Behind the Egypt-Israel October war: Q&A with Craig Daigle – Part 2

Egypt Independent interviews historian Craig Daigle, specialist on US-Middle East relations during the Cold War, whose book "The Limits of Detente: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1969-1973" represents a seminal analysis of the origins of the 6 October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The book is based on recently declassified documents in the possession of the US.

In the first part, the interview touched on political speculations prior to the war and the role played by different players in this regard. In this part, the interview attempts to reconstruct the military operation itself and unpack the common narrative about the "first air strike" often coined by the Mubarak regime to buy him national legitimacy.

Egypt Independent: I would like to bring into question an argument repeatedly propagated by the Mubarak regime, which is the “first air strike.” What was the role of the Egyptian air force in the war? And to what extent was the “first air strike” a major and decisive factor in the initial military victory in the first eight days of the war?

Craig Daigle: I don't believe the Egyptian air force was the "decisive factor" in the initial victory during the first eight days of the war. I believe the Egyptian success in the early stages had much more to do with catching the Israelis off guard, the successful crossing of the Suez Canal and the destruction of the Bar-Lev line (which was clearly aided by the air force), and the advent of a SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles Defense System) that had been built around the Suez since 1970.  That system gave cover to Egyptian troops who crossed the Suez.  Once the Israelis recovered from the first week, having defeated the Syrians to the north, the Egyptian air force proved not match for the Israelis. So I would not say the Egyptian air force was the "decisive factor" in the early days of the war.

EI: What were the main differences between the Egyptian and Syrian fronts?

Daigle: The Israelis were much more concerned with the Syrian front, than they were with the Egyptian. There had been a number of skirmishes with the Syrians in September 1973. On 13 September, there was some Israeli air encounters with Syrian planes. In was much like the situation before in April 1967, where Israelis and Syrians were clashing over Damascus. And so they were much more concerned with the Syrian front.

In addition, because it was Yom Kippur, a lot of the troops were on leave. They were with their families on holiday, and so they weren’t fully mobilized. There was no question the Israelis where not fully mobilized. You know they had presence in Sinai, but Sinai also gave the Israelis a buffer against Israeli territory. And they knew that without the proper air defense (former President Anwar) Sadat couldn’t bring his army across Sinai without being destroyed, which was proven to be the case.

EI: How do you evaluate the Syrian front?

Daigle: The Syrian front was extremely dangerous for Israel. During the first three days of the war, the Israelis suffered major losses. The war cabinet meetings between (former Israeli Prime Minister Golda) Meir and her military advisers reflect the fact that the Syrians (and Egyptians to the south) were fighting much better than in 1967. But once Sadat stopped his advance in Sinai, it allowed Israel to concentrate on defeating the Syrians. The Syrian threat was much more dangerous for the Israelis, given the fact that the Syrians could have moved into the Northern Israel-Tiberias area if they succeeded in pushing the Israelis out of the Golan. The Israelis had a buffer in the south with Sinai.

EI: What about the battlefield in Sinai? How did the Israeli concentration on the Syrian front give Sadat a relative privilege?

Daigle: The Egyptian army could not advance across the Sinai into Israel because they didn’t have the air defense systems. So, they could advance 10 or 12 kilometers on the other side of the Suez Canal, and still be protected. And for Sadat, this is exactly what he wanted. What Sadat understood was that by advancing into Sinai to that 10 to 12 kilometers, he would achieve a symbolic victory by crossing the Suez and he would boost the morale of the Egyptian troops.

But most importantly, he would create a crisis in the Middle East and therefore break the broken diplomatic possessions of the United States and the Soviet Union. Once the Israelis and the Egyptians where fighting with each other in Sinai and there was the possibility to bring the US and the Soviet Union into the conflict, Sadat understood that that alone (could happen) just by moving across Sinai. He didn’t have to take it all, would get negotiations going again, would bring (former US Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger and perhaps the Soviets.  But most importantly, Kissinger was actively involved into the diplomatic negotiations ,and he was right on that.

So that is why from 6 October until 9 October, Sadat brings his forces across Sinai and then he stops just where he and (former Egyptian Chief of Staff Saad) al-Shazly had agreed. Because he knew the limits of his military power. And for the most part, he achieved for the first three days of war what he had wanted.

EI: But what was the original strategy? How did they engineer the military coordination between the two fronts?

Daigle: To that extent, Sadat was achieving success, but the problem is that when he was planning the war with (former Syrian President Hafez al-) Assad, he obviously did not tell him that they would not advance after 12 kilometers. If you read the biography of Assad, he says that when he met with Sadat in April 1973 to discuss the war plans, the plan was for Egypt to go all the way across Sinai to Israel. And the Syrians most likely would not have joined a plan that did not include that, because they knew if Sadat stopped the Israelis could concentrate all of their forces on the Syrian front, which is exactly what happened. So, I would argue that in Sadat’s mind, he felt that was less of a problem because once the negotiations got going, that would help solve Assad’s problem too.

EI: How did this disparity and lack of coordination change the situation in the battlefield?

Daigle: Well, the problem is that the Israelis were pushing on Kissinger not to agree to a ceasefire until they had the opportunity to recover what they lost and push the Egyptians back to the other side of the canal. So while Kissinger was certainly willing to get the war ended, because he didn’t want the Soviets and the US dragged into this, the Israelis were begging him not to call for a ceasefire until they had the opportunity to reverse the Egyptian and Syrian success on the battlefield through the first three days of the war. And of course, the Israelis told Kissinger from the first day of war that they would have the war over in less than a week. The war started on Saturday and they said by Wednesday things should be over.

EI: But the battles on the ground were taking a different course from what they both expected!

Daigle: Right. As of the morning of 9 October, the Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz showed up in Kissinger’s office saying, ‘Listen, we are in trouble. We need the American supplies. We are in trouble,’ because the Israelis have lost a lot of their tanks that were rushing to the battlefield. They were going to Sinai and a lot of them broke down on the way, so they lost almost 500 tanks. And they lost a number of planes in the first days of the war, and even though they still have enough weapons in stock to fight the Egyptians and the Syrians, what they worried about was that if they used the reserve stocks, they wouldn’t have anything left.

EI: So, how was the situation inverted? How did the Israelis deal with the huge losses? In other words, I think bringing in the issue of the American airlift, if not essential, is very relevant in that context?

Daigle: We have the perception that without the American airlift, the Israelis wouldn’t have won the war. I don’t think that’s the case. The main problem for the Israelis was not that the Egyptian army would advance in Sinai, as the military capacity of the Egyptians would cease at taking over 12 kilometers in the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. The real crisis though was that they were drained; their stock piles, their reserves, they would have been in a weak position to hold on to where they were. And that’s what worried them. That they would have to dig too deep into the reserves and that would weaken them, so that they told the Americans, ‘Listen, we are going to lose this war.’

EI: Actually, this point reminds me of what Shazly  mentioned about the strategic goal of launching the war, which was in favor of draining the Israelis rather than achieving territorial advance. And this summons his dispute with Sadat beginning from the second phase of the war (following 12 October), as the latter wanted to move forward to take over the three passes (al-mamarrat) of the Sinai Peninsula.

Daigle: I agree with that. But Shazly was right when he said that the Israelis were not prepared enough to fight a long war. In the (Israelis) mindset, if there was going to be a war, it would be like 1967. And they felt in many ways that in 1973 they were much stronger than they were in 1967, so they felt that if there was a war it was going to be another short war. And the reason is not just the numbers, but when the Israelis mobilize for a war everything in the country stops. Because of the small size of the country, businesses and interest and the economy totally shut down. So basically their country comes to a standstill in a war, and so you can’t stay mobilized like that for more than a couple of weeks. Otherwise it freezes the entire country. But Sadat’s strategy was to hold on to their battlefield and their successes and try. And to be fair, he was hoping that the US and the Soviets would get dragged into the conflict, you know, because that would start negotiations. Again, Sadat at that point wanted the political and diplomatic process to take over.

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