Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Recalling the October War

Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby looks back on the fateful events around the 6 October 1973 War

Al-Ahram Weekly

Historians and scholars who have studied the 1973 October War in the Middle East know that Egypt prepared for this war in a difficult international environment. Egypt had to manoeuvre and prepare the international scene if it was to liberate and restore its land.

It started with Anwar Al-Sadat’s surprising decision to ask Soviet military advisers to leave the country. As expected, the decision had a negative impact on Soviet leaders and the status of the Soviet Union in the Arab world and the Middle East.

Recognising that the Soviet Union was the only source of military supplies to Egypt, Sadat started the process of placating Soviet leaders. A number of senior Egyptian officials visited Moscow, including Prime Minister Aziz Sedky, Minister of Defence and Field Marshal Ahmed Ismail and Hafez Ismail, the national security adviser.

Soviet leaders, knowing the importance of Egypt for Soviet policy in the Middle East, responded positively to Sadat’s bid for reconciliation and openly promised the continuation of Soviet military and political support for Egypt.

At the same time, regardless of the absence of diplomatic relations between Egypt and the United States, Sadat sought to open a channel of communication with the US administration to determine, as his last move, whether America was ready and willing to play a role in reaching a political settlement.

He dispatched Ismail to meet with Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to President Nixon, in two rounds: in Washington in February 1973, and in Paris in May of the same year. These two meetings were decisive in Sadat’s decision to launch a war. In his memoires, Egypt’s National Security in the Age of Challenges, Ismail reported to Sadat that Kissinger had said: “Our ability to convince and to call forcefully for this solution depends on what we can point out to tangible changes in Arab and Egyptian positions. This is the key.”

According to Ismail, Sadat’s words in response to this were: “It means that we are invited to provide further concessions from our positions.” Ismail claimed that, with these words, he was a witness to the moment when the president decided that there was no escape from going to war  that the final point had been reached in their political work.

Immediately following, on 5 April, Sadat called for a meeting of the new cabinet formed under his presidency. Its members unanimously agreed, with some limited reservations, on the inevitability of going to war.

In parallel, Egypt’s preparations for the October war coincided with a change in the relations between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. From the early 1970s the two nations set their policies in support of what was referred to as a détente, the aim of which was to transform their relations from confrontation to negotiation.

This process was established in two summits, in Moscow in May 1972 and the following month in Washington. Sadat followed these two summits closely, in particular in their dealings with the situation in the Middle East.

He noted what was included in the Moscow summit on the assurances of the two powers that a peaceful settlement in the Middle East would be reached, suggesting that the achievement of this settlement would enable a period of “military relaxation” in the region. This phrase provoked Sadat who interpreted it as foretelling a change in the flow of Soviet military supplies.

It happens that, as counsellor at the Egyptian Embassy in Moscow, I witnessed from the Soviet Union the eruption of the October 1973 War in the Middle East, and followed the Soviet reaction to the war and how the two superpowers managed their relations during the war.

From the very beginning, Soviet leaders announced their support for Egypt and Syria as “the victims of Israeli aggression.” Addressing the Japanese prime minister on 8 October, Brezhnev said: “What is going on in the Middle East is a battle between Israel, the aggressor, and Egypt and Syria, the victims of the aggression, which strive to liberate their lands. It is natural that all our emotions are on the side of the victims of the aggression.”

On the military level, the Soviet Union established a naval and air bridge to support Egypt and Syria, which started on 9 October. The systems of arms provided to Egypt and Syria used advanced technology, with a number of SCUD missiles, the range of which allowed strikes on Tel Aviv from Egyptian territory. Sadat alluded to this when he said that Egypt possessed missiles capable of striking the depths of Israel.

As for the American position during the first days of the war, US policy was to not overestimate Soviet supplies to the Arabs, and to not directly criticise the Arabs or the Soviets. The US was reluctant to publicly give full support to Israel, so as not to antagonise the Arabs and threaten American interests.

The Soviets ignored American appeals for the first 15 days of the war, but a shift started on the Soviet level, beginning on 16 October, when Soviet Premier Kosygin arrived in Cairo, where he spent three days.

Brezhnev spoke of the “declaration of principles” included in the first Soviet-American summit, which called for consultation and coordination on the causes of conflicts that might lead to confrontation between the two superpowers. Brezhnev invited Kissinger to visit Moscow on 20 October, where they concluded a draft resolution introduced to the UN Security Council on 22 October calling for an immediate ceasefire and the implementation of Resolution 242 of 1967.

When Israel violated the ceasefire, the Egyptian president demanded the sending of joint forces, or individually from any of the two superpowers to the Middle East. The Americans’ refusal of this demand paralleled clear Soviet military moves, leaving an impression in Washington on the probability of establishing an air bridge to dispatch fighting troops to the Middle East.

The American response came when US Secretary of Defence James Schlesinger declared, on 15 October, the strategic alert “DEFCON 3” for the American military forces. The Soviet reaction was sharp: “This step from the US does not serve in any way the international détente, as it was designed to frighten the Soviet Union. But those behind this step choose the wrong address.”

The US partly lifted the alert following the agreement between Moscow and Washington, as the Security Council agreed on a resolution adopted by eight nonaligned countries calling for permanent Security Council members not to participate in peacekeeping forces.

This was on the same day that Brezhnev declared that Moscow would send “representatives”, including high-ranking officers in plain clothes. The US also declared that they would send a small number of “observers”, if requested.

Thus, as US President Nixon said, “The most serious crisis faced by our two countries was overcome.”

The writer is executive director of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs.

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