CAIRO: To the Arabs, the “victories” of the October 1973 (Tenth of Ramadan) War proved that Israel was not invincible. To the Israelis, the Yom Kippur War proved that even when taken by nominal surprise, its military can strike back with tactical superiority.
But in the 37 years since, the Arab world has little to show in terms of victories; in fact, the events stemming from the 1967 Naksa (disaster) and the October 1973 War helped create the Middle East mess we find ourselves in today.
The swift and decisive Israeli victory on June 6, 1967 unmasked the empty rhetoric of Pan-Arab nationalism.
Fawaz Gerges, an expert on Islamic jihadist organizations and author of “The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global,” told me in 2007 that the 1967 defeat and its aftershocks “can be considered the most pivotal event which helps us understand why Islamic militancy has become a potent force in the region.”
Disillusioned nationalists abandoned socialism in favor of Islamism, and the power of radical groups began to grow. This continues to be the trend today.
In 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat planned to cross the Suez, penetrate the Israel Bar Lev defense line and hold ground for a few hours, proving that he could go the distance with Israel, while the US State Department pressed Tel Aviv to negotiate over the return of Sinai. Syria’s Hafez Al-Assad wanted to retake the Golan through a decisive military victory.
A number of brilliantly orchestrated Egyptian military gains alarmed the Israelis during the first week of war; Egyptian armor had advanced into the Sinai and was punishing the Israeli defense lines. Using RPG-7s, Egyptian infantry managed to cripple Israeli tanks. The Israelis, who arrogantly had not heeded intelligence reports of an impending war, were so convinced that this had become a battle for their very survival that rumors surfaced of a nuclear strike option.
However, and against the advice of his chief of staff, Sadat’s decision to further advance without air cover allowed the Israelis to launch a counter-offensive (thanks partly to US resupply of weaponry) deep into Egyptian territory which turned the tide of war on Oct. 14.
The later dismissed Egyptian chief-of-staff Saad El-Shazly maintains in his book “The Crossing of the Suez” (still banned in Egypt) that these tactical decisions on Oct. 14 sealed Egypt’s fate.
By Oct. 17, the Israelis crossed the Suez and headed toward the Cairo-Suez highway and the port city of Ismailia.
The Syrians, who had also made gains against the Israelis, quickly began to suffer material and human losses; Israelis retook the Golan (still occupied to this day) and advanced through Syrian territory on Oct. 15.
Some 30,000 Iraqi troops and armor rallied to prevent the fall of Damascus. Despite halting the Israeli advance toward the Syrian capital, they too suffered heavily.
By the time of an Oct. 22 ceasefire, Israeli forces were on the outskirts of Ismailia. On Oct. 23, the Israelis surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, which Shazly claimed was on the verge of collapse.
Although Egypt agreed to the ceasefire, the Israelis continued to shell and air raid the surrounded Third Army.
When disengagement began on Oct. 28, the Egyptians were so desperate to resupply their Third Army with food that they hinted at the possibility of unprecedented direct talks with the Israelis.
Arabs today point at that conflict as testament to their unity and claim the military gains prove that they are not powerless.
Arab states which did not send military forces in time for the conflict contributed in materiel and funds; Libya, among others, gave Egypt $1 billion to procure armaments.
But initial gains can never accurately predict how the rest of the war will be waged.
By Oct. 24, the Israeli Army was 80km from Cairo and 40km from Damascus.
Egyptian nationalists say the return of the Sinai was the goal and that they achieved that through negotiations and the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords. However, they could not have achieved even the initial military gains had Israel not been occupied with the Syrians in the strategically more important Golan theater.
Furthermore, the Camp David Peace Accords alienated Egypt for a decade, broke Arab unity and effectively shackled Cairo to a series of international agreements and protocols it can never violate for fear of losing billions of dollars in US economic and military aid.
El-Shazly later wrote: “This brilliant military victory was turned into a political defeat when Egypt was removed from the camp of resistance to Israeli occupation of Arab lands to the camp of appeasement.”
In the 1970s, Egypt was the Arab superpower and the counterweight to Israeli military might. Its transformation from a military adversary to a diplomatic rival left a schism in the geopolitical map.
In 1975, the Lebanese Civil War erupted, tearing the socio-economic fabric of the country apart — the effects are felt to this day. In 1977, Egypt and Libya had a brief war of their own, while a year later Israel invaded Lebanon in pursuit of Palestinian fighters.
In 1979, the Shah of Iran was exiled to Egypt and the new theocrats in Tehran began to preach of an Islamic revolution to sweep the Middle East. A year later, Iraq and Iran went to war — Syria sided with the latter despite Baghdad’s help in 1973 — and in 1982 Israel again invaded Lebanon in what would be an 18-year occupation.
The PLO was forced to flee to Tunisia.
In 1979, Egypt was kicked out of the Arab League, as Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Algeria vied for the role of “Arab superpower.”
In less than a decade, any semblance of Arab unity had crumbled.
Nevertheless, Arab nationalists continue to mimic the propaganda of 1973 victories and have now applied the same mantra to the Israeli “retreat” from Lebanon in 2000, and what Hezbollah calls the Divine Defeat of Israel in 2006.
But wars are never fought solely on the front; they carry political, economic, ideological and public relations dimensions.
In the 37 years since this “victory,” the Arabs have been unable to persuade Israel to agree to the Arab Peace Initiative (API), and have become absolutely impotent to prevent it from continuing the construction of settlements, which has effectively sliced up the West Bank.
What could have appeared as a Palestinian state in 1973 is today a series of nonviable cantons and refugee camps.
They could not prevent the Iraq-Kuwait row from escalating into an illegal occupation of the emirate.
They were unable to deter the US from invading Iraq in what everyone now knows to be a blunder; moreover, several Arab states allowed Washington to station troops and materiel on their soil.
The Arab League has been unable to break the siege and sanctions on Gaza since 2006, and has appeared indifferent to resolving the crises in Darfur, South Sudan and Somalia.
The destiny of the Middle East is today determined by three spheres of influence: Iran, Israel, and Turkey.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is associate professor of practice at the American University in Cairo. A Canadian journalist who has covered the Middle East for 17 years, he previously served as senior editor with Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar. This commentary was first published by the Huffington Post.