Behind the Egypt-Israel October war: Q&A with Craig Daigle – Part 3

This is part 3 of Egypt Independent's interview with historian Craig Daigle, whose book, "The Limits of Detente: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1969-1973" presents seminal knowledge about the October war between Egypt, Syria and Israel in 1973. The book draws on recently declassified documents by the US State Department. This part tackles the involvement of the Soviet Union and the US in the war and how it fell in the larger conflict of the Cold War. 

Egypt Independent: Your book deals with rich materials on the 1973 war, particularly the recently declassified documents by the State Department. What can these documents tell us about the tactics and goals of [former President Anwar] Sadat in the war?

Craig Daigle: Well one of the things, on one of the first days of the war, he sends [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger a telegram where he says “listen, this is not a war for territorial conquest.” So he’s addressing Kissinger throughout the war through back channel messages. Sometimes they come directly from Sadat. Sometimes they come from [former Foreign Minister] Ismael Fahmy. But he is basically telling him “Listen we are not looking to make this a territorial war; we have no interest in that.” They were really trying to get negotiations going. For instance, document number 116 in the US Department of State collection on the 1973 war is evident. It includes a message from Sadat to Kissinger through Muhammad Hafiz Ismail (Sadat’ adviser for national security affairs) on 7 October. It contains Sadat's pledge that his military objectives were limited. “We do not intend to deepen the engagements or widen the confrontation,” he stated unambiguously.  Our basic objectives remain as always, the achievement of peace in the Middle East and not to achieve partial settlements.”

EI: But if Sadat just wanted to move the stalled situation before the war and avoid further territorial reoccupation in Sinai, why did he insist on advancing the attack on 12 October then?

Daigle: Well the problem is that he was coming under such pressure from [former Syrian President Hafez al-] Assad and the Soviets too, saying “why are you stopping, you had the success?” They didn’t understand why he was stopping, so he was coming under a lot of pressure. And that was probably Sadat’s mistake during the war. He didn’t stick to his plan, but decided to move forward because of pressure from the Syrians. I think he cared very little about Syrian interests. But he believed, that once the diplomatic process got moving, this was going to turn the war around. And that this was going to get not only Sinai back to Egypt, but to go on back to Syria. The Syrian front early on was going really well; they made some advances into the Golan, but once Sadat stopped, this allowed Israel to concentrate its forces on Syria and once they did that, the Syrians didn’t have a chance. So there were no questions that the Syrians and the Egyptians made some early gains in the first days of the war, but basically by 14 October, the Israelis had taken back and even advanced beyond where they were at the end of 1967. But that was a part of the fact that the Egyptians had stopped. Because once the Syrians moved past the Golan, they could move into Israeli or Egyptian territory, and they could fire from the Golan into Israeli territory. So for the Israelis fighting in the Sinai, despite the Egyptians advance, it was not Israeli territory, there was always the buffer. That’s why their concern the first days of the war was much more Syria and so that’s why the counter offense on Syria was much quicker, ended earlier.

EI: how was the coordination between the Egyptian and Syrian armies disentangled? Did Sadat give the Syrians up?

Daigle: He wasn’t involved in giving up the Syrian front other than the fact that he stopped his advance and that allowed the Israelis to hold on. But there was no collusion between him and the US with trying to split Sadat from Assad. No, not at all. Kissinger during the war was in frequent contact with the Egyptians for sure. But the documents don’t have any signs of sort of breaking from Assad. And he became less of a concern after the second war anyway.

EI: I believe that our understanding of the war remains incomplete without figuring out the Soviet role. How did the Soviet Union intervene in the war and its political balances?

Daigle: This is very important. The Soviets were angry with Sadat in the beginning. Many in the Soviet leadership didn’t think that they should come to Sadat’s defense at all because he had kicked out Soviet advisors in 1972. But there were others that felt that Egypt was still an ally. And that since Israel fought with American weapons to defeat Egypt, who was fighting with Soviet weapons, that [it] would be a significant loss for them in the Cold War. That would be a humiliating defeat, because that would tell Soviet allies that their weapons couldn’t keep up with the US. And they’d also say that Sadat was still an ally of the Soviet Union, despite the fact that he had kicked out their experts. The Soviets were worried that this would send the signal to their allies especially in the eastern bloc that they were not prepared to come to the defense of an ally. So the Soviets from the early days of the war began sending supplies to the Egyptians and the Syrians much like the US did to Israel. So there was a Soviet airlift going on, and there was an American airlift going on. [Former Russian President] Brezhnev was very angry that Sadat went to war, because he felt that the Soviets could get dragged into this and be put into a war with the US.  So he didn’t want to get involved in this war and he worked with [former US President Richard] Nixon to reach a ceasefire. And the US wouldn’t agree to it, because Israel wanted to reverse the Egyptians gains. So that’s what’s odd, is that the Soviets would early on be willing to accept a ceasefire, because it would have left Egypt on the east side of the Suez canal and then the US wouldn’t agree to that.

EI: So, how did the situation develop? What made the US endorse a ceasefire?

Daigle: One of the ironic things about the war is that the US and the Soviet Union both didn’t want this war to take place, but they both sent weapons to their allies, which allowed them to fight the war and escalate the cold war. So those weapons helped fuel the war longer than it needed to go on. And once it was clear that the Israelis were surrounding the Egyptian army, and had pretty much the Egyptian army on defenses and were moving on to Egypt, to Alexandria, that Brezhnev invited Kissinger to Moscow and then Sadat the night of 21 October the sends a telegram to Brezhnev asking him to work out a ceasefire with Kissinger. So Kissinger goes to Moscow, he and Brezhnev work out the agreement fairly easily for a ceasefire. But Kissinger and this is one thing the documents say, when he goes to Israel he basically tells the Israelis, although there is a ceasefire in place you have until I get back to Washington. So when I’m flying back to Washington if your forces continue to advance, nothing’s going to happen while I’m flying back. When he got back to Washington he basically told the Israelis “cool your jets, stop”, and the Israelis didn’t stop. The State Department collections include a memorandum of conversation between Kissinger and [former Israeli Prime Minister Golda] Meir on 22 October 1973, 1:35pm when Kissinger assured Meir that the United States would understand if the Israelis felt they required some additional time for military dispositions before the ceasefire took effect.  "You won't get violent protests from Washington if something happens during the night, while I'm flying," he assured Meir. "Nothing can happen in Washington until noon tomorrow." When he met with Israel's military leaders immediately following his meeting with Meir, he again reiterated that pledge. "That's in your domestic jurisdiction," he said in response to [former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe] Dayan's complaint that he (Dayan) did not want to stop the Israeli advance.

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