A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

1973's Forgotten Golan Front: Hermonit and "The Valley of Tears," Part One

Syrian T-62 at the Crest of Hermonit; a steep slope is behind it
The 40th anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war suggests to me another issue: the often neglected Golan front. Let me note from the beginning that when I call (in the post title) the Golan Front in the 1973 war a "forgotten" front I refer to how the war is remembered in much of the outside world, including Egypt (where the war is wholly identified with the "crossing" of the Suez Canal), and in many of the minds and memoirs of the outside world. In Israel and Syria, the Golan Front is not forgotten. The Golan Heights contain a string of Israeli war memorials, a few to 1967 but others to 1973, including the memorial shown above, containing a destroyed Syrian T-62 tank on the mountain ridge known as Hermonit (Little Hermon).

Few war memorials I have visited do as well (though perhaps unintentionally) to remember the heroism of both sides. What is not clear from the photo here but is immediately obvious when one visits the site is that the ground falls off steeply a short distance behind the tank, and that the tank had managed to advance up a very steep ridge against tank and artillery resistance on the high ground, and had arrived at the crest before it was stopped. While the memorial commemorates the outnumbered Israeli defenders on the ridge, the fact that that Syrian tank crew (presumably soon deceased) reached the ridgeline strikes me as a suitable memorial to their heroism as well. When you stand there, wherever your political sympathies may lie, you can't help but feel the sacrifice on both sides. I get a similar feeling from the Clump of Trees at Gettysburg, but the high ground here is much steeper. It was a high water mark in much the same way.

This video gives a better sense of my point and a sense of the position, though from an Israeli perspective only:

The Middle East is largely good country for tanks. And many of the great tank battles of history have been fought there: El Alamein, Kasserine Pass, Sinai 1956, 1967, and 1973. Sinai and the Western Desert are fine tank country; the Golan Heights is anything but. High, broken ground with steep ridges and gorges and the cones of extinct volcanoes, it's hell for tankers. Yet in October 1973 a ferocious tank battle was fought there, leaving the ground riddled with hundreds of Syrian and Israeli burned-out tanks and APCs, many of which, like the one above, have been left as reminders and memorials.

Also, in conjunction with yesterday's post about Moshe Dayan's request to use nuclear weapons if needed on October 7, it is worth emphasizing that the context of that plea was not the crossing of the Golan, but the breakthrough in the Golan. The crossing of the Canal left Israel with a couple of fallback defense lines, first at the mountain passes (Mitla and Giddi) in mid-Sinai, and secondly in the open desert of eastern Sinai and the Negev, before Israel proper would be in danger. There were no such strategic buffers in Golan: if Egypt had reached its initial military objective of the passes, it would still have been hundreds of miles from Israeli population centers; if Syria had broke through in Golan, it would have been in the Hula Valley and threatening Qiryat Shemona. The nuclear option was first invoked there, where the threat seemed truly imminent.
The above is a wider angle scene of the Hermonit war memorial, with the tank previously shown on the left of the memorial. One can get a somewhat better sense of how the land falls off here.

As the battle went on for several days this will occupy several posts. Next: the ground, the antagonists, and the units involved.

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