6 October War: Bygone days of glory

Hussein Haridy
Saturday 5 Oct 2013

Going to war in October 1973 was a necessity for Egypt. There was no other way to take back Sinai. But this hard-headed realism didn't last into the years that followed the 1973 victory

On 6 October, Egypt and the Arab world will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October War. Forty years ago, the Egyptian and the Syrian armies launched a surprise attack on Israeli positions on the southern and eastern fronts; namely, in Sinai and on the Golan Heights. At 1400 hours Saturday, 6 October, 200 bombers flew over the Suez Canal en route to destroy Israeli positions deep in Sinai while 4,000 pieces of the Egyptian field artillery blew away the fortifications that Israel had built along the eastern bank of the canal to prevent the Egyptian army from launching an all-out attack to regain Sinai from Israeli occupation that dated back to the Six-Day War of June 1967.

In order to deter Egypt from crossing the canal, the Israelis built the Bar Lev Line from north to south with a sand dam and fortifications and napalm tubes under the water to put the waterway of the canal on fire in case the Egyptian forces would attempt to cross.

A former Israeli chief of staff had bragged that even a nuclear bomb would not destroy this defence line. Another chief of staff in Israel said afterwards that the Israeli forces would break the bones of Egyptians if they would ever dare to cross the canal and penetrate the Bar Lev Line.

The whole idea of this defence line was to deter Egypt's High Command from contemplating breaching the canal and taking the fortifications on the eastern bank by force. The Israeli strategy after the June defeat centered on pressuring Egypt to accept a peace deal with Israel along Israeli conditions; that is, a withdrawal by Israel from Sinai but not to the June borders, a peace treaty and the right of Israeli vessels to use the Suez Canal. President Gamal Abdel Nasser refused such conditions and began rebuilding the army via a massive rearmament programme with the help of the former Soviet Union.

And to prepare the newly-organised army, he ordered what is known as the War of Attrition from 1969 to 1970, a war that cost Israel heavy losses in terms of men and equipment. Before his death on 28 September 1970, Egypt successfully installed an advanced air-defence system that proved very effective and deadly for Israelis F-4 fighter planes known as Phantoms.

The administration of President Lyndon Johnson had decided to provide Israel with its latest fighter planes to break Egyptian will and lead Egypt into submission. In fact, these fighter planes penetrated Egyptian air defence systems and destroyed schools and industrial plants.

When President Anwar El-Sadat came to power after the passing away of President Nasser, he tried to find a diplomatic opening that would set in motion a process whereby Egypt would regain control of Sinai in return for ending the state of war with Israel and ultimately the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries. For example, in February 1971, he proposed the reopening of the Suez Canal in return for a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces 10 kilometres to the east. Israel refused, and the Nixon administration was not eager to get involved for reasons that had to do with Soviet-American relations and American relations with China and the agreement with Beijing to begin a normalisation process.

Add to that, a wrong impression in Washington circles that Egypt would not fight. In June 1972, Henry Kissinger told Leonid Brezhnev, the former first secretary of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union, that “It is hard to convince Israel why they should give up the territory in exchange for something they already have (a ceasefire) in order to avoid a war that they can win.” William Rogers, Kissinger's predecessor as secretary of state, had said to Mahmoud Riad, the Egyptian foreign minister at the time, "Do not forget that you have lost the war and therefore have to pay a price.”

In 1973, Kissinger had a talk with the Iranian ambassador in Washington DC in which he said that it “is senseless for a country that lost a war to demand [its territory back] as a precondition,” adding: “Why not let the Egyptians take the heat?”

The fact of the matter is that neither the United States nor Israel were interested in carrying out Security Council Resolution 242 that  has laid the basis for all international efforts aimed at a comprehensive peaceful settlement in the Middle East. And Kissinger wanted to ensure that Israel would enforce its demands on the Arab side. A former Israeli ambassador to Washington once described Kissinger in the following terms: “As a family, [the Kissingers] were committed to the Zionist cause, and that commitment formed the bedrock of Kissinger's view of the Middle East.” So it should not come as a surprise that Israeli leaders in 1973 considered him as their most important asset in the Nixon administration. Post-1967 developments had proven that he, at times, did not draw a distinction between American and Israeli interests in the Middle East.

Going to war became then more than a necessity. It was to be the only option available to Egypt and other Arab countries to liberate their territories from Israeli occupation. It was a decision fraught with dangers and demanded extreme courage on the part of President Sadat and President Hafez El-Assad of Syria. The war itself was a miracle in its own right regardless of the results that reflected American calculations vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union more than the realities on the battlefield.

The truth is that without the enormous American airlift to Israel during the war, Israel would have known an unprecedented defeat. In less than 10 days, the United States flew in almost 22,000 tons of armaments, munitions and 80 planes, half of which were Phantom fighter planes. Thus, the Egyptian army was fighting both Israel and the United States at the same time.

Strategically speaking, the war proved that Arab armies were prepared and ready to wage modern wars, that they could fight Israel for days on end while not only keeping their ground but also scoring victories. The October War has proven that with sophisticated weapon systems and well-organised and well-trained armies, Arab countries were capable of inflicting heavy losses on Israeli forces as well as the economy of the Israeli state.

Both the Egyptian and Syrian armies fought Israeli forces with Soviet armaments that proved their efficiency and precision no less than the American and Western armaments used by the Israeli army. What happened in October 1973 was that the United States looked at the war from the perspective of its rivalry with the former Soviet Union, not only in the world at large, but also in the Middle East. And Kissinger saw a great opportunity for Washington to use the results of the war to roll back Soviet influence in the region. President Sadat became a willing partner in this respect, unfortunately.

President Nixon made a comment on this particular point when he made it clear that, “We cannot allow a Soviet-supported operation to succeed against an American-supported operation. If it does, our credibility everywhere is severely shaken.”

This approach on the part of the Nixon administration, which was facing the full brunt of the Watergate affair, probably explains why Nixon, when he received reports from Kissinger that the Egyptian army could decide to race for the strategically-located Sinai passes, commented that, “The main thing is who wins this damn battle. It is not territory, you know you can give up gobs of territory; the question is do you beat the enemy. Now, if the Israelis let them, I think they ought to let them in there and kill them.” To which Kissinger answered: ”That is right. Should the Israelis clobber the Egyptians, that will turn out to be a pretty good position.”

I do not know whether President Sadat was aware of these positions by two American politicians he trusted most in the post-October diplomatic manoeuvring that led to two disengagement agreements in Sinai and one in the Golan Heights. Maybe if he had known, things would have turned differently for Egypt and for the Arabs.

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