Forty years ago, Hafez al-Assad, with a small army of Soviet advisors, threw the Syrian Arab Army against the Golan Heights and smashed it. Smashed the Syrian Army, that is. We still do not know exactly what Old Man Assad wanted to achieve, and we still do not know exactly why his army stopped.
This is important right now because everyone is trying to manipulate the senior people in the same Syrian regime. If we had a clue about what made them blink 40 years ago we might have a better chance of doing it again.
The people who talk the least about the war have been the IDF History Branch. When I was on my way to interview Lt Col Elchanan Oren, the official historian of the 1973 War, my taxi driver told me all about his job towing dummy tanks around the Jordan Valley to cover Mussa Peled’s move northward to invade Syria. I asked Col Oren about it.
‘That is outside the purview of this interview,’ he snapped.
So close-mouthed was Col Oren about the war that my minder, an IDF field intelligence officer, took me straight from the interview to the General Staff library and ran me off a stack of photocopies. He couldn’t stand the idea that a military historian wouldn’t tell the straight dope to another military historian.
The rest of the IDF was very happy to talk to me about the war. Mussa Peled, who even in his later years never lost his dashing cavalry looks and manner, talked for hours and drew sketches as he went. When I confessed myself astonished at his ability to pick up and move an armoured division within hours he groped for a metaphor.
“You know, in a Western, when the wagon master waves his arm over his head? What does he say?”
“Wagons ho!” I replied.
“Yes, that’s the way we did it. I issued an order containing only a timing and a grid reference. All the rest of the staff work was done on the move.”
The old boys were ready to talk, probably aware that their time was short. Mussa sent me to the Armoured Corps Memorial at Latrun where his name opened the files of the corps journal. The ‘secret’ markings were clearly regarded as irrelevant as the librarian ran the photocopier.
“You have to talk to Ben-Ari,” said a straight-backed military judge who sat behind my father in the synagogue. “He was a Prussian general.”
Uri Ben-Ari was a figure of legend, never photographed without a Cuban cigar. “That’s the great thing about fighting Soviet-supported armies,” he said, “I never had to buy my own Cuban cigars.” Once an Israeli general was showing off by breezily calling every other general in the IDF a ‘potz’ for disagreeing with him. He was full of himself, and convinced that a room full of British officers would contain nobody who knew any beter. I quoted Ben-Ari disagreeing with him. “Was Uri Ben-Ari a ‘potz’?” The man’s face grew suddenly serious. “No. Ben-Ari was anything but. We don’t have generals like him anymore.”
The crying shame is that nobody could have these conversations with Syrian generals. Mustafa Tlass is still around, living in Paris since his son’s defection from Bashar’s side, but what about Omar Abrash, the American-educated commander who tried to drive Syrian 7 Division through the Kuneitra Gap?
Of course it’s not all about the generals. One reason to teach people about the 1973 Arab – Israeli War is to tell them about the importance of junior officer leadership. I use Lt Zvi Greengold as a case study. He spent 24 hours keeping a Syrian armoured brigade away from a division’s command post using a troop of Centurion tanks.
A Syrian Air Force colonel once asked me after a lecture on Israeli operations on the Golan why I hadn’t mentioned the Syrian equivalents of Lt Zvika Greengold. He mentioned the Syrian sergeant who held off the ravening Zionist hordes with his trusty RPG, and I was embarrassed. Not only had I never heard of this Syrian national hero, but apart from a few big names (like Abrash), I couldn’t say much about Syrian commanders. I could draw conclusions from their actions, but because every Syrian commander was dominated by a high-ranking Soviet ‘advisor’ my conclusions were easily as Soviet as they were Syrian.
This is the shame of it. Forty years on, those of us who want to understand the Yom Kippur War still can’t. Not only is the Israeli official history still classified, so is the Syrian side of it.
When I recorded a film for Al Jazeera to be broadcast next month on the anniversary of the war, I was conscious that old Mustafa Tlass would be watching it from his place in Paris. He’ll be shaking his head because I know a lot about the way Israel fought the war, but pathetically little about the Syrian side.
“Silly woman,” he’ll say. “No clue about why our people abandoned their vehicles, fully fuelled, without crossing the Jordan.” And he’ll be right.
At a time when understanding Syria and the way Syrian commanders think is very important to everyone in the world, decades of closed doors mean we still don’t understand enough about them.