1973 October War: Then and Now

Fifty years after the October War, the US is weakened both in and of itself, and as a regional power, whereas China is a mediator, economic powerhouse and guarantor standing behind regional agreements.

3 mins read
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (Illustrated by Hady Dbouq/ Al Mayadeen English)

The 1973 war in which Egyptian and Syrian forces were co-ordinated for the aim of launching a surprise attack on “Israel” — and in which the latter was tricked by an Egyptian senior source during the ultimate run-up to war — ended in what is deemed by some as an Israeli victory.

But at great cost to the United States.

Though the war did not entirely scuttle détente, it nevertheless brought the US closer to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis. The war was launched essentially to force “Israel” to return the territories it had captured in the earlier 1967 Arab-Israeli war, including Sinai and the Golan, in accordance with UN Resolution 242. “Israel” rejected those terms — and the conflict’s residue, in one form or another, lasts until today.

Egypt ultimately made peace with “Israel”, but Syria and Lebanon have not, and Syria remains as the 50-year-old war’s front line — and is so today.

As we stand back today, we observe certain shifts and other seeming constancies that are present: Iran — albeit in a very different mode — has stepped into the shoes once worn by Egypt, Russia is back on the scene, and Syria has been subject to a 12-year cruel war, with its economy razed to a desert, in order to break its refusal to concede the Syrian Golan Heights that are still occupied by “Israel”.

The most notable strategic shifts are two-fold: the weakening of the US, both in and of itself and as a regional power, and the advent of China as a mediator, economic powerhouse and guarantor standing behind regional agreements. China’s reconciliation of Saudi Arabia with Iran changed the strategic landscape, and many things have followed in corollary: Peace talks in Yemen have made progress and President al-Assad was celebrated in the Arab League after a long absence.

China’s Syrian initiative clearly raises the possibility of it possessing a strategic equivalence to that of the Iran-Saudi Accord. President al-Assad and his family were accorded a “royal” welcome in China. It is a first step — reviving economic life again, and the “Blaze Reception” — that peremptorily ended Syrian isolation. But much, much more, is hinted at: Reconstruction, the Road and Belt initiative, and the eventual restoration of full sovereignty over existing Syrian territory in alliance with Moscow and Tehran.

The long-standing Israeli military strategist, Ehud Yaari, despairs that “apart from the Syrian people themselves, Israel comes out of the 12 years of civil war in Syria as the biggest loser. The survival of the Assad regime, closely allied with Iran, amounts to nothing short of an Israeli strategic failure.”

“Reluctance to play politics in a neighboring Arab state was a lesson learned from Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which aimed at installing a friendly Christian as president, Bashir Gemayel. This had ended in fiasco …[and] the “Lebanon Syndrome” has ever since led Israeli leaders across the political spectrum to avoid temptations to try to shape the lay of the land on the other side of their borders.

The US however, was more interested in preventing a clear-cut victory by Assad, his Russian patrons and Iranian partners – via a policy aimed at “freezing” a situation in which Assad controls less than 70% of Syria’s territory. The bottom line is clear: As long as Assad remains in power, Iran’s military build-up will gradually expand, acquiring over time more potential. Hopes that the West or the Arab states would offer Assad attractive incentives to break away from Iran’s embrace are wishful thinking. The close alliance between the two – dates back to the 1970s and by now Iran has become a permanent feature of post-war Syria.”

So, here we arrive at the second qualitative change (following that of the advent of China) since the October War of 1973 — it is no more “conventional war”. The latter has shifted toward Qassem Soleimani’s vision of war by attrition: No need to build conventional air dominance; rather General Soleimani advocated deploying swarm drones and smart cruise missiles in an encirclement of “Israel”. It was a system that he believed would provide better deterrence than conventional means, whilst allowing slow attrition to proceed. This has left “Israel” with a near-impossible dilemma: Risk a multi-front war, or content itself with pin-prick air attacks into Syria, under the watchful eye of Moscow carefully calibrating the length of leash which it allows to “Israel”.

What of the prospects? “Israel” presently is preoccupied with an existential internal struggle over the future of the so-called “Land of Israel”, the nature of what it means to be Jewish, and the fate of West Bank Palestinians. Western states are backing away from this internecine war; inserting fingers into this complex metaphysical struggle has little appeal.

At the same time, the “air” is exiting from Washington’s great white balloon of the so-called “Abraham Accords”. What is the significance of this alliance when China is busy healing the region’s schisms? Anti-Iran alliances have been reduced to mere wishful thinking.  

Inside the beltway however, normalization between Saudi Arabia and “Israel” continues to be seen as a “Rapture” event that would transfigure the region.

Would it really? The Gulf States already have a cobweb of commercial and security links to “Israel”. Would anything much change? Probably not (No one believes in the US putting warlike boots on the ground in the Kingdom).

What would not be changed however, is the situation of al-Aqsa and the Palestinians. Should the so-called “Temple Mount Movement” radicals in the Netanyahu government light the fuse leading to the Israeli takeover of al-Aqsa, then all of Washington’s “normalization” will count for “zilch”. Whilst Christianity may have become supine, Islam has not (entirely) become so.

Alastair Crooke

Alistair Crooke, is a former British diplomat and is the founder and director of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum, an organisation that advocates for engagement between political Islam and the West.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog