The Yom Kippur War, Explained: In 1973, a coalition of Arab states led by Syria and Egypt initiated coordinated attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights against Israel. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, nearly 1,400 Syrian tanks and over 600,000 Egyptian soldiers lined Israel’s northern and southern borders. While the crux of the fighting occurred between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, contributors in the background played a critical role in the outcome of the war.
Amidst the Cold War context, the Soviet Union supplied Syria and Egypt with weapons and military personnel while the U.S. backed Israel and its arsenal. Israel proved victorious at the end of the war, though the intelligence failures and heavy casualties it experienced would impact its military for decades to come.
The conditions that molded the Yom Kippur War were set in place six years prior. In 1967 heightened tensions between Israel and its surrounding Arab neighbors reached an all-time high. In the south, Egyptian troops closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli vessels and lined the border in a hostile manner. The Strait served as the Jewish state’s only route to Asia and Iran, its main supplier of oil. In retaliation, Israel launched a preemptive strike on Egypt’s air force, essentially wiping out its entire fleet.
In the north, Syrians sheltered Palestinian guerillas who were carrying out incessant raids into Israel through the Golan Heights region. By the end of the six days, Israel occupied the West Bank, the Egyptian Sinai desert, and the Golan Heights. Israel delivered a humiliating setback to its neighbors, which led to the simmering hatred and revenge that would evoke the Yom Kippur War six years later.
High Holy Day Spent Fighting
On Yom Kippur in 1973, Egypt and Syria mounted a coordinated two-front attack in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights region in an attempt to regain the territories lost in the Six-Day War. At least nine Arab states, including Libya, Morocco, and Jordan, aided the Egyptian-Syrian side of the war.
Equipped with its up-to-date Soviet weaponry, Syrian troops made impressive advancements at the onset of the war. Syria’s arsenal of over 1,400 tanks severely outnumbered the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) 180 tanks that were posted in Golan at the start of the battle. As many as 112 Israeli soldiers, including every company commander of the Barak Brigade 7th Armored Division, were killed at the start of the battle. Hampered by enemy advancements on both fronts, Israel reportedly put its Jericho-1 missiles on high alert at this time.
While the IDF was thrown into a defensive position in the early days of the war, Israel was able to halt Syria’s advance in the Golan Heights and began a counterattack toward Damascus. Israel was able to improve its positions considerably on both fronts, in part by aid delivered by the U.S. via cargo planes.
By the end of October, both sides were willing to accept a ceasefire proposal. The aftermath of the 1973 war would impact the Middle East for decades to come. Most significantly, the 1978 Camp David Accords and the resulting 1979 Egyptian-Israel peace treaty would mark the first time an Arab country would recognize Israel’s legitimacy.
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Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.