SIX DAYS 1967 III

Dado was informed of the outcome, and he went to bed gloomy and depressed. In fact almost all the protagonists – Eshkol, Rabin, Allon, and Begin – retired for the night; as far as they were concerned, the war was over. But one man could not sleep. At about 6 a.m., Dayan’s assistant entered the pit and asked that the ops room be prepared for the arrival of the minister of defense. “I thought he was kidding,” recalled one of the officers in the room. He was not. Tormented by his own self-doubt, Dayan entered the ops room. An officer told him there was evidence to suggest that the Syrians were deserting their fortifications and retreating. Restless, Dayan started poking around the intelligence tray. He spied a translated telegram from Nasser to the Syrian president recommending that he immediately accept a proposal for a ceasefire to save the Syrian army. There was also an aerial photograph which showed that the bases around Quneitra, the only city on the Heights, were empty – though there was no way of knowing whether that was because all the troops had withdrawn to Damascus or because they had all advanced to the front. The intelligence memo attached to the aerial photograph, written by analyst Elie Weisbrot, nevertheless claimed that this was proof that the Syrian army on the Golan Heights was retreating. The end of the memo was also highly unusual: “It is unclear,” Weisbrot wrote, “if such a situation would happen again.” That was not a professional but a political assertion.

Yariv had seen the memo before it went out. Yariv was certainly for taking the Golan. He, Rabin, and Dado had been waiting for the right opportunity for years; it is just that he was not sure that what Weisbrot wrote was true. “Elie, are you certain that the Syrian army is ‘collapsing’?” an incredulous Yariv had asked Weisbrot. Regardless, Yariv let the memo be distributed with Weisbrot’s unorthodox comments in it.

Dayan, for whom Weisbrot’s memo had really been written, decided that this was incontrovertible proof that the Syrian army was collapsing. Later, Dayan confessed that this was simply a pretext. “I capitulated,” he admitted. He did not want to bear the sole responsibility for not having conquered the Heights. Like Rabin and Eshkol, Dayan, the tough and cunning general, succumbed to the pressure of the generals–settlers coalition. At 7 a.m., without consulting anyone else, Dayan called the ops room at northern command. Bewildered, shirtless, and half-naked, Dado ran to the phone. “Dado, can you attack?” asked Dayan. “I can attack immediately,” replied Dado. “Then attack,” said Dayan. The minister of defense tried to explain that the Syrian army was falling apart but Dado cut him short: “I don’t know if it’s collapsing or not. It doesn’t matter. We are attacking. Thank you very much.” Dado hung up the phone and yelled: “They will not stop me now!”

In the following two days the Israeli attack on the Golan Heights gathered pace. With warfare on the other fronts settled, all the might of the IDF was turned on the 50,000 or so Syrian soldiers and officers locked in their fortresses upon the mountain. At the start of the Six-Day War, Dado had only one infantry brigade and one armored brigade under his command. Following the end of hostilities on the West Bank, three armored brigades and two infantry brigades were sent by the General Staff to the northern front. On the eve of the Golan offensive, Dado had at his disposal 30,000 men and 500 tanks. Moreover, the IAF had no other business to attend to other than helping to ensure the success of the Golan campaign. Dado had asked Hod to slam everything he had into the Golan and Hod complied. In four hours, the IAF made 300 sorties over the Heights, dropping no less than 400 bombs. Clouds mushroomed over the land, gray from the napalm bombs and black from the regular ones. A Syrian officer in the 12th Brigade reported fifty-two dead, eighty injured, and six missing. The military hospital in Quneitra was a mess. It quickly filled up with casualties with napalm burns.

Dado’s forces proceeded to use the tried-and-true methods of the Israeli doctrine, driving tanks through impassable terrain and attacking Syrian compounds from their rear or flanks. The fighting in the first twenty-four hours of the campaign was intense and bloody. As it turned out, Dayan was wrong: the Syrian army was not collapsing – yet; it was fighting back. Also contrary to expectations, the Syrians did not send their best units to the front. The ones that were considered the most effective and loyal, like the 70th Brigade, which was equipped with the sturdy T-54 and T-55 tanks, were retained near the capital to keep the Baath regime safe from its internal enemies. All in all, three of the best brigades in the Syrian army – two armored and one mechanized – were camped near Damascus, the troops being used to secure the party’s headquarters, as well as the TV and radio stations. Even at this point, the regime feared its internal enemies more than it feared its Israeli foe. Thus, units considered less loyal, such as the ones manned by Druze soldiers, were sent to the front. In the Zaura and Ein-Fit outposts, Alawite soldiers suspected the Druze of delivering secret information to the enemy and, in retribution, they tied up Druze soldiers outside the trenches, where they were exposed to Israeli bombing. “Die at the hands of your masters!” the Alawites shouted at their victims.

Soon the Syrian forces in the Golan began to disintegrate under the weight of the formidable Israeli war machine. Troops on the Golan Heights suffered from low morale before the war had even started. The regime made sure to transfer families of Alawite Baath members from the front to the Damascus area. Hundreds of trucks were used for this purpose while the troops at the front were having serious trouble with logistics. When non-Alawites turned to the local governor and asked to be evacuated from the Quneitra area as well, he refused their request and threatened them with execution. Such behavior inflamed the hatred between Alawites and non-Alawites.

Despite orders by Syria’s high command to shoot anyone who tried to retreat, on the evening of June 8 commanders of first-line units were no longer certain that headquarters was determined to hold the line. Rumors started spreading about a retreat order that had already been given. Baathist senior officers received an invitation to come to an urgent party meeting in Damascus: they took that as a coded message that allowed them to retreat. Colonel Ahmed al-Mir, commander of the Golan front, left his headquarters at Quneitra on the back of a donkey, because he was worried that if he used a military vehicle Israeli planes would spot and strafe him. When officers called on regional headquarters at Quneitra and found that it was empty, they took that as permission to flee.

While rear units withdrew, front-line troops were cut off, unaware that the regime had deserted them. They discovered they were fighting alone only on June 9, the first day of fighting on the Golan. Some of these units fought bravely that day and Israeli ground forces were able to advance no more than 13 kilometers along an 8-kilometer front. Nevertheless, on the night of June 9–10, Syrian soldiers and officers retreated under cover of darkness, mostly from the northern and central Golan, where the bloodiest battles of the previous days had taken place.

Colonel Izzat Jadid’s story is illustrative of that time. He commanded the 44th Armored Brigade that was equipped with T-54 tanks, which Syrian officers considered superior to the Israeli Sherman and Patton tanks. On June 9, Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Awad Bar gave Izzat an order to move his brigade to the front line during the night and launch a counter-offensive on the morning of the 10th. Darkness should have helped the tanks of the 44th to redeploy without fear of the marauding Israeli planes. Instead of obeying, Izzat contacted his powerful cousin and Syrian strongman, Salah Jadid, and told him he was afraid that Bar would court-marshal him for disobedience. Salah promised to protect Izzat. As a result, on the night during which the 44th was supposed to drive to the front, it retreated to Damascus.

The retreat of army units occurred amid a broader civilian flight. On June 10, tens of thousands of people, both civilians and soldiers, were attempting to flee from the Golan. As in Sinai, the conceit of the General Staff had led to the transfer of second-line units to the first line of defense in preparation for the attack on Israel that failed miserably on the second day of the war. Syrian General Staff failed to order troops to move back to man the second line of defense. The result was that once the first line had disintegrated, there was nothing to stop the Israelis from rolling forward to Damascus.

This is precisely what Syria’s high command believed that the IDF wanted to do on the morning of June 10, the last day of the war. The fear of Israel’s military prowess was now considerable. The Syrians knew they were fighting an army that had already chewed up the Jordanian and Egyptian forces and had conquered Sinai and the West Bank in a mere four days. Fear of an Israeli conquest of Damascus was so great that the central bank, the archives of the secret services, and Syria’s foreign currency and gold reserves were hurriedly evacuated from Damascus to northern Syria under heavy security. In these circumstances, it made more sense to pull units away from the front in order to make a last-ditch effort to defend the capital. As in Sinai, the order to withdraw was given in a haphazard manner, which led to a loss of faith in the high command.

In the early morning, observers in Quneitra erroneously identified a Syrian battalion as an Israeli force that had breached the city’s defenses. (At that point, the Israelis were still four hours away.) At 8.30 a.m. Radio Damascus was ordered by the regime to announce that the Israelis had taken Quneitra. At 11 a.m. Syrian high command realized that they had made a mistake and Radio Damascus aired a correction, but it was far too late to have any effect. Syrian soldiers were already running away. Front-line desertion turned into a rout.

At around the same time as the mistaken message was broadcast, units in the southern Golan, yet to see any major battle, were given orders to withdraw. The officers drove along the road connecting the trenches and called out to the soldiers to take their personal weapons and leave. They were to go on foot up to the village of Hital and launch a counter-offensive from there.

Instead, the soldiers preferred to cross the border and flee to Jordan. The same thing happened in the central area of the front. A retreat order was given at 8.15 a.m., but the chaotic flight from front-line positions preceded the order by two hours. The first to flee were the senior officers, then the junior ones. Finally, the soldiers took off. Just as in Sinai, any attempt to conduct an orderly withdrawal failed. The Syrian General Staff was receiving partial and mostly unreliable reports from front-line units and therefore could not monitor their movements. The Israeli war machine was moving too fast and the generals in Damascus were too slow in responding.

As in Sinai, the Israelis knew everything about the Syrian positions: their size, location, structure, the type of weapons that were installed, and the number of troops in each position. Information was collected using agents, observations, and reconnaissance flights. Conversely, the Syrians, in the words of the Soviet advisers who were embedded in the Syrian army, “had zero intelligence on their enemy.” As in Sinai, the first priority of the Baath regime was to save its own neck. Preserving the Golan was a secondary issue. Doubtless, Minister of Defense Assad and Chief of Staff Ahmed Sawidani were thinking about the following day. Sawidani commanded the loyalty of the ground forces, and Assad those of the air force. Neither could afford to sacrifice his troops or pilots: they would be needed for the internal battle that was bound to follow the defeat. Thus, because of the internal rivalries at the top, the Syrian front line in the Golan had crumbled. The speed at which that happened explains the low number of casualties among the Syrian troops: only 450 out of 50,000 were killed.

The Superpower Moment

The road to Damascus was now clear. The only thing the Syrians could do was to call on their Soviet patrons and cry for help. On the last day of the war, at 7.30 a.m., the hotline teletype at the White House started ticking a threatening telegram from Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin: if the Israeli assault did not cease, the Soviet Union would sanction all measures, including military.

In fact, there was a fierce debate going on in the Kremlin as to what to do. Nikolai Yegorychev, then head of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party, recalled that when he had called Brezhnev’s office sometime during the Six-Day War, he heard in the background a stormy debate in which Kosygin was shouting: “And what if they use atomic bombs against us? Is it worth it?” According to another report, Kosygin and Gromyko squared off with Grechko and Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, when Andropov and Grechko pushed for involving Soviet units in the war by landing a force on the shores of Sinai. During the war itself, Soviet units received conflicting orders. For example, the Soviet navy in the Mediterranean was given an order to prepare for landing on the Israeli coast, followed by another order rescinding it. Soviet pilots in airfields in the proximity of the Middle East also recalled sitting in their cockpits after the hostilities had started and receiving contradictory orders from Moscow. In each case, however, the final order given by the Kremlin was to avoid any involvement in the June 1967 war.

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