Soviet strategy in the Middle East from 1965 to 1973

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Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev greets Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was in Moscow in October 1971 seeking diplomatic support and military hardware against Israel.

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Soviet strategy in the Middle East from 1965 to 1973 was subordinate to Soviet strategy toward Indochina. In response to the escalating war in Vietnam after 1965, the Soviets supplied many tens of thousands of tons of weapons and equipment to Hanoi. The overland supply route from the Soviet Union across the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) was not secure because of Sino-Soviet antagonism and the turmoil created by China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Nor could supplies travel via Vladivostok given the limited capacity of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the need to increase Soviet forces in the Far East to confront China. Thus, the Soviets shipped supplies to North Vietnam primarily via the Black Sea port of Odessa. The sea route from Odessa to Haiphong via the Cape of Good Hope was more than twice as long as the route via the Suez Canal. Closing the Suez Canal would thus more than halve the quantity of supplies the Soviets could deliver. After the 1967 Six-Day War closed the canal, the Soviets urgently sought to reopen it both by demanding Israeli withdrawal from the canal zone and by arming Egypt to open the canal by force.

The argument that the Soviets instigated the Six-Day War or encouraged Arab aggression in 1967 defies logic. The Soviets wanted to keep the Suez Canal open. Furthermore, Egyptian and Syrian forces had not yet received all the weapons or training that the Soviets intended to provide. The war came about with a third of Egypt’s army (55,000 troops, including the best units) deployed in Yemen and thus unavailable to fight Israel. When tensions rose in May 1967, the Soviets warned Egypt that Israel planned to attack Syria. This triggered Nasser’s subsequent actions, closing the straits of Tiran and ordering United Nations (UN) peacemakers to leave the Sinai. Possibly, the Soviets hoped that a display of Egyptian resolve would deter Israel from striking Syria, but if so this backfired. Israel chose to interpret these responses as acts of war. On May 26, 1967, the Soviets pressured Egypt and Syria to moderate their rhetoric and prevent armed conflict with Israel by whatever means necessary, but this came too late to prevent Israeli action.

Soviet behavior during the Six-Day War was restrained. The Soviets expressed resolute support for the Arabs, but did not resupply them or risk confrontation with the United States. The Soviets only threatened overt involvement on June 10, when they feared that Israel would take Damascus and overthrow the Syrian government. They broke off relations with Israel and alerted their airborne divisions for deployment, but intervention proved unnecessary when Israel accepted a cease-fire.

After the Six-Day War, the Soviets replaced Egypt’s and Syria’s lost equipment and dispatched huge quantities of arms to Sudan, Iraq, and Yemen. The Soviets sent 13,000 military advisers to Egypt in late 1967—rising to 20,000 in 1970—with advisers attached to every Egyptian unit down to battalion level. The Soviets demanded an overhaul of the Egyptian high command, and thousands of Egyptian officers visited the Soviet Union for training. Diplomatically, the Soviets continued to insist that Israel withdraw from the canal zone without preconditions. Washington responded that a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict must precede Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. The Soviets and the East Europeans began to train, fund, and equip terrorist organizations, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), to harass Israel, Western Europe, and the United States.

In April 1969 Egypt launched the War of Attrition, which sought to avoid major ground combat while causing continual Israeli casualties. Israel countered with air strikes that destroyed Egypt’s air defenses in the canal zone. When this did not force Egypt to desist, Israel began deep-penetration raids throughout Egypt. Egypt then convinced the Soviets to take control of Egypt’s air defenses. More than 12,000 Soviet operators manned air defenses that included 85 SA-2 and SA-3 missile sites, radar-guided artillery pieces, and more than 100 MiG-21 fighters with Soviet pilots. Although initially restricted to defense of the Nile River Valley, the Soviets began moving SAM batteries closer to the Suez Canal in July 1970, creating the prospect that Egyptian forces could cross the canal under this umbrella. The United States equipped Israeli aircraft with advanced electronic countermeasures and air-to-surface missiles to defeat the SAM threat.

The effort to put a SAM umbrella over the Suez Canal coincided with a crisis in Jordan. In September 1970 King Hussein violently suppressed increasingly uncontrollable Palestinian guerrilla groups. In response, the Soviets sponsored a brief Syrian invasion of Jordan. Soviet advisers planned the operation and accompanied Syrian tanks until they crossed the border. The Soviets hoped that either Israel would intervene, which would discredit Jordan’s King Hussein, or that the Americans would intervene, which would discredit the United States in the Arab world. However, the Jordanian air force smashed Syria’s tank columns, making outside intervention unnecessary.

After Nasser’s death in September 1970, Egypt’s new president, Muhammad Anwar Sadat, sought to improve relations with Western Europe and the United States. When the Soviets tried to influence the Egyptian succession struggle in favor of leftist vice president Ali Sabri, Sadat dismissed and arrested Sabri. More than 100 Nasserist or leftist officials were purged from the Egyptian government in the Corrective Revolution of May 1971. To prevent a complete break in relations, the Soviets demanded—and obtained—a Soviet-Egyptian Treaty of Friendship. The treaty restricted the Soviet role in Egypt to providing military aid and training, and Egypt agreed not to join any anti-Soviet alliance.

Having lost influence in Egypt, the Soviets tried to strengthen their relations with other Arab states through arms deliveries to Syria, Iraq, Somalia, South Yemen, and the Sudan. However, by this time the communist parties in Syria and Iraq were suppressed by the Baathists. Some competition in the form of aid and weapons sales came from China. However, in the Sudan, the Nimeri government cracked down on the substantial Sudanese Communist Party, limiting its influence from that point. The Sudanese communists launched a coup attempt but were crushed. Soviet military advisers were then expelled.

Sadat understood that the Soviets preferred to perpetuate Arab-Israeli antagonism to keep Egypt isolated and dependent on the Soviet Union. He also knew that only the Americans could deliver a political settlement with Israel and the return of the Sinai to Egyptian control. Sadat hoped that Washington could broker a political solution, but American efforts to do so in 1971 and 1972 foundered on Israeli intransigence. Sadat signaled his independence and desire for improved relations with the United States, but was thus breaking with Egypt’s long-standing nonalignment policy and strong desire to avoid any measures of foreign control. Sadat’s strategy was to prepare for a limited war in the expectation that victory would enable Washington to force Israel to accept a peace agreement and withdraw from the Sinai. Sadat informed the Soviets in February 1973 that he intended to attack Israel, and he demanded their support. The Soviets had little choice but to agree, since failure to support Egypt would destroy Soviet influence in the Middle East. Furthermore, reopening the Suez Canal would facilitate arming Hanoi for a future attack on South Vietnam.

From late June 1967 until early 1973, the Soviets gave Egypt sufficient weaponry to defend itself but not advanced offensive weapons. The Egyptians were especially displeased that the Soviets did not provide their latest MiG-23 and MiG-25 fighters to counter Israeli F-4 Phantoms. Before the October 1973 Yom Kippur (Ramadan) War, the Soviets provided first-line T-62 tanks and large numbers of antiaircraft and antitank missiles, which would enable Egypt to take and hold a bridgehead on the east bank of the Suez against Israeli air and armored counterattacks. Syria and Iraq also received significant quantities of Soviet weapons before the war.

The main Soviet objective before and during the 1973 war was to ensure that the region remained polarized. This required either stampeding Israel into a preemptive attack on Egypt, which would make Sadat’s goal of a limited victory over Israel impossible, or prodding Washington into a premature display of full support for Israel, which would ruin Washington’s credibility as an honest broker. Moscow tried to provoke Israeli preemption by circulating warnings in the communist press that an attack was imminent and by evacuating Soviet civilians from Egypt and Syria. These gambits failed, not least because the U.S. sternly warned Israel not to preempt.

Once the war began in October 1973, the Soviets sought a ceasefire at the point of maximum Arab gain—when Egypt had taken the east bank of the canal and Syria had taken the Golan Heights— but this effort failed. Israel quickly counterattacked the Syrians, and Moscow asked Egypt to advance in order to divert Israeli attention. The Soviets also began resupplying Syria and Egypt by air and sea and alerted their airborne divisions for deployment to Damascus. Israel, however, stopped short of Damascus and shifted its forces south to inflict a catastrophic defeat on the Egyptians, who had advanced into the Sinai beyond their air-defense umbrella. Israeli forces then crossed the Suez Canal and threatened to destroy Egyptian forces trapped on the east bank. The UN Security Council called for a cease-fire on October 22, 1973, but Israel disregarded this and continued encircling the Egyptians. The Soviets proposed sending joint U.S.-Soviet military contingents to enforce the cease-fire and threatened to act unilaterally if the United States refused. To emphasize their determination, the Soviets made further preparations to deploy airborne forces, and Soviet troops in Egypt fired two Scud ballistic missiles into Israel. At this point there was a real prospect of renewed fighting and the commitment to nuclear weapons. Washington raised its military alert level, informed Moscow of its willingness to cooperate in maintaining a cease-fire (although not with U.S. troops), asked Sadat to withdraw his request for superpower military intervention (which he did), and demanded that Israel cease operations (which, under extreme duress, it eventually did).

The 1973 war yielded only one positive result for Moscow: the opening of the Suez Canal. Otherwise, the outcome was profoundly negative. Washington reestablished ties with Egypt and excluded Moscow from any substantive role in the Egyptian-Israeli peace process. Moscow’s only recourse was to strengthen ties with Syria and to forge a relationship with Libya, which bought $20 billion in Soviet arms from 1974 to 1985.

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