Forty years ago today, a Egyptian/Syrian invasion surprised and almost destroyed Israel. The attack was the culmination of a complex Soviet/Arab disinformation plot and secret military build-up. We know this because of Russian dissident-historian Pavel Stroilov, and from professional Arabists who over the years have paid attention to the Arab press and the antics of Middle Eastern regimes.
In the Russian archives, Stroilov uncovered the secret diaries of Anatoly Chernyaev, deputy chief of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union International Department (a successor to the Comintern). On July 15, 1972, Chernyaev’s diary reports:
Last Sunday, Anwar Sadat publicly demanded an immediate withdrawal of all Soviet specialists and all Soviet militaries from Egypt, in protest, because he did not receive what Brezhnev promised to him at the latest negotiations in Moscow, namely the offensive weapons: SU-17 fighter bombers. This began a turmoil. Egypt’s Premier Sidki was persuaded to come to Moscow, and, I think, they have settled it. I mean, they must have given much to him, if not all he wanted.
President of Syria Assad, too, was here a week ago. Although he is a moderate, he has forced us to practically approve the “military solution”, and received a lot from us.
The rest of the world was not aware that Egypt and the Soviet Union had settled their differences, and thus the two countries used this to their advantage. Using disinformation and influence agents like Victor Louis and Armand Hammer, the Soviets were able to dupe Israel and its allies into believing that Israel was in no danger. Meanwhile, they were preparing for the “military solution” that Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad had pushed for.
On the first anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Rose-al-Yusuf — the official organ of the only political party then allowed to exist in Egypt — published excerpts from a book by the magazine’s military correspondent, Abd al-Satar al-Tawila. This was prepared on behalf of and revised by Anwar Sadat himself, and with access to secret documentation:
The various government agencies spread rumours and stories that were exaggerated, to say the least, about deficiencies, both quantitative and qualitative, regarding the weapons required to begin the battle against Israel, at the very time that the two parties — Egypt and the USSR — had reached agreement concerning the supply of quantities of arms during the second half of 1973 — weapons which, in fact, were beginning to arrive.
And there came a time when we saw how the majority of habitués of Egyptian and Arab coffee houses, particularly in Beirut, turned into arms experts and babbled about shortages in this or that type of hardware. And speaking in the jargon of the scientist and the expert, they would say that the Soviets were refusing to supply Egypt with missiles of a certain type and were even cutting off the supply of spare parts in such a manner that our planes, for example, had turned into useless scrap and were unable to fly, not to speak of combating the Phantom and the Mirage. These self-styled arms experts went deeply into the question of offensive and defensive weapons, inventing arbitrary differences between them while — as we shall see in the chapters dealing with the battle — defensive anti-aircraft missiles actually played an offensive role during the War of October 6.
Moreover, the Egyptian press frequently gave prominence to an inclination [in Cairo] to seek arms in the West. And while it is correct that it is possible to buy some categories of hardware in the West, to equip a whole army with weapons from the West would mean, simply, that the date of the expected battle remains far off, i.e., until such time as the Egyptian army could be trained in the use of such new hardware. … All this talk about armaments and their shortage was intended to create the impression in the ranks of the enemy that one of the reasons why Egypt was incapable of starting war was the absence of high-quality weapons — and the whole world was taken by surprise when zero hour arrived.
A Pentagon spokesman expressed this surprise when he said: They — i.e., the Israelis — did not suspect the presence of such quantities and such categories of Soviet weapons in Egyptian and Syrian hands, in view of the incessantly repeated Arab complaint that the Soviets were refusing to supply these two countries with advanced offensive weapons in sufficient quantities.
The Egyptian camouflage to deceive the enemy was expanded to include Egyptian-Soviet relations. This was done to such an extent that many among the Arabs themselves cast doubt upon Egyptian-Soviet friendship and its sincerity and allegations were spread concerning Soviet non-support for the Arabs in their struggle. The episode of July 1972, when Egypt decided to make do without Soviet experts, was exploited and many intentionally or unintentionally failed to hear the words of President Sadat and his repeated emphasis that this episode was no more than “an interlude with our friend,” as always happens among friends.
Now we already know that one of the reasons for the willingness to make do without the Soviet experts was so that preparations could be made for the beginning of a battle that would bear the character of a 100% Egyptian decision, using 100% Egyptian forces. However, these experts had fulfilled an important task in connection with the network of missiles and other delicate weapons. The Egyptian deception campaign, moreover, was able to reap considerable benefit from this episode — the willingness to make do without the Soviet experts — because it raised questions about the genuineness of the regime’s threats to resort to war; since, after all, how would the Egyptian army be able to fight without the presence of thousands of Russian experts, distributed among all the most important weapons sectors of the army so as to train [the army] in their use and-even to operate some of this hardware themselves?
In addition, the [deception] campaign benefited also from the allegations and suspicions that were spread in the Arab world, as if this [willingness to do without Soviet experts] had been the result of a secret agreement with the U.S. and its friends in the region, whereby a peace arrangement would be prepared in return for the removal of the Soviet military presence. If that was the case, why, then, no war was to be expected, nor anything like a war — yet all the time preparations were continuing feverishly to open the battle; and when the war started in fact, there was the additional surprise that unlimited Soviet support was extended both in the international arena and in the area of military equipment.
The same Pentagon spokesman, on the morrow of the battle, expressed his opinion about this surprise: “We never imagined that the Soviet Union would do what it has done, after the tough verbal campaigns waged against it in the Arab world, and after the cooling of relations with Cairo following the exodus of the Soviets.” During a visit to the battlefront on the 7th of October, I heard an ordinary Egyptian soldier give expression to Arab-Soviet friendship in the following simple words: “Some of you may have believed all this talk — yet our friendship is flourishing — after all, I was being trained to use Soviet-produced anti-tank R.P.G.”
Sadat himself confirmed this, telling Radio Cairo (October 24, 1975) that his 1972-1973 row with the Soviets was “a strategic cover — a splendid strategic distraction for our going to war.”
As for Syria, General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest ranking intelligence officer to have defected from the Soviet bloc (and a PJ Media columnist), once told me: “The Kremlin and its KGB were indeed pulling all the strings in Damascus.” Daniel Pipes writes in Commentary:
In addition to this vast arsenal, Syria has also imported a number of Soviet military customs [such as a] Soviet style “political department” [that] assures ideological homogeneity among the soldiers and officers. In addition to the usual army, navy, and air force, the Syrian military includes a fourth service, the Air-Defense Command, patterned on the Soviet Troops of Air Defense. The command structure, which used to be modeled on that of France, now resembles that of the U.S.S.R.
Adopting Soviet structures means adopting Soviet methods too; like their Soviet counterparts, the Syrian armed forces rely on centralized decision-making, numerical superiority, and offensive tactics. One demonstration of this occurred in October 1973 when, according to the authoritative World Armies, the Syrian attack on Israel “slavishly followed Soviet tactical doctrine without the resources and reserves to justify such an all-out offensive strategy, and indeed without the political need to pursue such a strategy.” In emergencies, Soviet personnel have taken over military operations within Syria. During the 1973 war, the headquarters staff of a Soviet airborne division was reportedly flown to Damascus to prepare for the defense of that city. When Syria needed military help in 1973 and 1974, Cuba provided tank operators, MiG pilots, and helicopter pilots.
After the war, Brezhnev discussed re-establishing relations with Israel. When he was told that this would make the Arabs upset, he responded:
They should go f— themselves! We’ve been offering them a reasonable method for many years, but no — they wanted a war. Okay, as you please! We gave them the equipment, the most modern one, unseen even in Vietnam. They had double superiority in tanks and aircraft, triple superiority in artillery, absolute superiority in anti-aircraft and anti-tank defenses. So what? They were smashed again. They bunked again. They cried for us to save them again. Sadat twice woke me up in the middle of a night by phone: “Save us!” He demanded me to send a Soviet landing force there immediately! No! We are not going to fight for them. The people would not understand us. Even more so, we are not going to start a world war because of them. That is it. We shall do what I said. (Anatoly Chernyaev’s diary, November 4, 1973)
Henry Kissinger’s blow-by-blow account of the war from Washington in Years of Upheaval (1982) has stood the test of time, having the rare distinction of withstanding the release of most of his records. However, reliable tell-all works like this by participants is a luxury afforded only to those in free societies. The real story on the other side is a puzzle that has to be pieced together.