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The October War 1973: Could Israel have lost?

Half_Life_ExpertHalf_Life_Expert Senior MemberOak Park, CA , USARegistered Users Posts: 4,686
edited August 2016 in Off Topic General
Here is the next what if/could it? thread, this time turning to a brand new conflict. It has been touched on a long time ago in one of the cold war threads, but I decided to make a dedicated thread about it.

NOTE: This really goes without saying, but this is purely a military history and art of warfare discussion, keep all political aspects to an absolute minimum in terms of what would be required for an Israeli defeat on the battlefield and at the peace table.

This war has gone by many names:

The Arab-Israeli War of 1973

The October War

The Ramadan War

The Yom Kippur War (my personal preference)

Of all the Arab-Israeli Wars since 1948, I personally find this one the most fascinating in terms of the art of warfare, weaponry and technology, as well as its strong connection to the cold war.

Following Israel's crushing victory over Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967's Six Day War, the Arab military forces were humiliated and itching for the opportunity to get their lost land back. Chiefly, Syria wanted the Golan Heights back, and Egypt wanted the Sinai back. Jordan took a much more neutral stance by this time.

Israel was very over confident that they could thwart any effort by their neighbors to attack into these territories. They believed that they had the best forces in the region in all departments other than numbers.

This had changed by late 1973. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and his generals came up with a rather brilliant plan to attack Israeli forces and achieve a victory to get the lost territory back.

The plan was for Egypt to attack east across the Suez Canal into the Sinai, but only advance a few miles after crossing, then fortify their positions. The reason for this was that the Egyptians knew that they could not go toe-to-toe with the Israeli military, particularly it's air force. So the plan was to seize all the land on the immediate opposite side of the canal and use their soviet provided Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) batteries to create an impenetrable air defense umbrella to neutralize the Israeli Air force. This, combined with usage of RPGs and AT-3 Sagger missiles to neutralize Israeli armored counter attacks. This, they hoped, would allow them to wear down the Israelis in an attrition war and force them to the peace table from a position of weakness, where Egypt could negotiate successfully to get the Sinai back.

The second part of this plan was for Syria to simulatiously attack the Golan Heights, with the goal of quickly overrunning the heights and fortifying to hold back Israeli counter attacks, ideally with the same projected results as in the Sinai.

All of this centered on the date of the attack, October 6th 1973. On that day on the Hebrew calendar was the holiest day of the Jewish year: Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The thinking was that with the bulk of the Israeli population ether at home or in their places of worship, they would be in a relaxed state and more vulnerable to attack, and most critically, it would theoretically mean that the Israelis would take longer to mobilize their full force of reservists, which would be needed to win another war.

It is now known that Israel had intelligence of the incoming attack, but chose to not launch a preemptive strike, due to the political fallout from when they launched their preemptive war in 1967.

When the attacks were launched on the afternoon of October 6th, they actually were quite successful. One snag was that attacking on the holiest day actually helped the Israelis mobilize, due to the fact that there was no civilian traffic on the roads, it was ridiculously easy for couriers on motorcycles and jeeps to drive around announcing the attack and calling up the reservists for the national emergency.

Even with the Israelis mobilizing faster than expected, the attack went quite well for the Egyptians in the Sinai, but the Syrians were driven back on the Golan Heights, as Israeli high command considered that the greater threat due to the closer proximity to the Israeli heartland.

The turning point of the war came three days after the start, when the Syrians begged the Egyptians to attack to relieve pressure on the Golan front. However, attacking meant their troops would be leaving their SAM umbrella. They did so, and suffered heavy losses from Israeli tank reinforcements and airpower.

Ultimately the Syrians were driven out of the Golan Heights and close to Damascus, and the Israelis managed to counterattack in the Sinai and actually cross the Canal and encircle Egypt's third Army. The war ended on October 25th 1973, with the war lasting 19 days.

The war was a decisive Israeli victory, and ultimately led to a formal peace treaty with Egypt, and the formal peaceful return of the Sinai in 1982. However on the Golan Front, it officially remains an unresolved conflict to this day, as Israel still holds the heights.

The question I pose is, if Egypt did not attack outside the SAM umbrella to support the effort on the Golan Heights, could Israel have lost the war?

I think Israel was going to win on the Golan front regardless, as they held better ground and were able to mobilize reserves there quickly. However, if the Egyptians had held their positions, I think on the Sinai front, it is possible that Israel could have been ground down in an attrition campaign and forced to accept disadvantageous peace terms from Egypt, and have effectively lost the war.

What do you think? Lets discuss this and other alternate possibilities of the Yom Kippur War!

Another question could be: Would Soviet intervention have given Egypt and Syria a victory, with the US having been exhausted from the Vietnam War.
"we have officially entered into pre-whinning about our games."- Cogre

I will always respect differing opinions on here, so long as they are presented maturely and in a civil manner

"No Battleplan ever survives contact with the enemy"- Helmuth Von Moltke the Elder

The WWI Thread: https://forums.totalwar.com/discussion/30914/why-a-world-war-i-themed-total-war/p1

I'm skipping TW: Warhammer
Post edited by Half_Life_Expert on

Comments

  • IstvanIstvan Senior Member London, CanadaRegistered Users Posts: 1,233
    edited November 2015
    Very nicely written. Makes sense.

    For me the question that remains to be answered is whether the US could support Israel. I guess it depends on domestic sentiment at the time. I don't know too much about the Vietnam War, but I've always assumed that the US could have kept on waging the war had it not been for domestic opposition.

    The '60s and '70s were probably a unique point in time when the mass media in western nations was neither directly controlled by the state for propaganda purposes à la WW1, but neither had their political establishments yet fully mastered the manipulation of the media, whereby they're able to trick the media - even if independent - into only providing that information that the political establishments want to be sold to the general populaces. To illustrate this, in the lead up to Iraq 2003 there was virtually no media opposition to the invasion, and those journalists who opposed the invasion and argued that Iraq 2003 would be the beginning of the end for the American empire were fired by their 'independent' media employers for not sticking to their employers' pro-invasion narrative. I clearly remember being 13 at the time, watching the Canadian TV's coverage of the planned invasion and thinking "Why not? The media is so positive- it's probably a good cause."

    Suffice to say, if there has ever been a period in American history thus far where the general populace could be widely rallied to oppose a war to such an extent that it would force the state to actually not go to war, then it was right in the period when these wars were taking place in the Middle East, and Israel would have liked to have been able to rely on American assistance in the case of Soviet intervention.

    I guess that doesn't definitely answer the question, but it raises an important question that's part of the puzzle: could the American public be sold on the idea that Israel needs to be protected?
    Battle not with Canadians, lest ye become a Canadian, and if ye gaze into the maple syrup, the maple syrup gazes also into you.
  • Rath_DarkbladeRath_Darkblade Senior Member Registered Users Posts: 2,125
    edited November 2015
    I wasn't alive at the time, but I know that my parents had just moved to Israel a month or two before the Yom Kippur War. My elder sister was on the way and I would be born a few years later. So this discussion has a personal meaning for me.

    Even so, I'll try to disengage myself from my personal feelings (that way lies politics), and discuss this purely militarily.

    Israel was definitely caught on the defensive to start with. Neither the Egyptians (in the Sinai) nor the Syrians (on the Golan Heights) were simply sitting and waiting - the Egyptian artillery was shelling southern Israeli towns such as Be'er-Sheva and Eilat, whereas their Syrian counterparts were shelling northern Israeli towns such as Petah-Tikva and Haifa. This is what made Israeli mobilisation so urgent.

    Incidentally, prior to the Six-Day War, the Golan Heights were in Syrian hands and were being used to shell northern Israeli towns. This was one of the main reasons why Israel fought to seize the Golan Heights, and why it is so keen to retain them - particularly with the Syrian-backed Hezbollah being such an unpredictable influence. (There's plenty more I can say about this, but I don't wish to derail this thread too much or get into politics, so I'll say no more).

    So let's get back to '73. After initial setbacks in the Sinai and against the Golan Heights - remember that the Heights are a mixture of valleys and mountains - Israel made swift progress, and by the end of the third day, as HLE points out, a turning point had been reached. The situation had been stabilised, in the same way that a bleeding wound has a tourniquet wrapped around it. There was still much hard work to be done, but the main force of the Syrian invasion had been repelled.

    There is also a very good reason for Jordan remaining neutral: in '67, the state of Jordan was bullied by both Egypt and Syria into joining the attack. This took the form of both religious arm-twisting (in the form of "you must join us against the infidels") and political promises (in the form of "once we are victorious, we will divide up the land") etc. Against his better judgement, King Hussein of Jordan joined the attack, with disastrous results: Jordan ultimately lost the whole of the West Bank, including Jerusalem. Therefore, in 1973, Hussein decided to play a waiting game rather than take another risk.

    Unfortunately, there is one more thing to be said: in 1973, the motivation of both Egypt and Syria was (at least partly) political - i.e. to placate the ultra-religious in their countries by providing them with "easy victories", and thus avenging the humiliation of '67. Therefore, it is impossible to answer HLE's question without mentioning politics.

    Ultimately, as HLE says, the Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1979 as part of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. I was less than three at the time, but I still remember the scenes of utter jubilation in Israel when the news broke. After raids and counter-raids and wars, finally at least Anwar Sadat, if not Egypt as a whole, was willing to consider peace. It was a enormously hopeful time, an optimistic time. The fact that the Arab League immediately suspended Egypt for 10 years for its "betrayal", and Sadat's assassination less than three years later at the hands of Egyptian Islamists, was a sobering reminder that religious zealotry in the Arab world was, alas, alive and well.

    I think I've covered most of the points that HLE has raised. Hopefully I've done so without resorting too much to politics. :)
    "There is nothing wrong with nepotism, provided you keep it all in the family."
    --Winston Churchill
  • Rath_DarkbladeRath_Darkblade Senior Member Registered Users Posts: 2,125
    edited November 2015
    Ah, crud. :( Did I kill this thread? It seems no-one wants to keep it going, which is a shame. :(
    "There is nothing wrong with nepotism, provided you keep it all in the family."
    --Winston Churchill
  • Half_Life_ExpertHalf_Life_Expert Senior Member Oak Park, CA , USARegistered Users Posts: 4,686
    edited November 2015
    No, I've been busy with other things and wanted to spend a little time formulating a response.

    Plus, much of the attention is on WH now.

    First of all, a small error in your post Rath: Sinai was finally returned in 1982, the peace treaty was in 1979.

    In response to Istvan:

    It is hard to say whether the US would have committed major military forces other than the Sixth fleet to support Israel (The sixth fleet was sailing in the Eastern Med during the war, and kept a very close eye on the nearby Soviet Mediterranean Fleet). And I don't know how much the Sixth Fleet could have done other than take on the Soviet fleet and provide some air support to Israel.

    Vietnam was a giant, if slow moving, catastrophe for the United States. By 1973 hundreds of millions of dollars were thrown into that war, and by the early 70s the majority of the American people most definitely did not support the war. In fact 1973 was the year that the US's official involvement in the war ended with the Paris Peace Accords signed in January of that year.

    Conscription in the US was ended in early 1973, directly due to the massive use of conscripts in the unpopular Vietnam War, and it has not returned since. There would have been little support for a reintroduction for another war.

    Simply put, the way I see it, the conventional military forces of the United States as a whole were not in any position to be waging another major war having just left Vietnam. I think only the Sixth Fleet would have been able to help, as it was already in position to do so.

    We were exhausted and demoralized, and I have my doubts if the American people would have supported a major combat effort to support Israel. Plus the war was also during the height of the Watergate scandal, with the so called 'Saturday Night Massacre' and the people did not have a lot of trust in the establishment in Washington, and an entry into the war likely would have been seen as an attempt to get attention off the uber-scandal.

    That being said, if the Soviets decided to fully militarily support Egypt and Syria, I think that basically would have left the US with two options:

    Leave Israel to it's fate,

    or attack the Soviets in the one way we could still hit them hard: with Nuclear Weapons, and all that implies........

    In fact the first choice could have been nuclear as well, as the Israelis did prepare for use their small nuclear arsenal.

    After all, on the day the war ended, when the Soviets threatened intervention, US nuclear forces did go to DEFCON 3 (with 1 being the highest short of war)

    In response to Rath:

    I think that had Israel lost the war in the way I described (being forced to the peace table in Egypt from a position of weakness), it is entirely possible that general attacks against Israel would have increased, due to the major victory that would have been for the Arabs. Israel would have had a very tough next few decades, compared to what it did have. It is possible that Egypt would have launched another war at a later date, with Syria, and perhaps more nations would join them due to the 1973 war showing that the IDF could be defeated.

    It is a very unsettling possibility for such a geographically small nation......
    "we have officially entered into pre-whinning about our games."- Cogre

    I will always respect differing opinions on here, so long as they are presented maturely and in a civil manner

    "No Battleplan ever survives contact with the enemy"- Helmuth Von Moltke the Elder

    The WWI Thread: https://forums.totalwar.com/discussion/30914/why-a-world-war-i-themed-total-war/p1

    I'm skipping TW: Warhammer
  • daelin4daelin4 Senior Member Registered Users Posts: 16,510
    edited November 2015
    I dunno, the Israelis would have known that the Egyptians weren't willing to push out of their umbrella, so they can focus on the Golan. If the Egyptians tried anything I'm sure the Israelis would catch wind and simply respond. It's not like the Egyptians were holding the initiative.

    What would have happened would probably not have been very different- either after the Syrians were beaten back and the Israelis turn their focus on the Sinai (or elsewhere to hit Egypt?), or there's a stalemate over the Sinai for a period before either international pressure forced an agreement for both parties, or pressure for one side to concede the Sinai to the other.

    I can't imagine Israel falling just because the Egyptians held onto something far away and never really contemplating invading Jerusalem and so forth. Anti-Israeli sentiment among the Muslim Middle Eastern countries might cry for such an outcome, but few people would think there's anything they can practical do on a military scale, not unless the USA was certainly not going to back Israel on the defense, and there's no way that was going to happen.

    I don't think if Israel being perceived as the loser after that war things would get worse. Israel would simply smarten up and with international support, they'd have a little less trouble in fighting back any future attacks. It's not like Jordan or the Saudis would want in on the dog pile just because the Israelis lost the Sinai to Egypt.

    Corrected action is the most sincere form of apology.
  • Rath_DarkbladeRath_Darkblade Senior Member Registered Users Posts: 2,125
    edited November 2015
    In response to Rath:

    I think that had Israel lost the war in the way I described (being forced to the peace table in Egypt from a position of weakness), it is entirely possible that general attacks against Israel would have increased, due to the major victory that would have been for the Arabs. Israel would have had a very tough next few decades, compared to what it did have. It is possible that Egypt would have launched another war at a later date, with Syria, and perhaps more nations would join them due to the 1973 war showing that the IDF could be defeated.

    It is a very unsettling possibility for such a geographically small nation......

    I can understand where daelin is coming from, but psychologically, the strain of losing the advantages of '67 and negotiating from a position of weakness would have been considerable.

    I don't doubt that generally attacks against Israel would have increased. As it was, they did increase, with PLO raids across the Lebanese border. (The Yom Kippur War was just two years after Black September, remember, at the end of which thousands of PLO fighters were expelled to Lebanon. Poor Lebanese - trapped between the PLO zealots that forced the '82 Lebanon War, which then gave rise to the Syrian-and-Iranian-backed and Syrian-and-Iranian-funded Hezbollah fanatics. This is not even to mention the Syrians interfering in Lebanese politics. No wonder Lebanon's been a mess since the early 70s. But never mind....) =(

    I'd wager that the Jordanian border would have remained quiet; after all, King Hussein and his Hashemite dynasty had no interest in starting a war with Israel and, in fact, had maintained secret contacts with Israel concerning peace and security along their border. Unfortunately, the Palestinian fedayeen were raiding both Israeli and Jordanian territory, which drew sharp reprisals from both. The sharpest turned into Black September.

    If '73 left Israel in a more weakened state than it actually did, I'd wager that the most immediately dangerous players would have been Syria and Egypt, in that order, with the PLO in Lebanon lending an extra element to the Syrian dimension. I'd also wager that the United States and the United Nations would have done nothing, because the 1973 Oil Crisis would have forced them to kowtow to Arab interests (as did, in fact, happen - and it continued throughout the 70s and into the 80s, and created immense disgust for the UN in Israel and in most Jewish communities throughout the world).

    Even now, the obsequiousness that the UN shows the Arab world when compared to what the UN says about Israel is a major reason why I distrust the UN and its double-faced double standards. Shame. The UN was created to promote international cooperation, peace and brotherhood. Instead, it has become the recognised forum for the expression of international hatred.

    There's much more that I could say, but I don't want to cross the line into politics any more than I fear I already have... :-\
    "There is nothing wrong with nepotism, provided you keep it all in the family."
    --Winston Churchill
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