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The 1973 middle east war: A pivotal moment in history and its echoes today

Syria and Egypt shared a common desire to demonstrate their ability to engage Israel and emerge with a measure of victory

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By Abdulrauf Aliyu

The world’s attention is currently fixed on the ongoing geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East, particularly the Hamas-Israel conflict. However, it’s essential to understand that the roots of this current conflict trace back to a significant turning point in history—the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. Often referred to as the Yom Kippur War or Ramadan War, this conflict was a crucial moment in the volatile history of the Middle East. This article explores the events leading up to the 1973 war, the strategies employed by the warring parties, the role of superpowers, and the long-lasting impact of this war on the region. Moreover, it draws parallels to contemporary conflicts to provide a deeper understanding of the region’s ongoing challenges.

To fully appreciate the significance of the 1973 war, one must delve into the historical and political context that led to this dramatic conflict. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel had expanded its territory significantly, capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. This expansion, while celebrated by Israel, left a deep sense of humiliation and territorial loss among the Arab states, particularly Egypt and Syria.
The 1973 war had its psychological antecedents in this post-1967 environment. It was not a war of conquest but a calculated attempt by Egypt and Syria to challenge Israel’s dominance and reclaim lost territories. Their plan was to create a two-front war with the hope that it would force Israel into negotiations where it would have to cede some territory and, even more crucially, shed its reputation as the unassailable force in the Middle East.

The conflict began with a dual attack. First, the Syrians launched an assault on the Golan Heights, a strategic highland overlooking northeastern Israel and the Galilee region. The Syrian offensive began at midday, with the most intense battles fought under the cover of night. Equipped with Soviet tanks, their primary objective was to seize control of the heights, creating an ideal vantage point for bombarding the Galilee with artillery fire. This strategy aimed to force Israeli armor to ascend the heights, resulting in significant casualties.

Simultaneously, the Egyptians initiated their offensive by crossing the Suez Canal and moving into the Sinai Peninsula. In terms of total forces available, the Egyptian military was the main aggressor. They also relied on Soviet tanks and surface-to-air missiles designed to neutralize Israel’s air superiority, which had been bolstered with assistance from the United States. Furthermore, the Egyptians deployed a surprise weapon: Soviet-made anti-tank missiles, most notably the AT-3, guided by an optical system. The shooter would look through the lens at a target, and the movement of the optical system would direct the trajectory of the missile. This devastating weapon wreaked havoc on a critical part of the Israeli armored forces.

One striking aspect of the 1973 war was the intelligence failures on the part of Israel. Despite clear signs of an impending attack, Israeli intelligence, particularly military intelligence, proved inflexible in understanding the threat. They could not fathom that Syria and Egypt could coordinate a two-front war. While they were aware of the advanced Soviet weaponry in play, contempt for the capabilities of the Syrian and Egyptian armies blinded them to the possibility of neutralizing Israeli air power and armor, aided by Russian trainers who had professionalized these forces. In essence, Israeli military intelligence shaped the threat to align with its own prejudices.

Syria’s goal was relatively clear, albeit ambitious—they aimed to seize the Galilee. In contrast, Egypt’s objectives were less straightforward. Logistics issues prevented the Egyptian military from penetrating deep into the Sinai Peninsula, suggesting that their primary goal was to hold the Suez Canal on the western side.

However, both Syria and Egypt shared a common desire: to demonstrate their ability to engage Israel and emerge with a measure of victory. This was driven by a need to redeem themselves from past humiliations. Meanwhile, Russia sought to prove that its weapons could rival NATO’s and be deployed effectively. The United States, in a peculiar twist, desired an outcome that ensured a modest victory for Israel, followed by negotiations between the primary foes, Israel and Egypt, ultimately leading to a near-draw between them. Washington saw itself as the mediator in this process, with the overarching goal of expelling the Soviets and drawing Egypt into the American sphere. Remarkably, this complex geopolitical dance reached fruition.

The 1973 war can be best described as a duel between the superpowers of the time—the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviets armed the Syrians and Egyptians with advanced weaponry. On the other hand, the United States rushed to supply Israel with 155mm artillery. This supply was momentarily paused, strategically signaling to the Arab nations that the United States was not wholly committed to Israel. Furthermore, the United States, having witnessed the effectiveness of the AT-3 anti-tank missiles in action, embarked on a new phase of armored warfare. In a twist of irony, they learned from the Russians, and the fruits of their efforts have played a role in modern conflicts, notably in Ukraine’s defense.

The United States’ victory in shaping the outcome of the 1973 war was apparent when, a few years later, Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords. This historic agreement brought an end to the near-war status between these two nations and helped secure nearly half a century of relative peace. Syria, due to its minor role in the conflict and its proximity to the Soviets, was excluded from the diplomatic proceedings.

The Camp David Accord was a critical milestone in achieving stability in the region. It marked a turning point where Israel and Egypt, with the mediation of the United States, forged an agreement that addressed their concerns and paved the way for peaceful coexistence.

As Mark Twain once said, history may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. The current conflict in the Middle East may not replicate the 1973 war, but it bears resonance in the sense that the deep structure of Israeli-Arab warfare retains certain external and internal actors providing support to their allies. While we cannot predict the future solely based on historical events, we can discern the driving forces that continue to shape the region’s dynamics.

The echoes of the 1973 war are discernible in contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts. The struggle for regional dominance, the role of external actors, and the quest for legitimacy remain central themes. For instance, in the context of the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict, one can observe the same psychological underpinnings: the desire to challenge Israel’s dominance and assert the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations. Similarly, the role of superpowers, such as the United States and Russia, continues to influence the region’s dynamics, particularly in conflicts like the Syrian Civil War.
In conclusion, the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 was a pivotal moment in the history of the Middle East. It had deep-seated psychological antecedents, involved complex strategies, and played out in the shadow of superpower rivalry. The legacy of this war is evident in the Camp David Accord, which laid the foundation for decades of relative peace in the region.

Moreover, this historical conflict continues to shape contemporary Middle Eastern dynamics, offering valuable insights into ongoing conflicts and the enduring drivers behind them. As we strive to understand and navigate the complex landscape of the Middle East, an appreciation of the lessons from the 1973 war remains indispensable.

Abdulrauf Aliyu
An economist and Policy Analyst writes from
45 Ashiru Road, U/Dosa New Extension

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