on national affairs. In mid-1972 Sadat dismissed most of the Soviet advisers as part of his preparations for recovering Sinai. In January 1973, Egypt began planning a topsecret project known as Operation Badr in conjunction with Syria.

One major Syrian foreign policy goal was the recovery of territory on the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981. The October 1973 War (known in the Arab world as the Ramadan War and in Israel as the Yom Kippur War) was principally a result of Syria's pursuit of this second goal, which coincided with Egypt's desire to recover the Suez Canal, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gaza Strip, also taken by Israel in 1967. Other intricacies of Arab politics, including President Assad's desire to end Syria's traditional isolation in the Arab world (and ultimately to attain regional hegemony), also played a part. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, noting the wave of riots by workers and students in Egypt in 1972 and 1973 and Sunni Muslim protests in Syria in early 1973, argued that "The very [political] weakness of Sadat and Assad were important factors in the decision to launch war on Israel."

By 1973 Syria's post-1967 effort to increase the professionalism of its armed forces, largely through the aid of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, had borne fruit. Syrian military leaders felt self-confident and believed that their superpower ally would lend considerable weight in the event of renewed war with Israel. From mid-1973 until the beginning of hostilities, Arab leaders met frequently to plan the coordinated offensive, and Syrian and Egyptian army units began massing along their respective borders during the last days of September. However, Israeli intelligence, military and political officials misinterpreted these deployments.

The October 1973 War (known in Israel as the Yom Kippur War and in the Arab world as the Ramadan War) developed rapidly, and the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian offensive caught Israel by surprise. On September 28, Palestinian guerrillas detained an Austrian train carrying Soviet Jews en route to Israel. Subsequent Egyptian and Syrian military deployments were interpreted by Israel as defensive actions in anticipation of Israeli reprisals. For one week, Israel postponed mobilizing its troops.

Not until the morning of Yom Kippur (October 6), about six hours before the Arab offensive, were Israeli officials convinced that war was imminent; a mobilization of the reserves was then ordered. In the early days of the war, the IDF suffered heavy losses as Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and overran Israeli strongholds, while Syrians marched deep into the Golan Heights.

Early in the afternoon of October 6, 1973, Egypt launched the operation with a massive artillery barrage against Israeli positions on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. Water cannons mounted on pontoons sliced gaps in the high sandbank of the Bar-Lev Line, permitting armored vehicles to cross on assault craft. By midnight ten bridges and fifty ferries had carried 80,000 Egyptian troops across the waterway and one kilometer beyond the embankment. Almost all of the armor of the Egyptian Second Army and Third Army crossed the following day. By October 9, the Egyptian bridgeheads were seven to ten kilometers east of the canal. The Soviet-supplied antitank missiles and rockets repulsed the initial Israeli counterattacks. The newer Soviet SAMs protected Egyptian forces from Israeli air attacks, but as Egyptian troops advanced beyond the missile defenses, they were exposed to punishing air attacks.

On October 14, Egyptian armored columns took the offensive to try to seize the main routes leading to Tasa and the Giddi and Mitla passes. In the largest tank battle since World War II, the Egyptian attack failed when Israeli gunnery proved superior, and the Israelis' defensive positions gave them an added advantage.

When the Syrian-Egyptian offensive was launched on October 6, at 2 p.m. on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, 5 Syrian divisions, consisting of some 45,000 men, moved against only 2 Israeli armored brigades of about 4,500 men stationed on the Golan Heights. The timing, no doubt deliberate on Syria's part, in fact had a different effect than intended. Because most Israelis were either at their synagogues or at home, the roads were clear, and troops could be rushed to the border. Nevertheless, for some twenty-three hours, Syrian forces held the offensive, almost reaching the encampment overlooking the Jordan River Valley at the southern edge of the Golan Heights region, but making little headway beyond the 1967 cease-fire line in the north. About 1,800 Moroccan troops held the peak of strategic Mount Hermon near the common Syrian, Israeli, and Lebanese border. In the central region, Syria recaptured Al Qunaytirah.

During the war Syria deployed vast numbers of Soviet-made surface-to-surface missiles. Between October 7 and 9, several of these hit populated areas in northern Israel. As the Israeli ground forces advanced into Syria, the Israeli Air Force destroyed part of the Syrian missile system, vital oil installations, power plants, bridges, and port facilities at Tartus, Baniyas, and Latakia.

Israel launched its counteroffensive first against the Syrian front, and only when it had pushed the Syrians back well east of the 1967 cease-fire line (by October 15) did Israel turn its attention to the Egyptian front. Reinforced Israeli troops launched successful counterattacks on October 8 and 9 and had pushed Syrian troops back behind the 1967 lines by October 10. Two Iraqi mechanized divisions, a Jordanian armored brigade, and a Saudi Arabian detachment had joined the Syrian offensive line east of Sasa, less than forty kilometers from Damascus, by October 14. To its credit, this Arab defense line held for three days of fierce fighting.

Mounting a strong counterattack against Egypt, the Israelis thrust toward the canal and narrowly succeeded in crossing it just north of Great Bitter Lake. In ten days of fighting, Israel pushed the Egyptian army back across the canal, and the IDF made deep incursions into Egypt. Egyptian forces on the east bank heavily contested Israel's weak link to the canal bridgehead, but by October 19, the Israelis succeeded in breaking out west of the canal. Stubborn Egyptian defenses prevented the loss of the cities of Ismailia (Al Ismailiyah) and Suez at the southern end of the canal until a UN cease-fire took effect on October 24, 1973. With Israeli soldiers about one kilometer from the main Cairo-Ismailia highway and the Soviet Union threatening direct military intervention, the UN imposed a cease-fire. Before the cease-fire, however, the Israelis had isolated the Egyptian Third Army on the east bank of the canal.

After several months of negotiations, during which sporadic fighting continued, Israel and Egypt reached a disengagement agreement on 17 January 1974, whereby Israel withdrew its forces from west of the canal while Egyptian forces withdrew from the east bank to a depth of about eight kilometers. Israeli and Egyptian troops were separated in the Sinai by a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) buffer zone. The agreement provided for the UNEF to occupy a north-south buffer strip about eight kilometers wide and allowed a limited number of Israeli troops to occupy a similar zone to the east of the UNEF. On September 4, 1975, after further negotiations, the Second Sinai Disengagement Agreement was signed between Egypt and Israel that widened the buffer zone and secured a further Israeli withdrawal to the east of the strategic Gidi and Mitla passes.

Syria finally accepted the United Nations cease-fire on October 24, but sporadic fighting continued on the Golan until the disengagement agreement of March 31 [May 31?], 1974. Israel withdrew to the 1967 cease-fire line in the Golan Heights and a United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) occupied a buffer zone between Israeli and Syrian forces.

In all, the war was extremely costly to Syria. An estimated 7,000 troops were killed and 21,000 wounded, and 600 tanks, 165 fighter aircraft, and 7 naval vessels were destroyed or lost. An additional 845 square kilometers of territory was lost, and much vital economic infrastructure was destroyed. Syria, however, counted several victories. First, Syria's six years of struggle to professionalize the armed forces paid off when Syrian forces revealed great improvement in battle. In addition, Soviet airlifts and sealifts of military equipment during the hostilities demonstrated the importance of Syria's military relationship with the Soviet Union. Also, for the first time in the twenty- five-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict, there had been effective coordination of Arab armies. Finally, under the terms of the disengagement agreement, Israel withdrew from all freshly captured territory and also from a narrow strip of territory, held since 1967 and including Al Qunaytirah, which was incorporated into a demilitarized zone policed by the 1,200-man United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

Although Egypt's armed forces suffered severely in the October 1973 War, the losses were not nearly as heavy as they had been in 1967. Of the combined strength of 200,000 in Egypt's Second and Third armies, approximately 8,000 men were killed in combat. Egypt also lost more than 200 aircraft, 1,100 tanks, and large quantities of other weapons, vehicles, and equipment. Despite these losses, the effect of the war on the armed forces was as exhilarating as the defeat in 1967 had been debilitating. Although they had not recovered Sinai, their initial successes in securing the east bank of the canal had an important positive psychological impact on the armed forces. The war enabled Egypt to negotiate from strength rather than from the abject weakness of the post-1967 period. At the same time, Egypt had proved that it was capable of successful military planning and of inflicting painful losses on Israel.

The defeat also gave the Arab states the cohesion to shape a successful policy of embargoing oil shipments to Western Europe and the United States to punish them for their continued support of Israel. The successful manipulation of oil supplies by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) ran up the price of a barrel of oil from $3.39 in 1973 to $12.93 in 1978.2 Given the rising price of oil and the power of the Arab states in the new market, international financiers began to speak of “petrodollars” that accumulated in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East. The influx of wealth to the states of the region gave them a buying power in the arms market that they had never had before.

Israel's military victory in 1973 came at a heavy price of more than 2,400 lives and an estimated US$5 billion in equipment, of which more than US$1 billion was airlifted by the United States during the war when it became apparent that Israel's ammunition stores were dangerously low. This action, and the threatened Soviet intervention, raised more clearly than ever the specter of the Arab-Israeli conflict escalating rapidly into a confrontation between the superpowers. The October 1973 War also cost Israel its self-confidence in its military superiority over its Arab enemy. The government appointed a special commission, headed by Chief Justice Shimon Agranat, president of the Israeli Supreme Court, to investigate why Israel had been caught by surprise and why so much had gone wrong during the war itself. The commission's report, completed in January 1975, was highly critical of the performance of the IDF on several levels, including intelligence gathering, discipline within the ranks, and the mobilization of reserves. The euphoria of the post-1967 era faded.




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