Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

Operation Nickle Grass and the modern Middle East

Friday, May 8th, 2015


One of the nice moments in historical work is when you find a mundane picture, like the one above, and discover that it marks a profound shift in history.  In this case the image above is from 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, when Israel faced off against a simultaneous invasion by Syria and Egypt.  This was particularly unique in Israel’s history as it featured an initial few days of defeats inflicted upon the Israeli military and what the Israeli leadership considered an existential threat to Israel itself.  The war also represented a minor proxy war in the Cold War period, both Syria and Egypt had been equipped, and economically supported by, the Soviet Union while Israel was seen as a demi-client of the United States at the time.  The events of this war permanently shifted the position of the United States in the Middle East, tied the American government more closely to that of Israel, and exposed the vulnerability of the United States to external oil pressures.


Israel at the greatest point of danger during the war, under the overall leadership of its Prime Minister Golda Meir (pictured above), ordered the raising of short-range ballistic missiles to be prepared.  This was done in a very public and slow manner, to ensure the United States was aware of the fact that Israel was preparing its Jericho missile systems for possible launch.  This is particularly critical because these were the missiles that Israel was expected to use to launch nuclear weapons and, without nuclear tips, were kind of useless as weapons in the ongoing war.  Furthermore it was to send a signal to the United States government that Israel’s government considered the situation gravely dangerous to the nation and would use any means to prevent the collapse of Israel.


Richard Nixon, the United States president at the time, under the advise of the United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ordered that United States military equipment be transferred to Israel to replenish its diminished stockpiles and ensure Israel could continue fighting and go on the offensive.  The threat of nuclear escalation was only part of Nixon/Kissinger’s decision to intervene – the Soviet Union had declared its intention to resupply Syria and Egypt at roughly the same time, the need to stave off Soviet influence expansion in the Middle East, and Kissinger arguing that by supplying Israel the United States would have a stronger hand in the post-war settlement, all sparked the push for the United States to intervene.  But in doing so, although the war ended in an Israeli victory, a few other complications set in.

Country’s fuel shortage led to problems for motorists in findi

The Arab members of OPEC declared an oil embargo on the United States, the first of two such “oil shocks” to the United States economy.  Limitations in long range United States air power were exposed, sparking a stronger interest in the United States for establishing air bases around the world to extend the range, and decrease the response time, of its air forces.  But most critically it paved the way for the closer connection between Israel and the United States, which in turn led to the modern shape of the Middle East, including the successful efforts of the Camp David accords to broker peace between Egypt and Israel, regular United States military aid to Israel and Egypt, and the current close connection between these two states.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Yom Kippur War and Operation Nickle Grass, working paper on Israel’s probable nuclear weapons, New York Times editorial on Israel’s nuclear weapons potential and the Yom Kippur War.

Russia and Syria – the Specialist of Buddies

Friday, September 13th, 2013


With Syria recently dominating the news, both due to its ongoing domestic conflict/civil war and the diplomatic/military tensions over the use of chemical weapons in the region, it seemed a prudent moment to briefly explore how Syria and Russia became such close diplomatic buddies over the last fifty years.  It is one of the more amusing offshoots of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, these two states worked very hard from the 1950s until the late 1980s to cultivate allies/client states in the Middle East and Syria was part of a broader effort by the USSR to offset growing US influence in the region.  Interesting the center point of this Cold War diplomatic maneuvering was Egypt under President Nasser and his efforts to create a new pan-Arabic federation in the Middle East and the temporary union he was able to negotiate turning Egypt and Syria into one nation, at least on paper.


Nasser, concerned about the rising power of the Syrian Communist party in 1957 worked with the Syrian government to create a unifying alliance between the two nations, the United Arab Republic, which legally linked Egypt and Syria into one unified nation.  At the time Nasser was also courting economic and military aid from the USSR – Khrushchev in the USSR wanted to push as far as a formal military alliance between Egypt and the USSR but Nasser was not ready to go that far diplomatically in his connection with the USSR.  So the merger of the two nations in 1957 was an effort to keep Communist influence in the Middle East lessened and replace it with a new unifying political center.  Although the effort appealed to other Arab states in the region, including Iraq, the new United Arab Republic collapsed in 1961 when a military coup in Syria changed the government and ended the experiment.  This coup, with a strong leftist lean, pursued a tighter relationship with the USSR, specifically for economic aid but, more critically for military aid.  This desire for a closer military connection to the USSR, and pushing for greater Soviet aid, rested upon the Syrian goal of finding a superpower partner that would arm them to counteract US military aid to Israel.  The USSR, happy for the alliance the expansion of its strategic position in the USSR – with friendly nations in Egypt, Iraq, and now Syria, through the 1960s and 1970s poured billions in military aid into Syria.

The 1967 war between Syria (among others) and Israel, ending in Syria’s defeat, further tightened links between Syria and the USSR.  The 1973 war between Syria (and others) against Israel was another setback for Syria and another push for further military aid to Syria.  The close ties came to an end with Syria’s intervention in the 1975 Lebanese civil war and the rise of the Gorbachev era, when the USSR focused on cultivating tighter relationships with the western powers and reducing Cold War tensions.  That, followed by the collapse of the USSR in 1991, has left Syria without a superpower buddy, but the new state of Russia has worked to maintain its past influence with Syria by keeping a looser, but still present, diplomatic tie between itself and Syria.

The interesting question – which is not easily found – is how much Syria’s chemical weapons production might stem from former aid from the USSR?  The question I find particularly interesting is, if an investigation into the attacks turns up chemical weapons with a distinctive chemical signature, and they were released by non-government forces, might they have been acquired from the Russian black market?

Sources:  Jewish Policy Center article on Syrian-Soviet relations, Wikipedia page on Foreign Relations of the USSR (Middle East), Wikipedia on the United Arab Republic

Missile Strikes in Syria and Pearl Harbor

Thursday, September 5th, 2013


Originally this blog was conceived of as a means to address misuses of history to argue a modern political agenda – so when this gem came to my attention today it required an immediate response – in attempting to link Syria to the attack on Pearl Harbor this image makes many horrible and inappropriate links between the two acts.  First the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a “limited airstrike” in that it had a wide expanse of targets to attack, including naval ships on station, naval aircraft, and army aircraft on airfields throughout the main island of Oahu.  But, more specifically, as the attack proceeded without series setbacks for the Japanese airplanes flying over Pearl Harbor the pilots were released from flying air cover (to deter fighters that were not coming up to engage them) to engage their secondary mission – random strafing of targets of opportunity.  Japanese pilots willing shot up civilian installations, attacked civilian vehicles that were moving, and also strafed random military targets that caught their eye.  By definition the assault was not a limited airstrike against specific objectives, it was a multiple target assault with a bonus round built in if things went particularly well.

Second there were no “boots on the ground” on the actual island of Oahu itself, because that was not the objective of the Japanese military, however plenty of boots hit the ground from 8 December through 24 December 1941, with the Japanese taking the Gilbert Islands, Wake Island, and the Philippines from the United States in a series of progressive and highly successful invasions.  The attack on Pearl Harbor was part of a broader plan by the Japan to divest the United States of its Pacific holdings – to put it bluntly –  a plan to take, and hold, territory the United States either outright claimed or had a protectorate over.

A closer comparison to what this image is attempting to invoke would be if the Japanese government, learning that the United States Southern Pacific fleet, was routinely shelling Oahu to suppress a rebellion with disregard for civilians and launched an assault to reduce the fleet to a flaming wreck to prevent it being used in this manner.  Alternatively, if you prefer, had some rogue elements within the United States Navy captured the warships at dock, or brought their own into the harbor that they got on the black market, and began shelling Oahu regularly to try to provoke an intervention by Japan.  The assault on Pearl Harbor was an effort by one nation to reduce another nation’s military power and capacity to project that power into a contested geographic sphere, not an attempt to undermine another nations use of weapons against its civilians or an effort to intervene in a bloody civil war that might have escalated.

Hell the Japanese delivered a declaration of war to the United States after the attack, they screwed up and got it in after the attack began, but even Japan recognized that the attack on Pearl Harbor was an act of war, an act of war they argued was justified due to provocation by the United States against them prior to the attack.

Opinions are sharply varied within the United States on intervention into Syria, a valid and necessary part of the process of deciding if war is an option a democratic nation should embrace – but don’t drag past wars into this in an effort to make an adorable point.

Finally, and more broadly, if you step back what is this image attempting to argue – that the war between the United States and Japan from 1941 to 1945 was somehow a pointless bloody slog?  That it was an unnecessary war?  Perhaps that Japan was dragged into the war unwilling due to “mission drift”?  Perhaps it is trying to argue that an attack on Syria will explode into a far more dangerous and debilitating war than was initially expected by the attacking nation – in which case I can see it’s point – but it is also still wrong.  When Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor its government and military knew they would be facing the possibility of a long war, their hope was to buy enough time to knock the United States out of the fight to inflict a series of stinging defeats on the nation, break their will to fight, and bring the United States to the negotiating table to accept a peace that redefined the spheres of control between the two nations.  They gambled – that a swift war with massive victories would break the United States’ will to fight before a prolonged war would bring the economic power of the United States to bear upon Japan’s Empire.

Sources:  Wikipedia timeline of World War II 1941